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 young woman personifying Truth while “Luther lies lamenting among his books and Calvin still tries to defend his doctrine.”
Maybe he felt like the visitor to an opera who no longer cares if the libretto is unintelligible and the heroine fat so long as the music envelops him. The images and themes that may have seemed so alien at first had been transfigured by Rubens into a poetic idiom to which anyone could respond without caring for the commentaries of the learned and the controversies of the connoisseurs. That pictorial charade of the first exhibit had turned into its opposite in The Garden of Love from the Prado, where the power of Venus and her cupids is glorified in a lyrical vision of unfailing appeal. We would understand its message even if Rubens in his fifties had not written to a friend about his marriage to the young Hélène Fourment: “I have not found that I am as yet suited to celibate abstinence, and just as I earlier mortified my flesh I am now gratefully enjoying permitted pleasures.”
In penning this intimate confession he switched from Italian into Latin, which surely came as naturally to him in writing as did the use of ancient mythology in his compositions. In that pictorial praise of married bliss the master represented himself leading his wife with great tenderness into the presence of the Goddess of Love, a cupid helping him by pushing her from behind. Loving couples and cupids abound, and no Minerva descends to spoil their permitted joys. There is no break between this world of enchantment and the real world. Three of the studies in black and red chalk Rubens made from models for this most personal of his creations were shown at the exhibition, and if these did not complete the conquest, the famous portrait drawing of his children from the Vienna Albertina must have revived the spirits even of the most tired visitor.
In attributing this response to the average tourist I am not only relying on personal observation. There is solid evidence for the selectivity of the public taste in this matter. London can boast of housing the only large-scale decorative work by Rubens which is still in its original place and setting—the ceiling of Banqueting Hall, that magnificent palace by Inigo Jones, with its allegorical paintings in praise of James I. There are no jostling lines of tourists waiting to be admitted, in fact one wonders who among the millions of foreigners who watch the Changing of the Guard, right opposite, have any wish to see this historic place. So unless we want to attribute the attendance at the Antwerp exhibition simply to the power of publicity and the attractions of the Rubens menu we must ascribe it to the presence in this and other exhibitions—including one in London itself—of works more intimate and accessible than the grand machines of official art on which Rubens was so frequently engaged. His oeuvre, so vast in scale, so varied in themes and moods, offers something to everyone, but few can grasp and appreciate it in its entirety.
From this point of view 1977, despite its many exhibitions, lectures, and articles, did not yet prove the year to take stock. The monumental enterprise which aims to do this is still far from completion; I am referring to the Corpus Rubenianum, a series of twenty-six monographs on Rubens’s oeuvre published in Antwerp and based on the material collected throughout his life by the late Ludwig Burchard. It is characteristic, however, that even this international enterprise will leave the reader with the task of arriving at a conspectus, for the various specialists have been assigned different themes and different slices of the Corpus as if no living scholar could be expected to cover it all.
The sumptuous volume by Frans Baudouin, the curator of the Rubens House in Antwerp, simply called P.P. Rubens, may therefore be regarded as something of a stopgap. Its introduction and fifteen chapters (of which seven have been previously published as articles) are designed to spotlight various aspects of the master’s work and career, notably his first two decades in Antwerp and the setting of his life. The essays on “Rubens the Diplomat” and “War and Peace in Rubens’s Work” cover fairly well trodden ground, but that on “Rubens and His Social and Cultural Background” offers a useful counter to the stereotype of Rubens as a servant of the mighty. Many of the patrons who commissioned the works in Antwerp that established his fame were members of the middle class, not very different in social status from Rembrandt’s early patrons. It was only later that the Bourbons, Stuarts, and Hapsburgs took notice of Rubens and loaded him with those enormous commissions which often proved a burden. The chapter on “Rubens’s Personality” may not tell us much that is startling, but it conveniently assembles a number of precious testimonials which are quoted in full in the notes. In addition the book is worth having for the sake of its 276 illustrations including ninety-five color plates, to which I shall return.
The folio paperback of 108 reproductions compiled and with an introduction by Keith Roberts evidently aims at a more popular market, though as the author says in his introduction, “It is well known among publishers that books on Rubens do not easily sell.” Unfortunately it is even better known that introductions to picture books are rarely read, though in this case I prefer Roberts’s sensible and perceptive text to the pictures, of which sixty-four are in color. The selection tries to be fair to all aspects of the master’s output while still remembering the likely preferences of prospective buyers. It would be interesting to know how far such a volume overcame or created sales resistance to Rubens.
Except for exhibition catalogues—besides those of Antwerp and London, that of Cologne should at least be mentioned—the only contribution to Rubens studies of lasting importance to be published in his centenary is the longawaited book by the director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, Professor Michael Jaffé. It also deals with one aspect only, albeit one which is central to the understanding of Rubens’s art. Rubens and Italy is the fruit of many years of intense research. We learn from the preface that the author’s interest reaches back to the year 1950 when he embarked on a dissertation entitled “Rubens in Italy, 1600-1608.” These eight years which span the painter’s career from his twenty-third to his thirty-first year were indeed decisive for the formation of his style, so decisive that the author rightly felt that in his final treatment he could omit neither the effect of this experience on the master’s later development nor the impact which the art of Rubens had on the subsequent history of Italian Baroque painting.
The bibliography to the book lists no fewer than forty-six separate studies published by Jaffé between 1953 and 1972, and it is on these solid foundations that he has based his text, often incorporating not only his results but also his formulations. The outcome is a work which no art historian can afford to ignore, but which will inevitably present some difficulties to the nonspecialist who lacks the relevant knowledge of languages and of monuments. For though the book is generously supplied with 346 illustrations in black and white and sixteen color plates there are inevitably still many works mentioned or even described for which the conscientious reader would have to turn to a specialized library.
Even in such a library, however, the layman may be in danger of not seeing the wood for the trees, for the author takes it for granted that the wood is known to his readers. By the wood I mean the history of the classical idiom in European art in which Rubens plays such a dominant part. The range of this idiom, as Aby Warburg was the first to emphasize, extends from the calm dignity of ancient statuary to the wild frenzy of Bacchic revels and murderous battles. The assimilation of these pagan forms and contents starts, of course, with the Renaissance, and the prestige of works “in the ancient manner” secured the spread of this imagery from monumental decoration to such minor arts as majolica and metal work. In the years of Rubens’s apprenticeship these displays of contorted nudes were as fashionable in the courtly arts of the North as they were in Italy. Even so it must have been a revelation to Rubens, when, on taking up his appointment as the court painter of the Gonzagas in Mantua, he first set eyes on the great paganizing cycles by Giulio Romano in the Palazzo del Tè and the Ducal Residence.