Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Hapsburg Stuff

You can see the billboards along the freeways throughout Minneapolis and St. Paul: a beautiful young woman, head turned skyward, lips parted, against a rich green-gray background.

You don't really see the shadowy face of the god who's giving the woman such pleasure as you whiz by. Your attention is given over to the woman herself, and to the golden words to her left -The Hapsburgs, Rarely Seen Masterpieces from Europe's Greatest Dynasty.

The show arrived at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts a few weeks ago. It's well worth seeing, though some viewers will be disappointed, after having spent $20 for the opportunity to tour the exhibit, to find that much of it is devoted to decorative arts.

The show's curators were undoubtedly well aware of the challenges they faced in presenting a selection of knickknacks that were accumulated over the course of six centuries by a royal house largely known for its overweening arrogance and imperialistic oppression of religious and ethnic groups lying within its dynastic borders, including the Aztecs, the Incas, the Pilippinoes, the Dutch, the Hungarians, the Italians, the Czechs, the Moslems, the Ashkenazi Jews, and various Protestant groups, among many others. 

The curators chose to minimize the reactionary political tendencies of the collectors involved, which is probably just as well. It's hard to say how far the Hapsburgs diverged from their Bourbon, Visconti, Hohenzollern, and Romanov peers, and in any case, this is a show about art.

Of course, there are timelines and maps, and a few notable rulers are highlighted in an effort to focus our attention and to give some sort of historical context to the artifacts themselves. But the emphasis is on the "stuff," which is as it should be.

For my money, the paintings make the show worthwhile. The Giorgione canvas "The Philosophers" is alone almost worth the price of admission. Giorgione died at 33, leaving behind hardly more than a handful of canvases, several of which have been described as enigmatic or mysterious. "The Philosophers" is one of them.

Who are these men, we might ask ourselves? Probably better not to know, but remain in a state of puzzlement mixed with awe. What's important to note above all is the distinctly Venetian luster of the painting, a quality Giorgione's work shares with his predecessors Giovanni and Gentile Bellini and the early Titian. It's a sort of vibrant matte that doesn't come across in photographs and posters.

The Velasquez across the way has a less enigmatic subject—the young Maria Teresa, Infanta of Spain at the time (1648-51) but the quality of the painting itself is equally remarkable. In fact, looking closely at the young woman's coral necklace and the doodahs in her hair, I was amazed at how such loose and confident daubs could generate such a delicate and compelling effect.

One of the guards, a short elderly woman, asked me to step back from the canvas. "You probably don't realize how close that jacket you're holding is to the artwork. You should keep a foot back, at least."

"This is a good eighteen inches," I said, looking down at my coat. But I'd probably stepped back when she addressed me. "Don't worry, I'll keep back," I reassured her.

Next on the list of wonders would be the Correggio that appears on the posters. The skin alone is SO good it puts to shame Titian's "Diana" hanging next to it, if such a thing is possible.

Titian makes up for it in the next room, however, where early portraits of Isabella d'Este and a gentleman who's name I don't recall hang side by side.

And at the far side of the room hangs Caravaggio's rendering of Christ receiving the crown of thorns. It's characteristically dramatic and shadowy and smooth, and gleefully overwrought, like a Tarentino movie. I didn't much like it.

In the midst of these varied wonders, the Holbein portrait of Jane Seymour looks a little tame. Still, how often do we get to see a Holbein?

These paintings and quite a few others cover the walls, while the bulk of the floor space is given over to suits of armor, coral-handled daggers, astronomical devices, drinking goblets crafted out of ostrich eggs, ornate silver crucifixes, ceremonial gold-plated platters, and other generally useless and vaguely uninteresting objets d'art.

There are halberts, rifles, and ornate robes worn by members of the Order of the Golden Fleece, which was established in 1430 back when Burgundy was the richest country in Europe and had not yet fallen to the Hapsburgs. A huge carriage fills half of one room, while two suits of armor mounted on model horses are frozen in jousting mode in the center of another one. This kind of thing looks better in the movies than in real life, I'm afraid. And the fact that the carriage I'm looking at is the actual vehicle that transported so-and-so back in 1742 doesn't have much purchase, at least not to me.   

A special difficulty presented by the exhibit is the fact that the Hapsburg domains were so scattered and enduring. A map in the first room moves us through the various accretions and losses of the dynasty during its 600-year history in about three minutes. It's fun to watch, but not very informative. (If you've got seven minutes to spare you can see a better one on YouTube here.)

It would have been less innovative and dynamic, but more useful, to have a series of maps printed on the wall next to the timeline, so we could see when and how the various Austrian, Burgundian, Spanish, Italian, Hungarian, and Slavic pieces of the empire arrived, departed, or split apart. Indeed, it would have been useful to have such a display several times, because once we've moved into the main halls of the exhibit, we start asking ourselves questions that would never have occurred to us a few minutes earlier. "Now, which Ferdinand is that?" "And what exactly IS the Holy Roman Empire?"

The upshot of such quibbles is that you can draw as much stimulation from the current MIA exhibit as you've got a mind to. Home from the show, I pulled out an old anthology of essays edited by Hugh Trevor-Roper called The Golden Age of Europe: from Elizabeth to the Sun King. I also located an over-sized book about Velazquez but it's so old (c. 1943) that most of the images are in black and white, and the colored plates have been "tipped in," as they used to say.

Perhaps as stimulating as anything was this interview with the last living Hapsburg that appeared the other day in the New York Times

Once curious aspect of the show lies in how dramatically it stands in contrast with the lonely Vermeer hanging a hundred yards away in the lobby of the Institute. There are no Dutch paintings in the show, as far as I can remember, though I'm sure the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna owns some. The Dutch fought the Hapsburgs for nearly a century before achieving their independence once and for all in 1648. It was an ugly fight.

It has often been argued that the Dutch Republic was the first modern state--oligarchical, commercial, tolerant, middle-class. One might be tempted to consider whether the Hapsburg exhibit highlights all the things a modernizing Europe struggled to escape from--only to put Franco, Mussolini, and Hitler in their place. 

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