“Habsburg Splendor” is a History Lesson Wrapped in Gold and Silver

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Full disclosure: I ate their lunch, and so I’m guilty as charged if accused of biting the hand that fed me. Or maybe “snapping at” would be a better term, since I don’t expect to tear flesh or draw blood. Not that I even want to, you understand.

The lunch in question was served to members of the press by the Austrian Tourist Authority, I think it was, in conjunction with the exhibition “Habsburg Splendor: Masterpieces from Vienna’s Imperial Collections,” now on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. It was their effort to woo and wow us with the wonders of Austria — as though galleries chock-a-block with some of the most sumptuous stuff ever made wouldn’t have been enough.

First a little background: For the past couple of years, it’s seemed as though Houston has become a new province of the Habsburg Empire. First, with “Portrait of Spain: Masterpieces from the Prado” in 2013 and the just ended “Spectacular Rubens,” we belonged to the Spanish branch; and now, perhaps through some strategic marriage or as the spoils of war, we’ve been handed over to the Austrians.

It was those marriages and wars, both skillfully managed, that made the Habsburgs one of the most important families in Europe through 600 years beginning in the 13th century. For a time they were the very most important one. That all came to an end 100 years ago with World War I, when the Empire crumbled and the Habsburgs were deposed and dispersed. At least one descendant now lives right here in Houston, I’m told.

Through all those centuries, as they were deciding the fates of millions and the course of history, the Habsburgs were also buying, buying, buying magnificent stuff. When they weren’t just confiscating it, that is: always a prerogative of empire builders.

The sums they must have spent! But they could afford it, of course. Forget the 1 percent. The Habsburgs were part of a percent so small it was almost all zeros.

No doubt they were buying because they loved beautiful things. Maybe some of them even appreciated them. But they were also buying (and confiscating) because they knew that having the most of, the most expensive, the most sumptuous, the most rare whatever-it-may-be said power, just as armies did.

So art, when it’s the right art, equals power. Sometimes literally, as demonstrated by the several suits of armor in the exhibition. Back then “a man in a full suit of armor comes into a room” wasn’t the start of a standup comedy joke (as it was on opening day of the exhibition, unfortunately). One of the suits here actually belonged to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, perhaps the most powerful of them all since he ruled both the Austrian and the Spanish halves of the Empire — the first empire on which the sun never set. You may remember him as the grandfather of the Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia, who commissioned the Rubens tapestries. Judging from his armor, he was a small man (with a prominent, inbred Habsburg jaw) who cast a very long shadow.

This ornate armor was probably never actually used in battle. Nor were the magnificent coral-handled saber and the mind-boggling shield and helmet of Archduke Ferdinand II of Tyrol in the same gallery. (Where oh where is my thesaurus of magnificent modifiers? I need it urgently.) These were the knightly trappings of power meant to impress through pageantry and spectacle, though at the same time they literally embodied the iron-fist specter of rule as well. That they are also art was secondary.

So it went through the centuries. You may have guessed by now that this exhibition is really a history lesson wrapped in gold and silver. The nature of the objects changed, but the basic political purpose remained the same: awe your subjects, your allies and your enemies with magnificence — but not for its own sake — magnificence projecting power, drama and excess that they could never hope to equal. Louis XIV in France may have perfected the politics of splendor, but it’s not as though he invented it. The Habsburgs ran him a close second at Schönbrunn Palace, their version of Versailles. They probably even taught him a thing or two.

Things are not so different now. Why else would anyone pay $179,000,000 for a single painting, as someone did for a Picasso recently? That’s crazy otherwise. (But what’s really crazy is that we the people of the world allow that even to be possible. Crazy and immoral when people are going hungry. Be warned, today’s 1 percent. The Habsburgs once occupied your rung. They even claimed to have divine right on their side, and look what happened to them: turned out of the palace with hardly a tiara to their name. Or was that the Romanovs? I sometimes get my royals confused.)

And so the tag line MFAH has emblazoned on the banner for the show: Power, Drama, Excess. Though it could just as well read: Crushing Power, Stifling Drama, Wretched Excess. Which is not to say that it isn’t still beautiful.

The armor made its point by projecting military power. Some of the objects, like an exquisite ivory crucifix from the 17th century by an unknown carver, and other liturgical items, expressed their force by assaulting the soul. Some of the paintings and bronzes explicitly unleashed the fearsome power of eroticism: This seems to have been particularly appealing in the 16th century. And later on, in the 19th century (when royal things aesthetic took a really wrong turn, as far as I’m concerned, not just in Austria but almost everywhere), elaborate gowns and uniforms were the power badge of choice. These fill the whole last gallery — for which the best was definitely not saved.

As always for me, it’s the paintings that matter most, even up against rock crystal and ivory, bronze and precious stones, and a royal carriage pulled by life-size Lipizzaner horse mannequins brought all the way from Austria, since faux-Texas horses were the wrong shape for the harness. And a golden sleigh so big it had to be crane-hoisted through a window to get it in. But I’m with Gertrude Stein in liking “painted pictures” best. There aren’t massive numbers of them in the show, but the ones that are here are pretty massively wonderful.

In one gallery alone there are two Titians, a Giorgione, a Tintoretto, a Caravaggio and others. Not surprisingly, they call it the Picture Gallery, and to quote (more or less) David Bomford, lead MFAH curator of the exhibition, along with Helga Aurisch and Christine Gervais: “You will never see greater paintings than these all in one gallery. While they’re here, keep coming back.”

He’s absolutely right. These aren’t just ho-hum, run-of-the-mill, everyday examples of the artists (can there be that kind of Caravaggio?), but masterpieces. The greatest of all, however, is in another gallery. It’s the Velázquez portrait of the Infanta María Teresa.

The paintings in the Picture Gallery are masterpieces of the past. This one is a masterpiece of the past, present and future. It’s a modern picture in a way that the others aren’t — perhaps because Velázquez pointed the way for Manet and the Impressionists and all that has come after. MFAH Director Gary Tinterow showed us that with the exhibition “Manet/Velázquez” some years ago at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, before he came back home to Houston.

The Infanta stands regally before us, her slightly turned head enveloped in an architecture of hair as wide as her shoulders. She puts us in our place with a glance. Her pink cheeks echo the pink ribbons of her hair and bodice. The light glints off her ropes of pearls and shimmers on the acres of fabric in her dress. Her fingers are exquisitely lost in the folds of her handkerchief. As painted by Velázquez, she almost convinces me about that divine right thing. I could look at her forever.

Which brings me to the snapping part: “Habsburg Splendor” is a ticketed exhibition — the golden days of winter and spring, when looking at the art required no extra tickets, are gone. Every time I want to visit the Infanta, even if it’s only for a five-minute quickie (I sometimes find art is best in intense, short spurts rather than extended sessions), I have to pay for the pleasure. Makes her seem a little tawdry.

And if I want to visit her every day (David Bomford as much as said I should), it will cost me $1,038 between now and September when the show closes. I’m a member and get the senior rate; it might be more for some of you. That’s starting to verge on real money for us regular folks. Wouldn’t someone rich like to put his or her name on getting the rest of us in for free? There’s already a string of banks, foundations, national endowments and rich folks listed, but that’s the one we’d remember most. We’d promise to keep it in mind come the revolution.

Now about that lunch — chicken salad, haricot vert and chocolate cake — even Austrian wine, but I’m a teetotaler, so at least I didn’t sell out for liquor. Though the table wasn’t set with Habsburg sterling and the speeches got a little long, it was all quite pleasant. But I’d gladly have traded it for even one more free ticket to the exhibition.

“Habsburg Splendor: Masterpieces from Vienna’s Imperial Collections”
Through September 13. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300, mfah.org.

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