Gabriela of Habsburg – a life for art and Europe
by Helene Walterskirchen:
Gabriela of Habsburg – a life for art and Europe
Once upon a time there was an Imperial Princess and Archduchess (Official Titulation until 1919), who came into the world on October 14, 1956 in Luxembourg. She was the fourth of five daughters and two sons of her parents, Archduke Otto (Official Titulation until 1919) and his wife Regina, née princess of Saxe-Meiningen. The girl was baptized Gabriela, Maria, Charlotte, Felicitas, Elizabeth, Antonia. Within the extended family circle, she grew up in the Villa Austria at Lake Starnberg.
Gabriela’s father, Otto von Habsburg-Lorraine (1912-2011), was the eldest son of the last Austrian Emperor Charles I (1887-1922) and his wife Zita from the House of Bourbon-Parma (1892-1989) and thus a great-grandnephew of Emperor Franz Joseph I. Otto von Habsburg made a name for himself as a longtime president of the Pan-Europa Union and member of the European Parliament. His biggest concern was the eastward enlargement of the EU.
The doctor of political science taught his children from an early age his European ideas. Gabriela von Habsburg: „At our home, at dinner together, we almost always only talked about politics, above all, of course, about European politics. It was not so much about existing political borders that could change, but about the concept of „Europe as a community of values“, more precisely „as a Christian community of values“. This must be preserved and develop further. We have learned from our father that Europe has a central position in the whole world. This paternalism has shaped me and my brothers and sisters very much and motivated us, when we were adults, to commit ourselves in this direction as well.“ The brother of Gabriela, Karl von Habsburg, who lives in Austria, is today not only head of the former ruling House of Habsburg-Lorraine, but also president of the Pan-Europa Union Austria. Her second brother Georg, who lives in Hungary, was Hungary’s special ambassador to the EU for a long time.
Gabriela von Habsburg is concerned about current developments in Europe: „Over the past decades we have developed a series of freedoms and achievements for Europe. At the moment, however, there are problems everywhere that could trigger regression. That is not good. I very much hope that this will not happen, but that Europe continues to develop positively.“
Europe, which initially consisted of six countries in 1952, is today a community known as the ”European Union” and consists of 28 states with more than half a billion EU citizens. While most people in Europe think primarily of countries such as France, Spain, Germany, or Austria, Gabriela von Habsburg focuses on the rather unknown Eastern European countries such as Hungary, Poland, Latvia, or Lithuania. And not to forget: Georgia, a country that plays a special role in Gabriela von Habsburg’s life, since she holds not only a professorship at the Faculty of Art at Free University of Georgia, but also served as Georgia’s ambassador in Berlin from 2009 to 2013.
In an article from 17.7.2010 in the “Berliner Tagesspiegel” with the headline „Emperor’s granddaughter on a European mission“ – Gabriela von Habsburg is the descendant of the last Austrian ruler and now ambassador of Georgia in Berlin,“ she explained the reasons for her decision to become ambassador: „Our family is committed to a deep conviction for a free and democratic Europe. I was brought up to take responsibility.“
Georgia is the interface between the high aristocrat who is committed to European politics, and the high aristocrat who has dedicated her life to art, who sees herself primarily as an artist. Gabriela von Habsburg inherited her artistic talent from two ancestors: her paternal great-grandfather, Archduke Otto von Habsburg (1865-1906), who was a talented painter, and her great-grandfather on her mother’s side, Duke Georg II of Saxony-Meiningen, who lived from 1866 to 1914. Georg was known for his artistic talent and his sense of art, which he lived out in particular by supporting the Meininger Hofkapelle (court chapel) and the Meininger Theater.
As a child, Gabriela von Habsburg encountered art and culture repeatedly, as she regularly accompanied her mother to the concert or to the opera. She remembers: „With my mother’s opera- glasses I then hung as if spellbound in the orchestra pit to watch the musicians, especially the violinists. This resulted in my desire to learn to play the violin, a wish that my parents promptly fulfilled. My violin teacher, Reinhold Heller, was not only a musician, but also an artist, one of the ’68ers, who co-founded the groups ‚Spur‘ and ‚Wir‘ (we). He not only taught me to play the violin, but also introduced me to fine arts. It struck him quickly that I had a talent for three-dimensional work.“
In 1978 Gabriela von Habsburg began studying art at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich. During her studies, two teachers influenced her: the Danish sculptor Professor Robert Jacobsen, who was known for his steel sculptures, and the English sculptor Sir Eduardo Paolozzi, who worked with all kinds of materials, including steel. At the academy, Gabriela von Habsburg learned the expertise for her further artistic work, and she found access to the art scene, something that is elementary for every artist to make room for exhibitions, commissions and other important contacts.
Even at the beginning of her creative career, Gabriela von Habsburg turned to three-dimensionality and steel as a material. Those who know her early works will know that she developed her art very consistently in the direction of plastic freedom and the spatial and temporal dissolution of solid bodies. Sculptures and sculptures made of steel became the central theme of her artistic work.
Gabriela von Habsburg basically creates her steel sculptures according to a fixed pattern: the idea is first captured in a sketch. This follows a bozzetto, usually made of wood. The model is then transformed into steel. For this, she uses prefabricated individual parts from the arsenal of our industrial society: square tubes, rods, discs, plates, sometimes even scrap. Most of her works are made of stainless steel, which cannot corrode due to the chromium-nickel alloy. When welding the parts together, it does not compose in the traditional sense according to a fixed plan, but constructs and organizes the relationship between the individual parts and the whole. Subsequently, or partially parallel to it, it processes the surfaces and applies flex hatching, e.g. linear or arc-shaped brush marks, which change according to the incidence of light or the movement of the observer. Gabriela von Habsburg creates metal sculptures of any size: from the 20 cm high and handy model to the 10 x 6 m work, for example the 9.2 ton sculpture „Phoenix“ in front of the Austrian industrial company Voest-Alpine.
Gabriela von Habsburg is currently working on a commissioned project for a Swiss company that manufactures bathroom and kitchen fittings: a fountain sculpture in the form of a faucet. The model stands, when I visited her in August 2019 in her studio in a Munich suburb, in the small rustic kitchen. Gabriela von Habsburg: „The fountain sculpture will be 12.5 meters high and must be finished by next spring. Of course, I cannot create a work of art of this size in my studio, but I work together with a stainless steel builder who has a large hall.“
Gabriela von Habsburg made a name for herself in the art world with tireless activity and perseverance – a path that was not easy. The name „Habsburg“ did not always help her; rather, she had to struggle with a series of prejudices according to the motto: Let us see if anyone with this name can make art at all. Today Gabriela von Habsburg is a globally recognized artist who can look back on a multitude of works of art and exhibitions, e.g. in Washington (USA), in St. Petersburg (Russia), in Esztergom (Hungary), in Verona (Italy), in Bodrum (Turkey), in Yerevan (Armenia), in Riga (Latvia), in Athens (Greece), in Elisabethenburg Castle in Meiningen and many others.
In addition to numerous small and medium-sized sculptures, she has also created a significant number of monumental sculptures, such as for the Egyptian Museum in Munich, the sculpture Betasith (2015), which now stands at Munich Airport, for Kelheim the sculpture „Lebensbaum“ (tree of life) (2005), for Broughton in England the sculpture „Hildon Water“ (2004), for Hard in Austria the sculpture „Austrian Excellence“ (2003), for Astana in Kazakhstan the sculpture „Horse Shoe“ (2007), for the Presidential Palace in Georgia the sculpture „Monument to the 3 Powers in the State“ (2009). This brings us back to Georgia, the interface where in the life of Gabriela von Habsburg, European politics in the form of ambassadorship, entrusted to her by the former government under President Mikheil Saakashvili in 2009, and art in the form of a professorship at the Free University of Tbilisi meet.
Gabriela von Habsburg came to Georgia through her art, the country on the border between Europe and Asia. The Eurasian state borders the Black Sea to the west, Azerbaijan to the east, the Great Caucasus to the north and the Little Caucasus to the south. Georgia offers beautiful landscapes, a vibrant capital, and fascinating traditions and is one of the oldest wine regions in the world. This description from a travel guide has proved to be Gabriela von Habsburg’s fascination with Georgia from the very beginning.
When she talks about Georgia, she almost raves about the country she describes as her adopted country. After all, she has been living there for half of her time for 20 years, the other half in her studio between Munich and Starnberg to create new works of art, or on trips to exhibitions. Gabriela von Habsburg has Georgian citizenship, a residence in the capital and a vineyard in the countryside. She has also helped to establish the art faculty of the Free University in the capital Tbilisi, can refer to various works of art and art exhibitions in the country, such as the Rose Monument, which was erected in 2007 together with Georgian art students and which has a very special significance for her. Gabriela von Habsburg: „It was the young people in Georgia demonstrating with roses for the freedom of the whole country and achieved the freedom of their country in a bloodless way. To commemorate this deed, my students and I have created a walk-in memorial, reminiscent of a rose made of various stones from all parts of the country. The stones on which one can sit were individually designed. Each was dedicated to a personality who has an important meaning for the country of Georgia.
The country appreciates the presence of a personality and art mentor like Gabriela von Habsburg. This year, 2019, there was an exhibition in the Georgian National Museum: 20 years Gabriela von Habsburg in Georgia entitled „Tabula Rasa“. In the exhibition brochure, you can read on page 36, „Everywhere that von Habsburg’s sculptures are placed – from Georgia to Germany, Austria to Switzerland and Britain – she believes they speak a universal, inclusive language, embodying both a close view and the broad. In similar vein, the artist says she feels no specific national affinity, but considers herself pan-European. She has said that Georgia, a crossroads between Asia and Europe, is ‚Europe’s balcony‘. ‚I feel loyalty to the European soul of Georgia‘, she says. I chose it without knowing that I chose it‘.“
Whether Gabriela von Habsburg is a European artist or an artistically active Pan-European is up to each individual to decide for himself or herself. Anyone who has a lot of imagination can imagine her sitting there in Georgia, on Europe’s „balcony“, in a comfortable armchair and looking over the countries of Europe, from Georgia to Portugal, to the Atlantic. With her numerous steel works of art in all the European countries, she shows not only Habsburg presence, artistic sense and culture, but also stability, constancy, resilience and hardness.
This article was published in German Language in the “Kultur-Magazin Schloss Rudolfshausen”, edition III/2019.
© Copyright of this article and the photos belong to Helene Walterskirchen www.helene-walterskirchen.de