After Klimt’s Kiss, perhaps no work of art is as closely identified with Vienna as Dürer’s Young Hare. Created in 1502, it graces coffee cups, posters, messenger bags – nearly any object that can be sold in a gift shop. Yet, the work is so fragile that it has not been publicly displayed in a decade. Lucky visitors will have until June 29th to see the work, as it is on view as part of the Albertina Museum’s show “The Origins of the Albertina: From Dürer to Napoleon.” Our docent, art historian Lisa Regan, reports on the exhibition.
The exhibition is organized around the era of Archduchess Marie-Christine, one of the daughters of Empress Maria-Theresa, and her husband, Duke Albert of Saxony, Duke of Teschen. Unusually — and unlike her sisters, who included Marie Antoinette — Marie-Christine was permitted to marry for love rather than political purposes. She and her husband, who though a son of the king of Poland was of lower status than she, moved into and heavily renovated a palace neighboring the Hofburg. This became home to the couple’s extensive art collection, assembled via a combination of diplomatic gifts, imperial marriage, and extensive purchases. The current exhibition is loosely organized according to the trajectory of the couple’s lives and the creation of their collection. It is therefore more an exhibition about the Albertina’s founders and their moment than about the objects themselves.
Looking at the collection through the lens of its historical formation provides a unique sense of the objects – on one level in terms of their art historical importance (that is, why they were collected in the first place), but also in terms of their place within history more broadly. Rich court portraits of Marie-Christine, her husband, and her extended family – including extraordinary images of Maria-Theresa, among them a painting by Liotard and a jaw-dropping pen drawing after van Meytens – establish the identities of the collectors themselves. After that their interests unfold room by room across the later 18th century, including their Grand Tour of Italy, the influence of the Enlightenment on their collection of scientific objects, depictions of the extended territories of the Habsburg Empire and beyond, their relationship to the French Revolution (with intriguing Revolutionary prints), and the impact of Marie-Christine’s death on her husband (hint: his was not, as is often posited, a total retreat into mourning).
Undoubtedly the highlights of the exhibition are the Renaissance prints and drawings, among them the famous Dürer hare (left), executed in watercolor and gouache on paper. This is a masterpiece of observational painting, as the hair on the animal’s body seems to shift with the shape of the musculature beneath. No other artist could have captured the texture of the nose, with its peach-fuzz hair. (For a typically Düreresque detail note the reflection of a window in the animal’s eye).
The Albertina has a regrettable tradition of over-decorating the walls of exhibitions with background designs and images. Often this can be distracting, but in this case that tendency plays well, as many of the walls have the colors and wallpaper patterns against which the objects would originally have been displayed. This setting provides a luxurious framework for the exhibition’s various decorative objects – silver from the imperial table; porcelains from their drawing rooms; a series of portraits of horses; ermine-lined ceremonial robes displaying insignia of the Imperial Austrian Order of Leopold.
The organization of the exhibition according to the collection’s creation rather than the traditional categories of region, chronology, and artist means that Habsburg imperialism and opulence is in constant juxtaposition with developing ideas of science, art and politics. This innovative combination iconic works from the Albertina’s definitive collection of works on paper with a variety of objects that tell the story of the museum itself. It is the perfect blend of materials for the art lover, the history fan, and the palace aficionado in your group.