A great art show must contain objects that are beautiful. But this is insufficient to make an exhibition truly memorable -- after all, beauty is common enough. Equally important, in my view, is the requirement that the show contain artifacts that are weird and, even, grotesque and, further, that the exhibition provide an occasion for thought. (By these standards, most shows of impressionist paintings, almost always wonderfully beautiful, fail to meet my criteria for greatness -- the pictures are simply too pretty to be thought-provoking.) The big exhibit of Habsburg paintings and assorted knick-knacks is a success by any standard imaginable -- the show contains gorgeous paintings, artifacts of jaw-dropping oddity, and, at least, one painting as profound and problematic in its own way as a Platonic dialogue. It's expensive: $20 for the general public, but, I think, worth the admission.
About half-way through the exhibit, the viewer encounters a small, rather unostentatious image -- a painting of a man on a rearing horse. The image is more illustrative than painterly, a diagram intended to show the costumes used in an elaborate equestrian ballet. The rider wears some vaguely floral armor and looks like a Magyar or Hun glaring out at the viewer under thick eyebrows and a droopy moustache. His horse is spirited and kicks at the air with its forelegs although the animal is so heavily burdened with a shaggy, tapestry-like caparison that it seems astounding that the animal can leap upward at all. The most amazing and bizarre aspect of the image is the rider's headdress - a huge plume of ostrich feathers arranged in three lobes sprouts from the cavalryman's skull; the ostrich feather plume is as big as the horse and rider together, the size and shape, it seems, of a small palm tree. An explanatory placard says that the costume was commissioned for a horseback ballet commemorating a Habsburg wedding in 1667. The theme of the equestrian ballet was a competition between the four elements (earth, air, water, and fire) to determine which of them could create the most perfect and lovely pearl -- the wedding involved Princess Margarita, a name that means "pearl." This esoteric canvas embodies the strange appeal of the show: an arcane meaning is conveyed by means that seem radically incongruent with the thematic message -- a wedding is celebrated with an horse-ballet illustrating alchemical principles. (Viewing this painting, I recall that the most complete and gorgeous examples of Aztec feather shields now extent were exported to Vienna for the delectation of the Habsburgs who controlled both Spain and the former Spanish colonies -- the insane headdress worn by the rider seems something that a pre-Columbian war-lord would have admired.)
The mismatch between medium and message is evident in the first couple galleries -- we see armor and weapons engraved with delicate etchings, a filigree of ornamentation that, of course, the first blow delivered in anger would destroy. One wall displays Durer's design for a triumphal arch in honor of Emperor Maximilian, an extraordinary, towering folly consisting of no fewer than 36 woodcuts pieced together to simulate an architectural edifice, a monument so baroque and intricately decorated that it could never be constructed, terraces frescoed with elaborate historical and mythological images, columns and piers swarming with satyrs and griffins, a paper structure of such insane excess that it calls into question the very glory that it celebrates -- if Maximilian is an Oz so great and powerful than why doesn't the engraved monument exist in real life? In fact, isn't the fictional arch the symbol of some kind of grave inadequacy? Throughout their history, the Habsburgs seem to have had a penchant for objects carved from rare and precious substances -- there are carnelian agate cameos, many delicately wrought ivory relics, an overtly sexualized goblet encircled with gay-looking satyrs cut from rhinoceros horn, a sorbet service made from gilded snail shells. A walrus tooth carved in progressively more detail as it ascends symbolizes the progression from nature to art -- at its base the tooth is bone, then, a geometric form, than, a dainty chinoserie of the most intricately carved gods and goddesses. There are alchemical medallions displaying the Habsburg family tree, an osculatorum, that is religious artifact made to be kissed forged from silver and gold looted from the kingdoms of the New World, glittering images of saints and the virgin, all manner of precious devotional objects.
But the highlights of the show are the paintings. The exhibit accumulates half-dozen world class canvases. A Danae by Titian shows a languid courtesan with an elongated Mannerist body luxuriating in a shower of gold coins. The woman's hair is blonde, bleached in urine, no doubt after the Venetian manner, and she is as gold as the coins showering her. Self-evidently, she was an expensive prostitute, probably painted from life, with her snaggled-toothed procuress hefting a sort of basket to hoover-up the coins sliding out of the sunny sky. The image is luscious and characteristic: the Habsburgs liked high-class pornography. In the Correggio painting used to advertise the show, Io is embraced by Jove as a cloud, his sfumato paw clasped around the goddess' creamy hip. There is a subtle Velasquez portrait of a Habsburg maiden -- as a group, the Habsburg's were spectacularly ugly -- and an eerie, mysterious Giorgione, an oddly asymmetrical painting of three emblematic figures brooding over a shadowy landscape either at dawn or sunset: one of the figures is an angry, leonine Oriental of the type in which Tiepolo specialized and the entire picture is strangely disturbing. A hyper-realistic Caravaggio of high quality is also on display, a brutal crowning with thorns in which the centurions wear cuirasses glittering in the chiaroscuro, armor of the same elaborate and showy type that we have seen in the first couple galleries. The Habsburg taste for the grotesque is evident in a picture of a little wolf-girl, a hirsute virgin covered in silky fur wearing a huge crucifix on her breast and there is an excellent and ingenious Arcimboldo, an allegory of fire with flaming hair and brass-knuckle eyes, matches and flints making up his throat and torso.
The most remarkable painting in the show is Tintoretto's canvas of Susanna squatting in her bath while two elderly, bald men peep at her. The picture is extraordinary, an encyclopedia of emblems and motifs relating to vision: Susanna gazes at her buttery nakedness in a mirror and we see her flesh reflected in the water -- there are various degrees of opacity and translucence in the image: one of Susanna's limbs is displayed under water, that is, distorted by the liquid medium in which she bathes. Seen from across the room, the elder in the foreground reads like a memento mori -- his bald, shiny head looks like a skull in the chamber in which Saint Jerome is translating the Bible or a symbol of vanity beheld by Mary Magdalene. As the viewer approaches, the painting the skull resolves into the old man's head, viewed from a curious angle, and, then, the spectator, who stands in a place privileged to see all, discovers another old man perambulating in a garden in the background -- the panel of painting where the old man is walking seems flattened, a landscape crushed into the plane that is like a milles fleurs tapestry; there is something curiously artificial and unnatural about both of the elders and, as one examines the picture, a remarkable fact emerges -- the men's eyelines, that is, the angles of their gaze, don't intersect with the naked girl. The men seem more to be nosing her, smelling her, thanlooking in her direction -- indeed, the elders are, perhaps, blind -- it might well be that prurient lust is a kind of blindness. The entire image is replete with wonderful gem-like details, very subtly painted in a color scheme of the most exquisite delicacy. The image is a compendium of ideas about sight and vision and it is one of the greatest of all paintings.
The show fizzles out with rooms full of carriages and gilded sleighs, impressive enough for a glance or two, but unwieldy objects lacking any real poetry. There are some cases of elaborate Victorian era garments, an anti-climax after the spectacular things in the first four galleries, and the information on the wall reminds us of the sorry fate of the Habsburgs during the latter half of the 19th century: Maximilian shot by firing squad in Mexico, Rudolph dead by suicide with his 19 year-old girlfriend at Mayerling, and the imperious, wasp-waisted Sisi hacked to death by an anarchist in Geneva. The last painting in the show is a dying fall -- a pathetic image of four-year old prince stepping out of a gilded carriage in Budapest, the end of the line for the Habsburg royalty.
I hope you will see this show.