VIENNA — An exhibition centered on three paintings, each by a different artist, could hardly be considered revolutionary at any major museum, such as the Belvedere in Vienna. Yet that is exactly what might be said of Raden Saleh, Osman Hamdi Bey, and Hakob Hovnatanyan: Art of the World in the Belvedere’s Collection

Outstanding as they are in their beauty and execution, it is not only because of their brilliance that the show represents a landmark for the Viennese institution. What makes this exhibition unique is that for the first time in three centuries the Belvedere is displaying creations by artists who are not Austrian and have no connection to Austrian art. 

Hakob Hovnatanyan (1806–1881) was an Armenian artist from modern-day Georgia whose career flourished in Persia (modern-day Iran); Raden Saleh (1811–1880) was from Indonesia; and Osman Hamdi Bey (1842–1910) hailed from the Ottoman Empire (specifically the region that is present-day Turkey). 

“Until a few years ago these three big canvases were the only objects from outside of Europe in our collection, transferred from the former Imperial collections,” says curator Markus Fellinger. “The paintings were hardly ever exhibited and remained for most of the time in our depot: only Raden Saleh’s painting has been shown since 2017 as a permanent loan at the Weltmuseum [in Vienna], after 148 years in depots.”

The paintings had been confined to the Belvedere’s august storage facilities because the museum was founded to showcase the Austrian state’s collection of Austrian paintings and sculptures and from 1800 onward, international paintings and sculptures primarily by German, French, and Italian artists, Fellinger says. 

Hakob Hovnatanyan, “Nāser ad-Din, the Shah of Persia” (c. 1860), oil on canvas, 236 x 149 cm  

“[I]t was just difficult to integrate their works into permanent or special exhibitions, which mostly dealt with Austrian art and its European context,” he says. “When I became a curator here in 2016 it was the same; I didn’t know anything about these artists and the paintings.”

Yet soon after, he began receiving loan requests for major international exhibitions and questions from colleagues from around the world about these artworks. This sparked Fellinger’s interest. The more he read about them and talked with experts, the more he thought a show should be held at the Belvedere to present these hidden treasures. 

“All three were great artists in their own rights, with very exciting biographies,” Fellinger continues. “They lived and worked in both the Asian and European cultural spheres, which makes them important figures from an art historian’s perspective, and all three are famous today for being the first ‘modern’ painters of their countries.”

For Fellinger, it was particularly interesting to see how the creative impulse that arose from the artists’ transcultural encounters was powerful enough to lay the foundations for the next generations of modern artists in Armenia, Georgia, Persia, Turkey, and Indonesia. 

Originally from Tbilisi, Hakob Hovnatanyan “created portraits of the affluent circle that surrounded him,” says Armenologist Jasmine Dum-Tragut in the exhibition catalogue. Situated at the crossroads of continents, Armenian culture had preserved its specific characteristics despite centuries of Iranian supremacy over a large part of Eastern Armenia.

Dum-Tragut suggests we may discern this struggle between East and West in subtle details of Hovnatanyan’s work. These traits, she says, “reflect not only Hakob Hovnatanyan’s own identity, but, more importantly, the Armenian identity: East and West coming together, yet neither of the two.”

The work shown at the Belvedere, “Nāser ad-Din, the Shah of Persia” (circa 1860), a gift from Hovnatanyan to Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph I in 1861, shows a young shah confidently posing next to a cannon — a symbol of military power — and holding a telescope, a visual metaphor for farsightedness. Wearing a splendid fur-lined brocade coat, the Persian emperor stands before a cloudy sky. 

Saleh Ben Jaggia Raden, “Tigers Fighting Over a Dead Javanese” (1870), oil on canvas, 190 x 261 cm

Raden Saleh, whose life was split between his native Java and Europe, became one of the pioneers of modernism in Indonesian art when the country was ruled by the Dutch. It was this clash that drove the Indonesian avant-garde to seek change in the country. “Colonialism in Indonesia gave rise to agents of modernism, of which Raden Saleh was one,” writes Bianca Mayasari Figl, a Southeast Asian art expert, in the catalogue. 

In his “Tigers Fighting Over a Dead Javanese” (1870) it is hard not to see symbols of the ravages of colonial powers in his country. Two tigers are locked in fierce fight over the corpse of a dark-skinned man in a forest clearing. The tigers stand out in their bright furs as the world around them is bathed in the dying light of the setting sun. 

“Meditation on the Qur’an,” which Hamdi Bey painted in 1902, eight years before his death, shows a Muslim scholar in a turban poring over a holy book. The scholar sits a room with peeling paint and a rug with faded colors, in what some see as testimony to backwardness and decline. Yet perceptions of Hamdi Bey’s art have been colored by political currents in his native Turkey, and earlier views of his paintings as “Orientalist” in spirit have now given way to more nuanced assessments by experts, including Mustafa Cezar and Edhem Eldem. 

“The exhibition was an opportunity to counteract the historic nationalist mandate of the Belvedere as a place to represent only Austrian art and culture,” Fellinger explains. “Today, in a globalized world, with migrants from all over the world living in Austria as Austrian citizens, this concept must be challenged.”

Raden Saleh, Osman Hamdi Bey, and Hakob Hovnatanyan: Art of the World in the Belvedere’s Collection continues at the Belvedere Museum (Upper Belvedere, Prinz Eugen-Straße 27, 1030 Vienna, Austria) through March 27. The exhibition was curated by Markus Fellinger.

Avedis Hadjian is a journalist and writer based in Venice. He is the author of Secret Nation: The Hidden Armenians of Turkey. His work as a correspondent has taken him to Eastern Europe, the former Soviet...