The deep, loving gaze full of excellence. The light smile holding in her mouth. The magenta fan which she holds gently in her slender hands. And the black livery of grief. The posthumous portrait of Queen Elizabeth exhibited in the display, “The treasures of the Hungarian Kingdom: The House of Habsburg and the aristocrat society” held in the National Palace Museum of Korea attracted me with these images. She was a lucky lady who was born as the princess of the German Republic of Bayern and married to Franz Joseph the First from the House of Habsburg. But she was also a woman who lived a very tragic life, since her son, Crown Prince Rudolf ended his life by committing suicide, and she herself was assassinated by an anarchist in 1898. Her life seems fancy on the outside, while it is simultaneously a pitiful example which clearly shows the sad part of the modern European upper class society and the honor and disgrace of a woman who used to live within it. When we talk about the upper class society of Europe, we usually have an image of England where the royal families and the system of aristocracy still exist, but actually most of the European countries before the 20th century possessed the system of monarchy or aristocracy, which is composed of small amount of powerful ruling families. Especially the House of Habsburg was one of the representative powers which dominated the hegemony of the Central Europe producing the emperors of the Holy Roman Empire from generation to generation. Hungary was also under its control in the 17th century, and when it comes to the 20th century, it continues to cooperate and be in conflict with the House of Habsburg until it obtained independence. In the process, the nobles who formed the ruling party of Hungary gradually accommodated the culture of the Habsburgs and proudly compared shoulders with those from the Western Europe. Furthermore, seen from the visual and cultural perspective, the noble society of modern Hungary preserved its own cultural uniqueness, but at the same time created and kept delicate and classy elegance which is never inferior to that of France and England, which led the upper class culture of Europe. The remains displayed in this exhibition, which were strictly selected among the collections of the National Museum of Hungary, can never be better to calmly understand and enjoy the lives of the Hungarian nobles regarding its variety and high quality. Not only the paintings and prints which reflect the social situation of that time, but also garments like fancy dresses and suits, various dinnerware made of expensive gold or silver, weapons decorated with rarely found jewels, rosaries and feretories which shows pious religious lives enchant us by signifying the lives of modern Hungarian nobles in three dimensions.
Nowadays, the Korean society is suffering from fever due to the luxury goods from Europe. It is said that because of the unusual interest and ostentatious tendencies of Koreans, the manufacturers in Europe practice bold business strategies only in Korea, and they are still making a lot of money. Nevertheless, the true luxury goods that were used by the royal families and nobles are not located in department stores or outlets. They are quietly waiting for us in Seoul all through the winter.
*Professor Chun Dong-ho received a master’s degree from University of Essex and has a Ph.D. degree from Manchester University. He is the associate professor of History of Arts in Ewha.