Sunday, October 25, 2015

Habsburg Exhibition = Splendor Shown En Masse

Until a recent press event at the High Museum of Art, Austria was not ranked anywhere on my world travel wish list.

My closest encounters with the nation previously included work with the Austrian Olympic Team in the Atlanta Olympic Village, reruns of "The Sound of Music" and a near-miss day trip visit to Salzburg while on sabbatical in Munich (I cancelled the train ride to the music city due to illness).

The new exhibition "Habsburg Splendor: Masterpieces from Vienna's Imperial Collections" and a presentation by the Vienna Tourist Board and Austrian Tourist Office tied to the Oct. 14 media preview, quickly advanced Austria to the top five dream-worthy destinations, right up there with next year's return to Rio de Janeiro, a Norway visit inspired by locations in the film "Ex Machina," Jordan and a tie between Vanuatu, Fiji and/or Guam.

I did not know until that mid-October day, for instance, that the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna is one building in Austria's national museum collection -- an Austrian Smithsonian, of sorts -- in the city's Museum Quarter. It looks like a must-see that may take several days to experience.

Nor did I know the site in Vienna is home to works by Vermeer, Raphael, Bruegel, Rembrandt and Rubens. The museum's impressive collections extend all the way to Schloss Ambras Innsbruck, near the sites of the 1964 and 1976 Winter Olympics. 

Visitors to "Habsburg Splendor" will enjoy many eye-popping artifacts and paintings among the 90+ items on loan to the High. 

Objects and art that captivated my attention include:

-- Body armor and all the equipment for a pair of jousting knights (the Central European version, not to be confused with the Spanish joust traditions presented at Medieval Times Dinner & Tournament) on view at the exhibition entrance

-- Several large canvases including show stoppers "Jupiter and Io" featuring a nude female passionately embraced by Zeus disguised as dark cloud, and "Susanna and the Elders," a 450-year-old oil painting featuring a young maiden and two aging voyeurs who, according to Biblical lore, learned a thing or two about what not to say to a bathing nude woman of virtue

-- Smaller portraits including royal family members and/or their subjects, including some individuals who, centuries later, might have appeared in carnival sideshows (i.e. a woman with hair-covered face as part of the royal "collection" of rare and unusual beauty)

-- Giuseppe Arcimboldo's portrait of "Fire" (one of four paintings in the "Elements" set he created); there has got to be some way to incorporate this painting in the next Olympic Torch Relay to visit Austria

-- Rare and exceptional handmade (and priceless) household items including pitchers fashioned from Mediterranean conchs to delicately carved ivory figurines of rhinoceros horn and walrus tusk

-- The 510-year-old painting depicting "The Three Philosophers" (made me wonder if N.C. Wyeth found inspiration in this work)

-- A golden sleigh with matching gold-thread horse blanket covered with dozens of auric jingle bells (I'm told the exhibition audio tour features the sounds of this one-horse open vehicle). Love the wintry Alpine forest backdrop (the display inspired the lyrical rewrite, "Dashing through the snow, in a one horse open sleigh, and the horse is covered in bells, with ostrich feathers everywhere!") and nearby billboard-size illustration of a day in downtown Vienna circa 1760

-- The "Gala Carriage of the Vienna Court" created in 1750-55 with gold and silk embroidery adorning its curved wood and bronze frame

The exhibition also features several imperial gowns, uniforms and other fine clothing from the Habsburg closets. A red silk and velvet Order of the Golden Fleece is displayed not far from paintings featuring men who donned it.

I'm not sure when my travel budget will permit an Austria passport stamp, but the greatest hits presented in "Habsburg Splendor" helped escalate the urgency for a Vienna vacation.

A trip to the High for this exhibition is a great introduction to the treasures on view at Kunsthistorisches Museum. Beide Daumen nach oben für die Habsburger!

Images via, with select photos by Nicholas Wolaver


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