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by Phyllis Tuchman
"Hesse: A Princely German Collection," Oct. 28, 2005-Mar. 19, 2006, at the Portland Art Museum, 1219 SW Park Avenue, Portland, Ore. 97205

Itís a long way from the central German state of Hesse, which contains the cities of Kassel, Darmstadt and Frankfurt, to the temperate but rainy American metropolis of Portland, Ore. Nevertheless, the Portland Art Museum has landed an exhibition of some 200 artworks from the 800-year-old Hesse dynasty, which currently owns five castles in Germany (three are operated as museums) and is headed by an 80-year-old prince named Landgraf Moritz.

"Hesse: A Princely German Collection" features paintings by Hans Holbein and Lucas Cranach, antique heads and helmets, Rococo porcelain figurines, rifles, portable sundials, all sorts of chairs, service medals, a 33-piece traveling toilette kit, a Jugendstil cabinet and Carl Fabergeís Five-Part Screen with Forty Miniature Eggs, among other objects.

As it happens, Portland curator Penelope Hunter-Stiebel has made such top-level decorative arts exhibitions her specialty -- including "Stroganoff: The Palace & Collections of a Russian Noble Family" and "Matières de Rêves: Stuff of Dreams from the Paris Musée des Arts Décoratifs." In this she has had the support of Portland Art Museum director John Buchanan, who recently departed to head the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (leading to speculation that he may recruit Hunter-Stiebel for his staff).

The Hesse family holdings have been in the public eye since 1779, the year Landgraf Friedrich II built the Fridericianum in Kassel as the first freestanding museum in Europe devoted to a princely collection. Since the 1970s, of course, the Fridericianum has been home to Documenta, the prestigious international exhibition of contemporary art that is assembled every five years. Currently, some of the familyís treasures are housed in two museums in Darmstadt sharing a park with the Hessisches Landesmuseum, founded in 1820 by Ludwig I as a showcase for both art and natural science. Today, this institution is the most important repository of the work of Joseph Beuys.

These days, the reigning queens of England and Denmark are the current Landgrafís cousins. King Victor Emmanuel of Italyís daughter was his mother. In the past, Princess Alice, a daughter of Queen Victoria, married Grand Duke Ludwig IV of the House of Hesse-Darmstadt; and three Tsars and one Grand Duke of Russia took as their brides princesses of the same line. The PAM catalogue notes, "the ambitious Hessian Queen Louise of Denmark succeeded in marrying her children into the royal houses of England, Russia, Sweden and Greece, as well as the house of Hanover and the former royal house of France. . . [She] could be called ĎEuropeís mother-in-law.í"

The Hesse family history isnít altogether "noble," however. During the Nazi era, Philipp of Hesse actively collaborated with the Nazi regime -- he bought works for Hitlerís planned Führermuseum in Linz -- and after the war was tried and convicted as a Nazi "fellow traveler." After the de-nazification of Philipp and his two surviving brothers, the familyís castles and agricultural estates were returned to them. Philipp died in 1980.

In any case, the exhibition is top heavy in the decorative arts, Hunter-Stiebelís specialty. One astonishing item is a 22-foot-long gilded bronze "surtout de table" (a banquet centerpiece, often with branching arms holding condiment dishes, introduced in the 18th century), designed in 1815-20 for Elector Wilhelm I of Hesse by Karl Friedrich Schinkel, the Neo-classical architect responsible for some of the greatest buildings in Berlin. The elaborate candlesticks, footed dishes, graceful female figurines, winged goddesses, mythological beasts, luscious grape vine clusters and decorative designs could not be more enchanting. When experienced in tandem with the flicking lights of tapers and the colors of the bounty of the table on which this astonishing object sat, this must have been the height of sumptuous dining. Rate that for a Zagat guide.

Though they would have been fascinated by this surtout de table, the children of the house probably had to take their meals elsewhere. Donít feel too badly for them! "Hesse: A Princely German Collection" features furniture from the Playhouse of Princess Elisabeth, designed in 1902 when the girl was seven years old by Josef Maria Olbrich, the acclaimed German architect associated with the artistís colony in Darmstadt. Itís his only work of architecture that hasnít been altered or destroyed. When you see this lovely cottage in person, you understand one of the myriad ways kids of exceptional means got to learn how to be grown-up while they were young. Unfortunately, Princess Elisabeth succumbed to typhoid when she was eight.

A lot of the art works and decorative objects in the show at the PAM are the sort of paintings, watercolors, prints, place settings and furniture you find in the period rooms rather than the Old Master galleries of major museums. Then again, much of whatís on display is the sort of stuff royal families use every day. They sit on chairs like these, dine off dishes like these, tell time from clocks like these. This is how the other half lives.

Still, the Gala Berlin Coach of Landgraf Ludwig VIII of Hesse-Darmstat, ca. 1750, which is 18 feet long, 19 feet high and 7 feet wide, without horses or footmen, is something which would have been used for special occasions (special here, too: other American art museums have tried to bring carriages to the New World for temporary exhibitions but have found the cost of shipping prohibitive). This lovely two-seater is also one of the few examples of this astonishing craft that has survived myriad wars and revolutions. It was restored for the exhibition.

The star of this show is The Madonna with Basel Mayor Jakob Meyer and his Family (1525-26 and 1528) painted by Hans Holbein the Younger. If you were asked to name the greatest paintings on view this very minute throughout the USA, the list probably would include masterpieces by Titian, van der Weyden, Roger Campin, Vermeer, Rembrandt, Andrea del Castagno, Duccio, Seurat, Cezanne, Gauguin, and Matisse -- as well as this riveting oil on panel by Holbein. As the saying goes, itís worth the price of admission. Actually, itís for sale. Itís just that once you buy it, you canít bring it home unless you live in Germany.

You hardly need to know anything about the histories of art, religion or Switzerland to come under the spell of this eloquent painting. Sure, itís interesting to recognize that Holbein, not yet court artist to Henry the VIII of England, depicted Mary, Queen of Heaven, the Christ child and his young cousin, John the Baptist, being adored by the former mayor of Basel, his late and current wives (the bonneted women) and his betrothed daughter. But the richness of the colors, the clarity of the skin tones, the beauty of the scalloped niche, the intricate, rumpled rug, the tailoring of the folds and creases of the garments, the contrast between the devout figures in their Sunday best and the gesturing, unclothed children with a tender Madonna all speak volumes without your consulting a text -- or wall captions, for that matter.

This magnificent blend of the German Gothic and Italian Renaissance styles, the secular and the religious, a Catholic subject created during the spread of the Protestant faith, a mayor democratically elected at a time when royals ruled Europe, masterfully goes straight to your heart and soul. Itís a good reason to go straight to Portland Art Museum.

PHYLLIS TUCHMAN publishes regularly in the Smithsonian, Town & Country and other journals.