Collector donates valuable Japanese art to Prague’s National Gallery

Photo: archive of Felix Hess

The National Gallery in Prague has received a major donation of Japanese Zen art, which includes over 500 hanging scrolls with ink paintings. The scrolls are part of the so-called Kaeru-An collection, put together by private art collector Felix Hess, and their value is estimated at 35 million crowns. They will become part of the gallery’s permanent Collection of Asian and African Art.

Photo: archive of Felix Hess

The valuable collection of Japanese art, the major part of which is now owned by the National Gallery in Prague, was amassed by Dutchman Felix Hess over the past 25 years. According to Markéta Hánová, director of the National Gallery’s Collection of Asian and African Art, it is one the largest donations of its kind received by the National Gallery in recent years.

“The collection presents a compact view at the Zen Buddhist paintings created between 16th and 20th century. They represent a meditative way of expressing Zen, which is one of the major philosophies in the Japanese Buddhist School.

“Zen is a state of mind of enlightenment which is the result of a continual process of self-realisation, so it is a very meditative expression.

Photo: archive of Felix Hess
“The most important technique is ink, which is usually applied to paper. The act of painting cannot be repeated, so each brush stroke is the expression of the state of mind of the painter.”

Felix Hess, a physicist by profession, started collecting the Zenga scrolls some 25 years ago. Mrs Hánová explains how he became interested in Zen Buddhist art in the first place:

“He was enchanted by the sound of frogs while studying in Australia and he decided to create electronic sound machines that resembled frog sounds.

“As a sound designer, he got a chance to present his work also in Japan. While in Japan, he became acquainted with Zen Buddhism and he also came across the Zen-Buddhist art.”

After more than two decades of collecting the hanging scrolls, Mr Hess has put together a truly unique collection. But with advancing age, Mr Hess decided to donate the paintings to make sure his collection remains intact.

He contributed some thirty scrolls to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, but a major part of his collection was also donated to the National Gallery in Prague. The donation was negotiated by art historian Filip Suchomel, vice-rector of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague.

“I think the crucial thing was that my colleague Filip Suchomel met Felix Hess in person and they started to talk about this opportunity. And we actually promised to not only take care of the collection as a whole but we also promised to exhibit a major part of the collection within three years since its acquisition.”

Felix Hess has only kept about 15 of his favourite scrolls, which will also become part of the National Gallery’s collection in the future.