Show Links Art, Arms & Armor

An Austrian armory collection of 300 items - firearms, helmets, and paintings - makes its debut in the US after centuries of isolation

OUT in the far southwestern corner of Austria, surrounded by mountainous beauty, sits Graz, a city of remarkable charm and warmth, capital of the region called Styria, and once the fence of the Hapsburg Empire. Styria was the main way into Austria for warring Croatians, and more alarming, warring Turks. That neither were able to get into the Hapsburg Empire is testament to the military expertise and fortitude of the Styrians.

Today, the very arms and armor the military forces used are housed in an unprepossessing building with a superbly maintained Baroque facade in the center of Graz: The armory, or, as it is called in German, the Landeszeughaus (literally translated "the regional armor house") with its more than 3,800 pieces of armor and 29,000 firearms, is one of the finest assemblages of its kind in the world, made all the more remarkable for being the very pieces assembled between 15th and 17th centuries by the Styrian m ilitary.

For the first time in its history, the armory has sent nearly 300 items from its trove to the United States for the exhibit, Imperial Austria: Treasures of Art, Arms, & Armor from the State of Styria. The collection is now on display at the IBM Gallery here.

I had a chance last fall to see the armory and experience the city of Graz firsthand. The latter is clearly one of the "best-kept-secret" locales. It is redolent with history from its Hapsburg traditions - a history that began around 1128 and is peppered with the names of counts, archdukes, and emperors who chose the city as their principal dwelling. It is built around a high mound, now known as the Schlossburg, which once sported a fortress razed at the beginning of the 19th century as part of a treaty with Napoleon's armies.

The city still has a deeply historical feel to it (less than 38 percent of it was damaged during World War II). It boasts a fine resident theater company, and its opera company has long been known as a superior training ground for some of the finest talent past and present.

And the armory itself is at once stunning and vaguely disquieting: Four floors of endless rows of the tools of hand-to-hand combat, such as firearms, grisly picks used to pierce armor, helmets, breastplates, tasses, and cuisses.

Because the armory is closed in the winter, the lighting was minimal and the windows were shuttered, lending an eeriness to the place. The armory was threatened several times in its later years - first when Empress Maria Teresa decided the metal was too valuable not to melt down for other uses, and later during World War II when Graz was being targeted by the Allies. (In fact, Hitler visited the armory in the waning years of the war and contemplated moving the entire collection to Berlin.)

The building is an integral part of the armory experience. The American curator of the exhibit, and one of the country's leading authorities on arms and armor, Walter J. Karcheski, Jr., referred to it when asked what he found most surprising about the Graz collection. "Well, I think in terms of surprise, as you know from seeing the materials in Graz, it's just overwhelming when you see the amount of material. Part of the thing that makes the Graz armory so important is the very fact that it is, for all i ntents and purposes, an intact preserved arsenal of the 17th century - of materials from the very late 15th through the 17th century. That makes it, in effect, unique in arms-and-armor circles because most of the collections that are preserved now ... were put together after the fact, or they're collections that have been pilfered or otherwise picked away at over the course of years.

"The Graz arsenal manages to be a little bit of both worlds, in that it has very fine examples that reflect the very high point of the armor as craft but also you have a great and incredible amount of the more typical munitions - quality [armor] that the soldier would have used in the practical sense - just the type of things that tended not to be preserved over the course of years."

If the traveling exhibit cannot even suggest the armory itself, it manages something the building cannot. As the exhibition coordinator Katherine S. Howe observes, "during the Renaissance and Baroque era, there were extremely highly developed and highly talented guilds working in arms and metals and all sorts of different things; there was an incredible cross-pollination between arts, arms, and armor.

"On the one hand, there are paintings of people wearing armor; on the other hand, the armor is influenced by the art in terms of the ornament that is applied, the fashion of the armor, the shape of the armor itself, it is all closely akin to the costume of the day. So it is this art influencing armor and armor incorporated into art that is really the principal thread of the exhibition - as it relates to Austrian history and Styrian history in particular."

I didn't get to see many of the prize pieces of the collection, they were already in the specially designed crates for shipping to the US. But what was left in Graz was impressive enough - ranging from the lowly foot soldier's protective gear to the most astonishing of hand-etched parade armor. Karcheski is amazed at the quality of the firearms. "In an arsenal setting, you would expect just about everything to be of a more `G.I.' quality, as it were. In the Graz materials - and having seen the collection

there - are such a substantial lot of these pieces that they're [clearly] not an aberration.

"This is also a chance for people to see material that has not left Austria since the 18th century. The Graz show is a way of bringing together the interests of a variety of audiences: You have the artistic areas that are addressed in the more traditional arts that are there, the decorative iron work and metal work; and then some of the very high quality - again supreme examples of the armor as craft - but you also have within it a leavening out because it appeals to people who have an amateurs' interest

in military history or the past history of an area of Europe that I think most Americans are just not that aware of," Karcheski says.

Imperial Austria is on view at the IBM Gallery through Aug. 22, then it travels to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington (Oct. 3 to Jan. 24, 1993), and to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (March 14 to June 27, 1993).

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