Rubens – His Legacy – Royal Academy
The idea behind this exhibition is to explore and illustrate the influence of the 17th century Flemish painter, Peter Paul Rubens, on later painters and, on the whole, the Royal Academy has pulled off it off. What it does mean is that they can hold an exhibition where less than a quarter of the exhibits are by the man whose name is on the tin, Clever, eh?
For me the star of the show was Rubens’ blockbuster of a painting, Tiger, Lion and Leopard Hunt, of 1617. This is a riot of colour, movement and supreme draughtsmanship using every inch of the large canvas and plunges the viewer right into the maelstrom of life and death struggles between animal and man. It is stunning today and its effect must have been overwhelming at the time it was produced.
Delacroix’s Lion Hunt stands comparison with Rubens but clearly is derivative and, to my mind, this is the room where the exhibition’s thesis has some validity. Victorian favourite Edward Landseer’s variation on a theme is so lifeless and anodyne by comparison that his status as a second-rate artist of cloying sentimentality is all but confirmed.
The second star is Rubens’ astonishing The Garden of Love (1633), bursting with bawdy vitality and amply proportioned – dare I say Rubenesque – women. The exhibition claims that this one work the genre of sentimental, bucolic idylls known as Fetes Gallantes. Surrounding this masterpiece are works by 18th century painters such as Watteau and Lancret which, to this viewer, are a pale imitation of the prototype.
Much of Rubens’ religious painting is part and parcel of the fabric of the churches in Flanders and elsewhere – the same goes for his magnificent ceiling decorations in Whitehall – he was commissioned to decorate. To represent this side of the erstwhile Protestant but fervent proselytiser of the Counter Reformation we have the beautiful triptych of Christ on the Straw. But we are left to judge Rubens’ impact on the devotional work of the likes of Rembrandt and Gainsborough from a number of his sketches and etchings.
The exhibition’s thesis gets off to a rocky start in the first (of eight) rooms – the exhibition is arranged thematically exploring poetry through natural landscapes, The Garden of Love, elegance, power, compassion, violence and lust – which shows Rubens as a landscape painter. We are asked to believe that his composition, his use of light and subject matter was highly influential on later artists such as Turner and Constable, both of whom are represented. There may be some reference to Rubens there but I would have thought that representation of light and composition was part and parcel of producing a top class landscape, not a slavish imitation of the Flemish master.
The eighth room, an attempt to show Rubens’ influence on modern artists from Picasso and beyond is such a non sequitur that it violently and adversely affects one impression of the exhibition as a whole.
What the exhibition cheerfully ignores is that Rubens himself didn’t emerge from splendid isolation. He was heavily influenced by the likes of Titian and Michelangelo with a pinch of the gritty realism from Caravaggio. Of course, Rubens was a great master and highly influential but he was part of the development of Western art not the originator. Despite not being convinced by the overall thesis behind the exhibition there is too much stunning art on display to quibble too much.