An Artist and Her Adopted Home
Gabriela von Habsburg’s Georgian Story
In the center of Tbilisi is one of the most visible artworks in Georgia, the soaring “Monument to the Three Powers in the State” unveiled in 2009. Nine meters tall and eight meters in diameter, it stands like a beacon on the grounds of the presidential palace in Tbilisi, on a hill overlooking the city’s old town.
It represents many aspects of artist Gabriela von Habsburg’s relationship with sculpture and Georgia: a monumental stainless steel sculpture, commissioned by the state to represent a new era. It consists of a solid, sharp triangle, a halfcircle outline and a solid semi-circle interlocked in a dynamic, almost precarious way, and which rotate on a circular disc set into the ground. The shapes represent the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government; up close is the best place to explore the tensions between them, their relationships shifting depending on the viewer’s vantage point. It is symbolic of the ever-changing balance of power within and between governmental systems.
The Georgian state commissioned the monument in its drive for ground-breaking tastes in art and architecture. When von Habsburg’s sculpture arrived in pieces in 2009, ready to be assembled, the government faced serious challenges. The country was still recovering from the disastrous war with Russia the year before, and protesters were present outside the palace. There was initial surprise, the artist recalls, when she appeared to install the work. But then the sculpture became a source of conversation, she says, a bridge between different viewpoints. “The protesters would ask what it represents — I left the three powers to their own interpretation,” she explains. Public art can have intriguing effects. “Once you bring the art in front of the people,” says von Habsburg, “all of a sudden they adopt it — it’s theirs.”
The same year von Habsburg was appointed as Georgia’s ambassador to Germany. In some ways, becoming a public representative of her adopted country was an expansion of her role as the creator of visible, and meaningful works of public art: “When you do art in public places, people get involved,” she says. “And you need to defend what you’re doing and be convincing.”
The sculpture, and “the Rose Memorial”, another large-scale work in Tbilisi, both serve as monuments to the work, artistic aesthetic, and story of its creator, the sculptor Gabriela von Habsburg, and her 20-year relationship with Georgia. This relationship is the focus of “Tabula Rasa,” an exhibition of her stainless steel sculptures taking place from 4 May to 29 June in the courtyard of the Georgian National Museum.
But first, some background. Born in Luxembourg, Gabriela von Habsburg is the grand-daughter of the last Emperor of Austria, but grew up in exile in Germany. While establishing her career as a sculptor, she traveled to Georgia to take part in an exhibition, and fell in love with the country. It was the beginnings of a relationship that led to her becoming an arts professor in Georgia, and then, from 2009-2013, its ambassador to the country of her childhood.
We meet in her studio, a cozy house in a residential district just south of Munich. Repurposed years ago, it now contains spaces for display, and workrooms dedicated to the heavy machinery required to press, weld, and shape the stainless steel in which she typically works. Here is where she creates small and medium-scale sculptures. Works that are small enough to carry are arranged on shelves in a bright windowed room; their forms interweaving as they glint in the sunlight. Larger works — 1.5 meters and up — dot the yard outside. Despite spending longer periods in Georgia since her first visit in 1999, von Habsburg still produces her work in Bavaria, where she grew up. Even the large-scale monuments and public sculptures seen throughout Tbilisi and in other locations are made nearby in consultation with a local structural engineer.
Her solo sculptures have typically been meters high, weighing in tons, the stainless steel rendered into reduced geometric forms such as half-circles, a triangle, line or sphere, in varying configurations. Only rarely (in the case of specific commissions) has she added a figurative element or color, usually a single red stripe. Viewed in terms of art history, her work connects to “constructivism” and its later offshoots, with the angles, shapes, and lines recalling the sculptures of Lazlo Maholy-Nagy or even the work of the painter Wassily Kandinsky.
Yet, despite the public nature of some of her work in Georgia and beyond, von Habsburg is at heart a formalist who decouples her work from theory or ideology. The artist seeks to establish a symbolic sculptural language mixing tension, balance and strength. It’s a dialect of shapes in space, and space around shapes, joined with a generosity in allowing the observer to explore how they interplay. “I like the challenge of saying what you need to say with the most reduced form and least gesture,” says von Habsburg, who is affable and inclusive. Much of her work is site-specific, all of it makes a spatial statement.1
Long tubes of stainless steel lie in the studio near an anvil. She recalls moving from her first material, wood, to steel, during her studies at the Munich Academy of Arts under professors Robert Jacobsen and Eduardo Paolozzi in the late 1970s and early 1980s.2 It was there that she first joined two pieces of stainless steel, an experience she describes as inspiring: “When you weld, you combine the material with itself. The idea of melting material together fascinated me, and opened up a completely new world.”
Von Habsburg dons gloves and protective eyewear to work materials into objects. “I always come back to steel! I love how it smells, how it feels,” she says, before machine-cutting a tube of steel to demonstrate. There’s an infectious joy and exhilaration about the way she works; art for art’s sake in the truest sense of the phrase.
At the same time, some of von Habsburg’s other public sculptures address reallife events, such as the “Rose Memorial” unveiled in 2007. In a public park in the center of Tblisi, sixty stones are arranged in irregular concentric circles around a cross in the ground rendered in concrete. Brought from across Georgia, the stones vary in size and color, creating a rainbow of muted shades. Each one has been sculpted into a different shape, with steps and surfaces on which passersby can sit, and they are etched in Georgian with the names of notable Georgian citizens. Covering a circular space nearly 20 meters in diameter, the stone circles form a stylized rose; laid here to pay homage to Georgia’s new found sense of freedom. It now performs multiple roles, as a political statement, a piece of public art and a simple place of rest.
In both form and material, the “Rose Memorial” differs from much of her other work. But its theme, and the way it was created, embody the artist’s intimate relationship with the country she adopted after first visiting in 1999. Georgia in turn adopted her, granting her citizenship eight years later. She created the “Rose Memorial” in collaboration with students from the Tbilisi State Academy of the Arts, spending nearly a year sourcing, cutting and shaping the stones. The memorial’s public placement and accessibility are also symbolic of her dual role as a diplomat, acting as a connection between her childhood home and the country where she believes Europe was born.
“This is where Europe truly starts,” says von Habsburg as she drives. We are exploring the artist’s favorite places in Tbilisi and the Georgian countryside. Through the windshield we see the Jvari Monastery, which dates to the sixth century and overlooks a stunning river junction and the rolling hills beyond. Every so often we catch a glimpse of the snowy Caucasus mountains in the distance. She is a font of information about her chosen home, talking about its climatic and geographical diversity, its early adoption of Christianity, and its ancient wine-making tradition.
She recalls how the country immediately captivated her when she first arrived 20 years ago. “After the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989–90, I wanted to go to all the places I couldn’t go before,” she explains. “I decided that whenever I’m invited to do a show, I’ll go.”3 Her art took her to Bulgaria, Estonia, and other countries in the eastern reaches of Europe. But Georgia was special. “The writing, the language, the hospitality — Georgians are absolute individuals,” she says.
In the years since, Von Habsburg’s connections to Georgia have grown into an intricate network. She has been a professor here since 2001, teaching Georgian art students first at the Tbilisi State Academy of the Arts and currently at the Free University’s Visual Arts, Architecture and Designs School. She maintains an apartment in the city, as well as a vineyard in the countryside. 4
Although her involvement in state affairs came later, she says she always had an innate interest. “There was a moment in which I was so fascinated with what was happening —when the people saw that something can change — that it attracted me tremendously to this place. I wanted to be part of this unique situation,” she explains.5
Curated by Irina Popiashvili, Dean of the Free University of Tbilisi’s arts program, the exhibition “Tabula Rasa” highlights von Habsburg’s artistic evolution since 1999, and her influence on Georgia and Georgian art. The exhibition explores new territory: the normally unused courtyard behind the National Museum of Georgia becomes a showcase for seven of von Habsburg’s medium-format sculptures, sized between 1.5 and 2.5 meters. They date from the early 1990s until 2018. The works carry intriguing titles like W 1000.1, Metamor, and Quwa, which the artist prefers to leave open to interpretation. Some incorporate perforated stainless steel curves or black steel; the later works are sparer, with more angular gestures in steel tubing.
Accompanying von Habsburg’s sculptures are the works of young Georgian artists Giorgi Geladze, Salome Chigilashvili, Liza Tsindeliani and Giorgi Vardiashvili. They respond to their mentor’s work with their own creations, including a readymade sculpture with a sound installation and a steel structure echoing the surrounding space of the museum, complementing von Habsburg’s approach. The pieces share an approach that comes from what Popiashvili calls a “clean slate.” Georgia provides them with a sense of freedom, allowing them to be experimental, liberated from the sometimes constricting theoretical and historical tropes of the contemporary art-world outside.
Twenty years ago, Georgia represented a blank slate or a new frontier for von Habsburg as well. So how has Georgia shaped her and her work? “I only see in retrospect what has influenced me,” she says, speaking slowly and thoughtfully. “Georgia has infiltrated my work,” she says. “It’s lighter, airier.”
Georgia’s arts scene is still a frontier of sorts. But things are changing fast, with new contemporary art galleries opening throughout the city, and a burgeoning art fair. Nonetheless, von Habsburg’s sculptures have become part of the country’s artistic landscape. At the “Rose Memorial,” now 12 years old, moss has grown on the stones, and grass has sprouted around the central cross. People come to sit there, and have etched new names. This evidence of time passing makes the monument all the more beautiful, she says.
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.”6 “I feel loyalty to the European soul of Georgia,” she says. “I chose it without knowing that I chose it.”