19 Sep, 2009

How the Habsburg empire shaped art

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

As we marvel at Titian and Moctezuma in our national galleries, we are staring into a hidden trail of royal power

In Gustav Klimt’s lost painting Jurisprudence, a gigantic octopus threatens to envelop humanity. When it was painted in the first few years of the 20th century, this was seen by outraged Austrians as a satire on the police, nicknamed “polyps”; but it might just as easily be an image of the all-embracing tentacles of the empire in whose last days Klimt was working.

The Habsburg dynasty once controlled one of the most spectactular empires the world has ever known. But what has this to do with art? Everything. In many ways the story of art since the 16th century has been shaped by the map of Habsburg power. It determined where paintings ended up, whom they influenced, and therefore how art evolved.

Take two events in London this week. At the National Gallery, Titian’s masterpiece Diana and Actaeon has just gone on view in the permanent collection for the first time after it was bought for the nation at the start of the year. It has been hung in a special display that highlights the central place of this painting in the history of western art, next to two paintings that illuminate Titian’s depth of influence (Rubens’s Judgement of Paris and Cézanne’s Bathers) and near other paintings by artists from Poussin to Constable that display the range of Titian’s aesthetic authority.

In the same week, the first reviews have appeared of Moctezuma: Aztec Ruler at the British Museum. But what connects the ecstatic religious art of the Mexica people with the luxurious oils of Titian? Actually, you could pursue that in more than one way; the Dionysian rituals that often appear in Titian’s art – for example in the National Gallery’s Bacchus and Ariadne – share a fire with the art of Mesoamerica. But more matter of factly, consider this: the Spanish soldier Cortés, who invaded Mexico in 1519, acted in the name of Charles V, Habsburg king of Spain and the man about to be elected Holy Roman Emperor. In his person, Charles was to unite lands from central Europe to the Americas. His favourite artist was Titian, who portrayed him on horseback and whose brush the emperor is said to have picked up off the floor: power kneeling before genius.

Titian painted Diana and Actaeon for Philip II of Spain, Charles V’s son. But Aztec art too was sent by the conquistadors as tributes to the Habsburg empire: the German painter Dürer, who saw and praised it, worked for Charles V’s father Maximilian.

The fall of the Habsburgs at the end of the first world war changed art for ever, by ending a global cultural network that had once brought Bosch as well as Titian to the Prado, Velázquez to Vienna, and the baroque to the Americas. So it seems that when you wonder at the glory of Titian or the fall of Moctezuma, you are following the hidden trail of Habsburg influence.

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