Lenox — On Saturday, September 9, Archduke Dr. Géza von Habsburg of Austria returns to Ventfort Hall to speak about Vienna’s world-renowned museum, the Kunsthistorisches Museum. Roughly translated as the Museum of Historic Applied Arts, it opened in 1891 to hold the vast collections assembled over many centuries by the Habsburg monarchs. Emperor Franz Josef I, the great-great-grandfather of Dr. Von Habsburg, brought all these treasures together under one roof and opened the collections for his subjects to enjoy. Ever since, the public has been privileged to see old masters like Rembrandt, Rubens, Velasquez, Durer, Vermeer, Raphael, as well as notable Medieval, Baroque and Renaissance painters, and even painters from modern times. Also contributing to the status of the Kunsthistorisches Museum as a world-class institution is its collection art objects, starting with Ancient Egypt and encompassing many cultures.
On a personal note, when I was growing up in post-war Vienna, our teacher, who must have been a great art lover, took us on a “field trip” to the Kunsthistorisches Museum. To my young eyes, it was a forbidding looking building, encrusted in black soot. The inside was actually pretty dim as well. We were 10-year-old girls, in no way ready to appreciate all that we saw. But, to this day I remember as the highlight of this visit, located in the Flemish collection, “The Peasant Wedding” by Peter Bruegel the Elder. Painted in 1567, it depicts the jolly celebration of a young peasant couple getting hitched. But what fascinated us girls the most were the plates of food carried by two men on a wooden door. Also depicted in the foreground is a child licking an empty plate. At that time, receiving school lunches, thanks to the Marshall Plan, of lentils and watery hot chocolate, the food depicted in the painting looked especially appetizing to us. I only found out later, when researching the painting, that the plates carried on that wooden door were “Breiteller,” plates filled with mash. Well, one illusion less!
“The Peasant Wedding” was bought by Archduke Ernst in Brussels in 1594, but it later came to Prague into the collection of Rudolf II who cared more about art than about ruling his vast empire. This inherited love and interest in all aspects of fine art is definitely present in Dr. Von Habsburg, who has made it his life’s career. He is the foremost expert on Fabergé, the Russian Court jeweler who created all those exquisite Easter eggs adorned with precious stones. He has written several books on the subject. His well-attended lecture at Ventfort Hall last year was about Fabergé.
Dr. Von Habsburg has served as Chairman, Switzerland, of Christies Manson & Woods Auctioneers and as Chairman, New York and Geneva, of Habsburg Fine Arts International Auctioneers. He has curated exhibitions all over the world, and he is in high demand as a lecturer. He was an associate professor at the New York School of interior design, the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts and New York University.
Because he has so much knowledge about a subject dear to my own heart, I took the liberty of calling Dr. Von Habsburg and posing some questions to him, which he kindly agreed to answer.
Q: In your upcoming lecture about the Kunsthistorisches Museum, will it be just about art
A: Not at all. This talk of mine will focus on personalities. It’s not just the works of art. it’s also the people who collected them. In the case of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, the collectors all happen to be Habsburgs. They had a passion and a reason for collecting. Rudolf II had someone who kept track of the people who owned particular paintings. If the owner died, Rudolf’s man would contact the estate to see if the emperor could buy the paintings.
Q: Museums are not only showplaces of art; they also represent the pride of citizens in urban or out-of-the-way places, to show how well their hometown museums are represented in the cultural arena. A good museum director is, therefore, of great importance. Can you give us an example of the duties of an exemplary museum director?
A: Of course, he or she has to be a good curator with solid education in the arts. But, running a museum is like running any big business. It is a micro-culture with many facts that must be managed and encouraged.
Q: Is there a museum director who comes to mind who, in your opinion, encompasses the best qualities for the job?
A: Well, I think Philippe de Montebello, who led the Metropolitan Museum for three decades, is such a man. Under his stewardship, the Met became one of the most prominent art institutes in the world. The stamp he put on the museum is felt to this day, though he retired from the Met in 2008.
Q: Do you think museums like the Met or the Kunsthistorisches Museum, known for their collections in antiquities and old European Masters, should venture into showing contemporary art as well?
A: I am old-fashioned. There are many great institutes and galleries around which show contemporary and modern art. They have their place and should be visited for the genre they represent. Museums with a historic background should stick to what they are known for. Why the necessity for the Met to spread to the Breuer? Why do not concentrate on those exceptional works of art that do turn up in collections, and spend money on acquiring those for the core collection. It seems futile to duplicate. I love the great works of Monet and Manet at the Met, but I like specialized museums.
Dr. Von Habsburg’s lecture will take place at Ventfort Hall on Saturday, September 9 at 4pm. Admission is $50 per person. It includes the lecture and a Viennese Coffee House-style reception with pastries and salon music played by the pianist Karen Tchougourian. For reservations, consult the Berkshire Edge calendar, call Ventfort Hall at 413-637-3206 or visit their web site.