The tiny landlocked principality of Liechtenstein, nestled between Switzerland and Austria, may be one of the smallest sovereign states in the world, but its ruling family owns a vast art collection, out of all proportion to its size.
For “A Jewel Box from Europe: Treasures from the Collections of the Prince of Liechtenstein,” The Bunkamura Museum of Art has brought more than 120 pieces from the collection for a rare visit to Japan — only once before have items from the collection come to these shores.
The Liechtenstein family, which took its name from its grand house in Austria, originally emerged on the scene in the12th century as a close ally of the Habsburgs, providing them with military and political support. Karl I (1569-1627) was madecera the first prince of the Liechtenstein family for helping Matthias, the brother of Rudolf II, take over as Holy Roman Emperor. By the early 18th century, the Liechtenstein family had expanded its influence and power and was rewarded with its own principality.
But merely having that kind of power was not enough, it needed to be put on display — which is where the art came in.
The exhibition opens with portraits of some of the key figures in the family’s history, including one by Alexander Roslin depicting Prince Franz Josef I Liechtenstein (1726-81) as a kindly, benevolent figure.
One section of the exhibition looks at the collection’s works on mythological themes, and another at its religious paintings. A few well-established names appear here, such as Peter Paul Rubens, Lucas Cranach the Elder and Guido Reni. When looking at the religious paintings, it is useful to remember the context from which they came — a number of these works were originally part of church altarpieces, designed to instill belief and worship.
Likewise, the gorgeous items in the exhibition, wherever their original source, also need to be seen in the context of a princely collection designed to encourage awe and wonder. And what better way to do that than with gold — gold on plates, on teapots and on objects that, arguably, gold has no excuse to be found on, such as an understated celadon porcelain vase from Jingdezhen, China.
The vase was part of the Liechtenstein porcelain collection, which grew as Asian ceramics became popular in Europe. The family not only imported prized Chinese and Japanese ceramics, including Arita ware, but had closely associated European workshops make works with similar designs, or embellish the original imports with gold mounts.
The workshops were also tasked with making porcelain items decorated with various homegrown designs, including copies of paintings in the collection. Particularly popular were landscapes and flowers, each of which have their own sections toward the close of the exhibition. As entertaining guests has long been part of the noble life, great care was taken with the details in such pieces — as can be seen in a lunch service showing a view of Vienna from one of the Habsburg family’s palaces — so as to encourage cultured discussion among the admirers.
Showcasing many impressive works, the exhibition is also like a time capsule from an era when excess ruled. However, compared to the museum’s exhibition on Rudolf II (1572-1612) last year, which examined the emperor’s support for not only the arts but also science, navigation and more, this exhibition is not as deep, rarely going beyond the shiny trinkets meant to impress us.
To the Liechtenstein family’s credit, it famously put aside its need to hold and display status symbols when the country faced desperate times. Like Switzerland, Liechtenstein remained neutral during World War II and escaped any occupation by German forces. Even so, the principality faced economic problems afterward, and the Liechtenstein dynasty turned to selling parts of its art collection in order to boost state coffers.
The country’s serious efforts to rebuild itself succeeded and, in time, the family was able to buy back many of the works it had sold off, enabling an exhibition such as this to be held today.
“A Jewel Box from Europe: Treasures from the Collections of the Prince of Liechtenstein” at The Bunkamura Museum of Art runs until Dec. 23; ¥1,600. For more information, visit www.bunkamura.co.jp/english/museum.