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A review by Pauline Flannery for EXTRA! EXTRA!





Rubens and His Legacy: Van Dyck to Cezanne


The Garden of Love by Rubens (c. 1633)

Photograph: Museo Nacional del Prado. Madrid


Royal Academy of Arts


24 January – 10 April 2015

Rubens and his Legacy, perhaps should read - legacy and Rubens. Multi-themed, the RA’s latest exhibition is about the artists inspired, directly or indirectly, by him. So if you are looking for Rubens ‘the catalogue,’ you won’t find it here. The first two rooms take you pleasantly off-guard. Where are the examples of ‘Rubenesque’ figures writ large over wall and canvas? Gorgeous landscapes by Constable, Turner and Gainsborough are set against Rubens’ prototypes ‘Evening Landscape and Timber Wagon,’ 1630 – 1640, and ‘A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning,’ 1636c.  


 Evening Landscape with Timber Wagon, 1630-40.

 Photograph: Museum Boijmans van Beuningen


Connections in composition, colour scheme and recreations of natural phenomena are strikingly familiar. Similar links to Cezanne and Willem de Kooning – ‘flesh was the reason that oil paint was invented’ - convey media from charcoal sketches to framed oils, less so. The most arresting is a series of black chalk, pen and brown ink drawings by Watteau leading to ‘Le Suprise,’ 1718, which in simplicity and detail, complements Ruben’s ‘Pan and Syrinx,’ 1617.

By Room 3, Elegance, there is one Rubens’ picture, ‘Marie Grimaldi and the Dwarf,’ 1606. The painting’s qualities are extraordinary: its elongated shape, the subjects’ incongruity and the female’s translucent skin tone. Shafts of arrow-light and heads share the same horizontal plane, in an allegory of beauty and the beast.


Portrait of Maria Grimaldi and Dwarf, c.1607.

Photograph © National Trust Images/ Derrick E. Witty

The idea crops up again in ‘Pan and Syrinx’. The muscle definition captures a moment of transition, preparation for the sinews and flesh of ‘Tiger, Lion, Leopard Hunt,’ 1617, with its dynamic diagonal movement and anatomical detail.

Elisabeth Louise Vigee-Lebrun’s, ‘Self Portrait in a Straw Hat,’ 1782, is exquisite. Her beautiful direct gaze and flowered hat trim, is inspired by Ruben’s picture of Helen Fourment, his second wife and model. Vigee-Lebrun envelopes you. Contrast in size with Rubens’ monumental ‘The Garden of Love,’ c. 1633. At first glance it is a curious fourth wall experience. Look closer and two or three of the lovers, off-handily look at you, judging them. The panoramic concept with candid mix of urban and pastoral makes for a striking dynamism. This is Rubens the story-teller the ‘Homer of painting.’

'The Garden of Love' is the prototype for Watteau’s fetes galantes. Sir James Thornhill’s dramatic depictions of the saints in St Paul’s Cathedral inspired William Hogarth. And so it goes on. This connection between religion, power and Art is palpable throughout history. Rubens was commissioned by monarchs, the European aristocracy and could speak several languages. So where are the Rubens?

The descent of man, uncovers Delacroix’s ‘Sketch for Crucifixion,’ 1846. Rubens’ ‘Christ on the Straw,’ 1617-18, is the touchstone. Yet the talismanic ‘Descent from the Cross’ is in Antwerp Cathedral. It’s hard not to be moved by Wiertz’s ‘The Greeks and the Trojans Fighting Over the Body of Patroclus,’ 1837, with its shields and spears like the carapace and proboscis of some insect-like colossus. Or Ruben’s sketch for ‘The Rape of the Daughters,’ 1618, a combination of lust and violence, captured in the vehemence and strength of the brushstroke or the amplitude of the red drape in ‘Venus Frigida’, 1614, echoed in Antony Van Dyck’s, ‘Jupiter and Antiope,’ 1620. But the experience is frustrating.  

Rubens painted portraits, landscapes, rural idylls, peasants dancing and erotic pastorals: ‘a painter of sensation and sensuality.’ Yet his out-put is not represented here. In all his diversity he seems to be a painter about survival, whether through lusty carnivals, patronage or reverence to the natural world. Le Peregrina, ‘a personal and contemporary response to Rubens and His Legacy’, curated by Jenny Saville, ‘sits alongside’ Rubens and His Legacy. It embraces isolation and after rooms of spot-the-Ruben, feels disjointed. I like the spatial statement of Sarah Lucas’ Sculpture B ‘2 Fried Eggs and a Kebab,’ 1992, but it’s a bitter, searing statement in contrast to the palliative, corporeality of Rubens.

Bring on the Rubens…The legacy continues....

Rubens and His legacy: Van Dyck to Cezanne
Royal Academy of Arts
Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1J 0BD
Sponsored by BNY Mellon, partner of the Royal Academy of Arts
10am – 6pm daily (last admission 5.30pm)
Friday and Saturdays until 10pm (last admission 9.30pm)
Tickets £16.50 full price; concessions available; children under 16 go free and Friends of the RA go free

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