P.P.Rubens: Paintings, Oilsketches, Drawings June 29-September 30, 1977
Rubens and Italy
Rubens, Drawings and Sketches in the British Museum, 1977 Publications Limited
Arriving at the Antwerp railway station last September, during the fourth centenary of the birth of Rubens, the visitor was greeted by a large display with the words RUBENS’S HOME TOWN WELCOMES YOU. If he turned to a restaurant recommended by the tourist agency he was offered a “Rubens Menu,” with “Rubens steak” and a Flemish dish named “Helena” for this occasion (after the master’s second wife Hélène Fourment). Making one’s way to the Royal Museum of Fine Arts where the Rubens exhibition occupied the ground floor, one found the entrance blocked by two sheer endless lines winding around the building, one reserved for organized tours and school parties, the other for individual visitors. Reaching the gates after an hour or so, and having paid one’s fee, one discovered, of course, that the waiting was not yet over. Jostling crowds enlivened by boisterous schoolchildren had also formed in front of every individual painting, particularly in the first rooms.
One could not help wondering what most of these people thought when they managed to catch sight of the first exhibit, a large panel thronged with halfnaked bodies. In the center a man with a bare trunk is seen lying on the ground and trying to raise himself from a bulging pillow. His head is being guided by a naked boy, who sprawls on his body, toward a well-aimed jet of milk which a portly woman squeezes from her breast into his mouth, while another female, in armor, interposes her hand. Only initiates can have found it obvious that we have here a rendering of the familiar theme of the struggle for the soul of man between Venus and Minerva, Pleasure and Virtue, further orchestrated by a grinning figure of Bacchus and that of Father Time, not to mention others.
Most visitors could be forgiven if they were relieved to discover in the catalogue that this unprepossessing painting did not bear the signature of Rubens but the initials of his last teacher, Otto van Veen. It was placed at the beginning of the show because, as we read, “the style of the painting is more plastic than is usual with him [van Veen] and we may suppose that the young Rubens had at least some part with it.”
The example would not be worth mentioning if it did not illustrate in somewhat grotesque magnification the obstacles which the average visitor must have encountered in his initial approach to the paintings of Rubens. Their message and symbolism must have struck him as remote, their forms heavy and unappealing, and the controversies about the degree of their authenticity bewildering. But being carried along in the crowd he must also have fallen under the spell of these extraordinary creations. He could appreciate the bravura of the small oil sketches such as those for the series of tapestries celebrating the Triumph of the Eucharist without being put off by the information in the catalogue that old Father Time is here carrying a …