Treasures of The Habsburg Monarchy

Treasures of The Habsburg Monarchy

The National Art Center, Tokyo relives memories of European art


Originally published on on November 2009

<img src="" alt="Salome with the Head of St. John the Baptist, c.1535, Lucas Cranach the Elder, oil on wood panel, 87 x 58cm
Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest” width=”310″ height=”474″ class=”size-full wp-image-1408″ />

Salome with the Head of St. John the Baptist, c.1535, Lucas Cranach the Elder, oil on wood panel, 87 x 58cm
Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest

I learnt my trade as an art journalist purely by accident. Back when I was a poor student in London, the free art galleries and museums—the Tate, the Wallace and especially the National—were the cheapest and most convenient place you could take a girl to impress her, as long as you knew how to talk up the art. Under these conditions, I learnt fast.

Visiting “Treasures of the Habsburg Monarchy” at The National Art Center, Tokyo put me in mind of those happy days. The exhibition is large, with over 100 items, and includes excellent works by many of the painters I fondly remember from the stately halls of London’s National Gallery. In this case, however, the works all come from Vienna’s equally illustrious Museum of Art History and the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest.

Apart from a few easily ignored ukiyo-e, apparently included as a token of reciprocity, this exhibition places you right in the heart of Europe’s grand cultural tradition, so much so that you almost forget you are in modern Tokyo. In place of the bustling subways, jostling skyline and the latest nagging bleep from your Blackberry, you find yourself in a realm of enchanted myth, passionate religion and timeless refinement. Many of the pictures here are worthy of an article in their own right.

One of the first to greet visitors is Hans von Aachen’s Portrait of Emperor Rudolf II (c.1600-03), which pays deference to the family whose trans-European empire brought so much fine art together. The German mannerist painter’s flattering portrait is unable to hide Rudolph’s protruding lower jaw, which gave his physiognomy a concave, crescent-moon-like appearance. This deformity is said to have been the result of inbreeding in the imperial family.

An altogether more attractive Habsburg is represented in Franz Winterhalter’s lush realist portrait, Empress Elisabeth of Austria (1865). A later addition to the family by marriage, the empress, like Audrey Hepburn and Anne of Green Gables, is one of those female icons who seem to enjoy an exaggerated popularity in Japan that is hard to explain. She even appeared on a recent issue of Japanese stamps that celebrate—as this show does—the 140th anniversary of diplomatic ties between Japan and the then Austro-Hungarian Empire.

One of the strengths of the exhibition is that it allows the visitor to compare different areas of European art, with the paintings divided into Italian, German, Dutch and Spanish sections. The result is that interesting contrasts emerge which otherwise might have been missed.

Spanish art is marked out by its mood of religious fervor, a legacy from the wars to re-conquer the country from Muslim invaders. Of particular note is El Greco’s The Annunciation (c.1600)—more like the luminescent vision of some saint miraculously transferred to canvas than the mere daubings of an artist.

Compared to the fussy precision of German artists, many of the Italian canvases seem rather slapdash, overpopulated with plump, naked infants, and heavily larded with chiaroscuro. Nevertheless, there are also some excellent examples of renaissance art, especially Virgin and Child with St. Elizabeth and the Infant St. John the Baptist (c. 1515-20) by Bernardino Luini, a painter who worked with, and was obviously influenced by, Leonardo da Vinci.

Alongside their attention to detail and an apparent interest in Biblical beheadings, the German paintings also show a touch of anatomical naivety, which adds an unwittingly humorous note to works that were no doubt intended seriously. Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Salome with the Head of St. John the Baptist (c.1535) is a delight. The sheer effort put into decorating the cute-looking homicidal temptress seems to plead eloquently on her behalf, rather like a high-powered defense lawyer.

This is a wonderful exhibition for anyone who hungers, as I often do, for the well-stocked galleries and museums of Europe—but, this being Japan, don’t expect it to be free!

The National Art Center, Tokyo

Treasures of the Habsburgs: 140th Jubilee of the Friendship Treaty Between Austria-Hungary and Japan. Various media. Until Dec 14, free (MS and under)/¥800 (HS)/¥1,200 (univ)/¥1,500 (adult). 7-22-2 Roppongi, Minato-ku. Tel: 03-6812-9900. Open Wed-Mon 10am-6pm, closed Tue. Nearest stn: Roppongi, exit 4.