The princely state of Liechtenstein’s collection

by C.B. Liddell

Special To The Japan Times

Liechtenstein is the kind of place that philatelists and tax lawyers know best. Although an insignificant dot on the map, it has its own set of stamps and its small size allows it to offer tax advantages to thousands of holding companies. The latest exhibition at the National Art Center Tokyo (NACT) now wants to extend the fame of the petty statelet to a third group — Tokyo’s art lovers.

But “Masterworks from the Collections of the Prince of Liechtenstein” is not just about the little Alpine principality lodged in between Switzerland and Austria. If it were, the art would probably include rustic cuckoo clocks and paintings of cows with bells. The tale of the principality’s ruling family is much more cosmopolitan than that. It is closely interwoven with the history of the Hapsburg Emperors and the grand city of Vienna, with members of the family serving as high-ranking generals, ambassadors and advisers in the Holy Roman Empire.

The art collection of the present prince of Liechtenstein, Prince Hans-Adam II, whose personal fortune is estimated at around $5 billion, includes works from both Vaduz, the principality’s tiny capital, and Vienna, where the former palace of the Liechtenstein family is now an elegant art museum especially noted for its collections of Rubens and Van Dyck.

This exhibition is dominated by Baroque and Rococo art. Both styles are heavily decorative, although Rococo, sometimes known as “late Baroque,” tends to be less voluminous and more graceful. There are two reasons for this focus. Firstly, these styles have a growing popularity here in Japan, and secondly, they are not merely limited to painting, but also include what used to be known as the “plastic arts” — sculpture, ceramics, gilded woodcarving and the other arts necessary to furnish the rich interiors favored by the premodern European nobility.

This focus also allows the creation of an exhibition with a more tangible feel, although, of course, visitors are not actually permitted to touch anything. The show’s centerpiece is an interesting if not wholly successful attempt to recreate a large Baroque room. This comes complete with expansive canvases, ornate furniture, tapestries and busts. The exhibition even goes that extra mile by daring to put paintings on the ceiling of the NACT, an innovation that could perhaps be extended with advantage to some of the more crowded Tokyo exhibitions.

The sensory overload and abundance of decoration seems to give this show a particular appeal for the ladies. During a visit on a Wednesday afternoon almost all my fellow visitors were female. But one would be wrong to suppose from this that this is an effete and effeminate show. There is also art with great power and vigor, including the paintings of the main artist featured, Peter Paul Rubens.

This Baroque painter’s wide canvases are full of ornamentation and decoration, but they are also replete with energy, bulk and power. While the women are suitably Rubenesque, an adjective that means “plump or rounded usually in a pleasing or attractive way,” his men are muscular, virile and bearded.

A good example is “Mars and Rhea Silvia” (1616/17), a large canvas showing one of legend’s most famous single mothers. According to the story, Mars seduced Rhea Silvia and fathered Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome. “Seduced” in this sense, however, does not mean roses, candlelight and soft music. Rubens shows the god of war striding powerfully toward her and reaching out to grasp her, clearly intent on forcing his will on the maiden.

Roman themes also feature in Ruben’s “The Interpretation of the Victim” (1616/17), a giant picture that measures four meters by three. This is part of the Decius Mus cycle, which tells the story of a Roman consul who decided to pledge his life to the gods of the underworld in return for victory, and who accordingly died victorious in battle. The painting shows the consul attending a sacrifice that confirms the message he received in a dream.

These two works are the most impressive Rubens, but the exhibition’s publicity prefers to place more weight on a small portrait of his 5-year-old daughter. Other notable artists included in the exhibition are Lucas Cranach the Elder, Guido Reni, Pieter Brueghel the Younger, Van Dyck and Rembrandt.

I was particularly delighted with the latter’s “Cupid with the Soap Bubble” (1634). As usual the painter’s unique handling of light works like a magic spotlight, giving us the impression of suddenly revealing the subject. This is the diminutive god of love who is shown blowing a bubble, a symbol of the fragility of love. What made this work so enjoyable for me was Cupid’s rather gormless and lumpy appearance, which almost made me want to switch off the light that Rembrandt’s canvas still shines on this odd little creature.

Masterworks from the Collections of the Prince of Liechtenstein at The National Art Center, Tokyo runs till Dec. 23; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Fri. till 8 p.m.). ¥1,500. Closed Tue. www.nact.jp.