Rubens and his legacy: van Dyck to Cézanne

Royal Academy, London, until 10 April 2015


This exhibition is rather like Rubens’ painting itself: more show than substance. Its ambition to demonstrate the widespread and lasting influence of Rubens is not a case that takes much proving: artists from van Dyck and Watteau to Delacroix and van Gogh all openly expressed their admiration for him. But its means of making the point are pretty thin.

Rubens is one of the great masters of paint in his or any other age: a genius at dramatic imagination, complex composition, handling of textures, rendering of human flesh, and naked sensuous pleasure. His moods range from bucolic scenes of pastoral wellbeing to violent hunting scenes, in which wild animals frequently get the better of the hunter. The peaceful landscapes are poignant images in a society ravaged by the Thirty Years’ War. The scenes of violence are more comic theatre than visceral horror. Meanwhile, he moves effortlessly from egregious nonsensical flattery, in The apotheosis of James I and the cycle on the life of Marie de Medici, to the genteel celebration of courtly love in The Garden of Love, which had such an effect on rococo painting a century later.

And then there are the unclad, fleshy women who have given us the term ‘Rubensian’, disporting themselves obligingly in all their unashamed carnality. Before the days of the camera, pornography was in the hands of artists, and Rubens played his part.

In Rubensian titles the word ‘rape’ technically is used in its older sense of ‘snatching away’. The woman in question is shown being carried off by a godlike figure – but the outcome is the same as in the modern usage. Many writers have sought to defend these paintings – in which the woman typically offers little resistance – as playful images of consenting sexual abandon. To our contemporary sensibility, however, they appear much more sinister and oppressive. In The hermit and the sleeping Angelica the said hermit has abducted and drugged Angelica, so that he can now gaze on her uncovered form. You have to work very hard on admiring Rubens’ masterful technique and aesthetic brilliance to avoid the obvious reflection that you are being asked to collude in a criminal act.

Part-way round the exhibition I began asking myself, ‘What is the spirit of these paintings? What are their values?’ Rubens was the exemplary artist of the Counter-Reformation, which sought to use art to overwhelm the senses, and thus overawe the faithful through appeal to the emotions. But comparing him to his near contemporary Rembrandt, recently celebrated at the National Gallery, I was struck by the lack of inner reflection or moral conviction in this exhibition. Rubens comes over as an artist for hire. In all his technical and imaginative brilliance, he – and his workshop – would knock you out a painting to show what you want, in the way you want.

The question of Rubens’ legacy is interesting, because different artists can take quite different influences away with them. In the 20th century Cubism invented a language which was adapted for such diverse aims as those of the Futurists, Mondrian, and Paul Klee. So from Rubens, Watteau derived his love of the fête galante; Delacroix developed his dramatic use of colour in scenes of violence; and Cézanne created his own painterly images of fleshy women being overpowered and carried off.

However, the exhibition’s claim to display these influences falls down in two ways. Firstly, the curators appear to have been unsuccessful in borrowing a number of key works. Much is made, for instance, of the influence of Rubens’ portrait of his wife in Le chapeau de paille. We are shown paintings, such as the self-portrait by Vigée-Lebrun, which are derived from it. But it only slowly dawns on the visitor, as they fruitlessly scour the room to make the comparison, that the celebrated original is simply not there. It is still in the National Gallery. The fall of the damned, to which the curators attribute great significance, is represented only by a sheet of chalk drawings of some of the figures. The painting itself is in Munich.
Secondly, even when the original work by Rubens is shown alongside the work supposedly influenced by it, the blurb simply announces that the one shows the influence of the other, without venturing into specific detail by which the sceptical visitor might be convinced.

Altogether rather thin fare for an expensive ticket.

[This review was first published in Third Way magazine, March 2015]

© 2015