by Elmar Zorn
This book has been produced to mark the major six-month exhibition (November 2015 to April 2016) at the Schlossmuseum Elisabethenburg, staged by the Meininger Museen (Museums of Meiningen) of works by the sculptor Gabriela von Habsburg. In the exhibition galleries and the inner courtyard of the palace, forty small and six medium-sized sculptures are on display, alongside lithographs, drawings, models and photographs, all under the title Sprechender Stahl (‘The Language of Steel’).
Over and beyond the immediate occasion, the present volume also includes illustrations of large sculptures scattered in public spaces all over the world, works hitherto not published in any catalogues or books.
In this respect, the two sections of the book supplement the excellent and elaborately produced monograph Gabriela von Habsburg, published in 2007 by the Bucher Verlag in Hohenems. Following the appearance of this distinguished essay on Gabriela von Habsburg’s work by the then deputy directory general of the Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen Carla Schulz-Hoffmann and Matthias Frehner, the director of the Kunstmuseum Bern, nine years ago, in this book two no less prominent authors seek to assess the personality and the creative work of the artist.
One is Manfred Schneckenburger, who has twice curated the documenta in Kassel (in 1977 and 1987), has taught at the universities in Bochum and Kassel, and for many years was rector at the Kunstakademie in Münster. He has written numerous pioneering works, in particular about sculpture, and has the status of a doyen of art criticism worldwide.
The other is Dieter Ronte, who made a name for himself not only as head of the art museums in Vienna, Hanover and Bonn, but also as curator of innovative programmes, for example “Aperto” at the Venice Biennale, and in 1996 of the very first exhibition of contemporary Chinese art in the West. He is also well known for his critical publications regarding the art business.
Both pay due respect to the abovementioned monograph on Gabriela von Habsburg by referring to their colleagues’ work and quoting it at length.
When reading Schneckenburger’s and Ronte’s essays, it is interesting to see how, from different starting points, they arrive at comparable judgements on the quality of the artist’s sculptural work. Given such praise, Gabriela von Habsburg is conspicuous by her reticence in today’s public art scene. She lacks any of the boastful affectation sometimes shown by well-known figures in the art world. Although she is highly conscious of her social rank as archduchess and grand- daughter of the last emperor of Austria, she wishes this not to be taken into account when her art is judged. It is true that she understands in a remarkable fashion how to combine her artistic mastery with her political commitment to a united Europe. Her role as ambassador of the Republic of Georgia in Berlin, a post she held for some years, reacts the lifting of the Iron Curtain as addressed in her extraordinarily successful memorials to the Pan-European Picnic near Sopron and to the Rose Revolution in Tbilisi, which I regard as one of the most impressive works in a genre – memorial sculpture – which has fallen into some disrepute, not least because it came about as a joint artistic process between the art professor and her students and as homage to the blood- less uprising in the city. Gabriela von Habsburg shows her- self to be, in other words, a worthy successor to her teachers Robert Jacobsen and Sir Eduardo Paolozzi on the one hand, and on the other a committed European in the tradition of her father Otto Habsburg-Lothringen, who made European history with the above-mentioned Pan-European Picnic on 19 August 1989, thus paving the way for a turning point in the continent’s history.
The task of doing justice to three-dimensional art through the medium of photography and thus creating some perceptual verisimilitude in a book about sculpture is far more challenging than capturing the colour tones and texture of paintings. For it is easier to trick the perceptual apparatus when it comes to the authenticity of shades of colour than to compensate for the inevitable renunciation, in still photographs, of the all-round view of the body of the sculpture. It was therefore crucial for the success of the book project to counteract this fundamental impasse at least to a certain degree with the photographic documentation of the exhibition in Meiningen. But the photographer and photo-designer Raphael Lichius has succeeded impressively in the feat of translating a semantics of sculpture from the spatial to the book medium.