23 February 2015

Rubens at the RA

Simply put by London’s Royal Academy*, the intention of Rubens and His Legacy Van Dyck to Cézanne is to “bring together masterpieces produced during his lifetime, as well as major works by great artists who were influenced by him in the generations that followed” and to do so “through the lens of six themes: power, lust, compassion, elegance, poetry and violence”.

 The show starts with Poetry as landscape and makes a good case for Rubens (1577-1640) as a master for Constable (possibly fresh in visitors’ minds from the V&A), Turner (early, not late as recently at Tate Britain) and Gainsborough; as an example, Rubens’ Landscape with a Rainbow (c 1630, below top) and Constable’s Cottage at East Bergholt (c1833, below lower):

And under the same theme, Rubens’ The Garden of Love (c1635, below top) has its successors, for example Watteau’s Pleasures of the Ball (1715-17, below lower). Given its size, the Rubens is a remarkable loan from the Prado, impressive in colour and composition, but even an admirer of the baroque might wonder about the number of putti.

The Elegance theme is an exploration of Rubens’ portraiture - Portrait of Maria Grimaldi and Dwarf (c1607, below left) - particularly in Genoa where Anthony van Dyck - A Genoese Noblewoman and Her Son (c1626, below right) - would follow him from Antwerp. Reynolds, Lawrence and Gainsborough were the English examples of other portrait painters in sway to Rubens.

Power reflects aspects of Rubens’ access as a diplomat to European monarchy. The RA has provided an informative close-up visual display of his ceiling for the Banqueting House in Whitehall. I’ve only been able to study The Apotheosis of James I (1635 below) previously at a distance - an enjoyable break from the death by PowerPoint going on below. Rubens’ masterpiece was a major influence on Thornhill’s Painted Hall at Greenwich Hospital completed nearly a century later.

Compassion covers the religious works which Rubens’ studio produced in quantity. His St Cecilia (1620, below top) was donated to the Vienna Akademie in 1821, becoming the model for an allegory of music by 23-year old Gustav Klimt (1885, below lower) and given the same name.

This is followed contrastingly by Violence with its striking Tiger, Lion and Leopard Hunt from Rennes (1616, below and in the poster above), inspiring to Delacroix and others:

The show ends with Lust, the label for Rubens’ mythological nudes which reveal his ability to capture figure movement and skin hue, for example Pan and Syrinx (1617 below):

There are numerous works by painters following Rubens’ example – Daumier, Cezanne, Renoir - an examination developed further by La Pelegrina, an accompanying selection by Jenny Saville of “paint made flesh” by painters who, she feels, connect with Rubens, including Picasso, Freud, Bacon, Auerbach, Sarah Lucas and Saville herself.

Rubens and His Legacy continues at the RA until 10 April. Although there are some of Rubens’ masterpieces on show, the ratio of his works to those by his followers, some rather dull, is nearing the acceptable minimum.

* From Royal Academy What’s On Spring 2015

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