A Transhistorical Approach to Five Centuries of Art

VIENNA — History Tales. Fact and Fiction in History Painting, an exhibition that draws on the rich collection of the Academy of Fine Arts, reveals the ways we view the world, including our nations and our identities, to be social constructions built over the span of centuries. 

Curated by Sabine Folie, this rich pictorial and multimedia offering ranges in timeline from Hieronymus Bosch in the 15th century to Ana Torfs in ours. Altogether, it feels more like an epic than an exhibition.

Yet the story told in History Tales is not chronologically linear. “We have a specific approach to our historical collection,” Folie told Hyperallergic. “This is a transhistorical approach; it’s not about history in a normal sense, but rather about the critique of history.”

Folie achieves that critical vivisection of history through a dialectical method. The exhibition begins with a 19th-century cartoon. Such satirical works were, in Folie’s words, “a reaction to social upheaval, technological tension, industrial revolution.” John Leech’s “Substance and Shadow” (1843), here displayed in oversized dimensions, depicts barefoot street children and paupers in rags during a period of hardship known as the “Hungry Forties.” In the cartoon, they inspect their “shadows,” aristocrats displayed in portraits at Westminster Hall, satirizing the insensitivity of the British establishment at the time. 

The accompanying caption reads: “There are many silly, dissatisfied people in this country, who are continually urging upon Ministers the propriety of considering the wants of the pauper population, under the impression that it is as laudable to feed men as to shelter horses.” In a time of radical inequality and upheaval, this cartoon feels remarkably prescient.

Elsewhere, Folie continually pairs Modern or contemporary art with older paintings, offering a counterpoint. Danica Dakić, for instance, presents an unvarnished picture of homelessness among the Roma during the decade-long Yugoslav wars in her photographs, her riposte to Hubert Robert’s speculative study of the ruins of the Louvre, painted in the midst of the French Revolution. 

The heart of History Tales is a section entitled “Interludium II: Eruption: Volcanoes – Cataclysms and the ‘Age of Iron,’” with paintings packed with oracular power. “There is this strange simultaneity of the French Revolution and the eruption of the volcano and the eruptions of the furnaces of early Industrial Revolution,” Folie told Hyperallergic.

Auguste Desperet’s 1833 lithograph, “Troisième éruption du volcan de 1789, qui doit avoir lieu avant la fin du monde, qui fera trembler tous les trônes, et renversera une foule de monarchies” (“Third eruption of the volcano of 1789, which must take place before the end of the world, which will shake all the thrones, and overthrow a host of monarchies”), is a perfect example of such parallels between industry, society, and the natural world. The word “LIBERTÉ” erupts from the crater.

The section includes two paintings by Michael Wutky and one by Pierre-Jacques-Antoine Volaire also depicting the spectacular eruptions of Mount Vesuvius in the 1770s, which both painters witnessed and can in hindsight be seen as omens for the 1789 French Revolution and the carnage that ensued. 

“Natural catastrophes and social upheavals obviously have a relation,” Folie added.

The exhibition is crowned by Hieronymus Bosch’s dreamscape tryptic “The Last Judgement” (c. 1482), an exhilarating finale. The eye drifts from the eerie peace of Eden to the monstrosities of Hell. Yet it inevitably returns to the centerpiece, in which souls struggle to clamber aboard the boat to Paradise. Half a millennium later, more than a few of us can relate.  

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