Photos courtesy MIA
Every once in a while, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts presents an exhibit so off-the-hook amazing that you have to see it to believe it. The Habsburgs: Rarely Seen Masterpieces from Europe’s Greatest Dynasty, is one such show—a phantasmagoric collection of armor, sculpture, statuary, clothing, paintings, and artifacts that will astound even the most reluctant of museum-goers.
MIA director Kaywin Feldman calls The Habsburgs a “once in a lifetime” exhibit, because many of the works—which are on loan from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna—have never toured outside Austria, and never will again. So, unless you’d rather go to Vienna, this is your chance.
The Habsburg Dynasty doesn’t get much airtime these days, but this exhibit should help correct that oversight. For the uninitiated, the House of Habsburg ruled much of Europe for more than 600 years, starting in the Middle Ages and ending with World War I. Indeed, most people know that WWI was sparked by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. What’s less known is that Ferdinand’s death was the beginning of the end for the Habsburg dynasty, and that the crumbling alliances forged by the Habsburgs over hundreds of years set the stage for the war.
The MIA’s exhibit attempts to cover the major periods of the Habsburg Dynasty by breaking it up into three parts: the beginning, middle, and end, basically. Since the Habsburgs ruled much of Europe for centuries, including 300 years as head of the Holy Roman Empire, the brush strokes are necessarily broad, but nonetheless stunning. The paintings—by Correggio, Caravaggio, Velasquez, and many others—are lush and gorgeous. The armor, clothes, and military regalia are astonishing, both for their variety and ostentation, as well as their artistry and craftsmanship. Even some of the smallest artifacts—such as an ivory tankard with a scene of Dionysian revelry carved around it—are royally elegant and appropriately extravagant. These are people who lived the dream of opulence that gave rise to the whole idea of fairy princesses and magic castles.
But the best thing about this exhibit is how it pulls you into the flow of history and builds a compelling narrative of power, politics, and personalities as they played out over the centuries. In many cases, the three-dimensional artifacts in the room are also featured in paintings on the wall, lending a dramatic sense of cohesion between the people and the period in which they lived.
For instance, a room dedicated to Maria Theresa, the only female ruler in the Habsburg line, features one of her royal coaches (full-size and worth the price of admission by itself) as well as an exquisite portrait and a mural depicting how such carriages were used in various processions and celebrations. The same is true for a magnificent sleigh whose gilded glory is a wonder to behold. In each case, the physical existence of the artifact depicted in the painting adds an immediacy that’s hard to describe—it really needs to be experienced.
The Habsburgs: Rarely Seen Masterpieces from Europe’s Greatest Dynasty runs from February 15–May 10, artsmia.org.