Habsburg treasures celebrate art history

by Matthew Larking

It seems anachronistic and a little too culturally remote to call Rudolf II (1552-1612) a culture otaku, but that’s how the catalog for the “Treasures of the Habsburg Monarchy,” now in its second staging at Kyoto National Museum until March 14, describes him. The reclusive Rudolf had diverse interests encompassing the occult, natural philosophy and astronomy. But it is in his role as patron of the arts that the present exhibition embraces him.

The Habsburg house was divided into two branches — the Austrian rulers from 1278 to the end of World War II and a Spanish dynasty that occupied the throne from 1516 to 1700. They wielded tremendous wealth and political privilege, and their artistic patronage largely inform us of the art history of the centuries in which they held power, even today with mostly minor amendments.

They called to court the services of such luminaries as Albrecht Durer, Titian, Diego Velazquez and Peter Paul Rubens, the birth countries of whom — Germany, Italy, Spain and Flanders/Holland — serve as the regional divisions into which the paintings in the exhibition are displayed. Focusing primarily on works from 1600-1800, Rudolf II’s predilection for Mannerism and the erotic are well represented.

Mannerism is notoriously difficult to define as it seems to include so many kinds of pictorial approaches. Emerging around 1520, it is essentially an Italian style that exaggerated the more harmonious ideals of the High Renaissance, emphasizing complexity and preciosity, valuing virtuosic technical accomplishment and idealizing away from the restrained naturalism of contemporaries such as Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci. In pictorial terms, this could mean elongated limbs and distorted spatial effects, and the exhibition retraces the developments that led up to this style, which was eventually superseded by Baroque art in the 17th century.

Lucas Cranach the Elder’s “The Lamentation of Christ with Saints and Donors” (c.1515) is an early Renaissance painting that does not quite achieve the harmonious formal structure of the High Renaissance. The painting’s donors, who stand before the dead Christ, however, are depicted as tiny figures, strongly out of proportion in relation to the size of the central figures — a spatial incongruity that points to Mannerism, though actually an earlier pictorial convention.

A more unified spatial configuration is found in Bernardino Luini’s “Virgin and Child with St. Elizabeth and the Infant St. John the Baptist” (c.1515-20). Here, everything seems in its proper place.

Even more Mannerist in style is Tintoretto’s “Flagellation of Christ” (c.1585-90), a kind of flattened hierarchical composition that turns the holy story into an ebullient drama where a Herculean muscled Christ is whipped in a dark space decorated with billowing velvet curtains.

The final threads of Mannerism are provided by Spaniard El Greco and Bartholomeus Spranger, who was appointed as Rudolf II’s court painter in Prague. El Greco’s style, as can be seen in “The Annunciation” (c.1600), involved contorted figures in dramatic poses, painted in caustic colors — something that seems less 17th century than early 20th-century Expressionism. Spranger, however, introduced cool hues into the shading of mysteriously posed figures, giving his works, such as “Ceres and Bacchus leave Venus” (c.1590-95), an uncanny, theatrical mood. Peter Paul Rubens’ fleshy figure of Christ in “The Lamentation” (1614), too, displayed a sensuous feel representative of the Baroque period.

An erotic charge to the exhibition can be found in Lucas Cranach the Elder’s depiction of Salome, the woman who performed a titillating dance for her stepfather, Herod, in exchange for the head of John the Baptist, and in Guido Cagnacci’s “Death of Cleopatra” (after 1659) where the famed beauty slumps in her throne bare-breasted, surrounded by distressed, equally scantily attired attendants. Perhaps the most overt homage to fornication, however, is Paolo Fiammingo’s “Love in the Golden Age” (1585-89), where multiple couples cavort in a curtain-framed wilderness as cupid children, symbols of erotic love, also engage in the fun.

Other sections in the exhibition display Rudolf’s Kunstkammer cabinet of curiosities, which includes decorative pieces in precious metals as well as works cut in stone that ape the effects of landscape painting, and Japanese artworks from two albums that were gifted to Emperor Franz Joseph I by the Meiji Emperor of Japan.

The two albums of Japanese artworks have been included in the exhibition to celebrate the 140th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Japan and the then Austria-Hungarian Empire. They are intriguing because, among other works, they contain pieces by Kano Eitoku (1543-1590) and Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900), two artists that are not customarily brought together.

Eitoku was a famed Kano School painter patronized by Japan’s shogunal leaders, whereas Kunichika was a floating-world ukiyo-e (woodblock print) maker of the Edo Period (1603-1868). Bringing together Japan’s aristocratic painting tradition and late 19th-century Europe’s fascination with popular Edo imagery is a compelling composite of cultural tastes, as is much in this collection of fascinating works.

“Treasures of the Habsburg Monarchy” at the Kyoto National Museum runs till March 14; open 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m. (till 8 p.m. on Fri., closed Mon.); admission ¥1,500. For more information, visit www.kyohaku.go.jp/eng/index_top.htm