Magazine article The Spectator

Artist of Power and Poetry

Magazine article The Spectator

Artist of Power and Poetry

Article excerpt

A little while ago I wrote about painters who don't travel well. There are also old masters who are universally acknowledged to be great, but somehow don't seem to suit contemporary taste. Peter Paul Rubens is a case in point, and it is fairly easy to see why. His energy, confidence and extroversion are out of key with our own gloomy, grungy post-Romantic mood. Consequently, Rubens's painting tends to be too rich a dish for modern stomachs. The splendid opulence of his figures merely strikes us as comic (Rubenesque is a joke word for fat). All of which is a pity, for, as can be seen from a new exhibition at the National Gallery he truly was a great painter of irresistible power and poetry.

There is another difficulty in enjoying Rubens caused by the sheer scale of his success. He was an enormously influential artist - so much so that it becomes hard to grasp the originality of the original. From the huge banquet of Rubens's art, painter after painter later carved, so to speak, a slice. Thus Delacroix took his cue from one Rubens mood, Watteau from another quite different vein. Even in the sphere of landscape - a relatively small part of Rubens's output - one can see as one walks round this show, here the seeds of Gainsborough's view of nature, there the starting point of Constable.

Still, everybody has influences - and as is demonstrated in the first room of this show, Rubens himself derived the basic formulae for his landscape art from the Flemish tradition and particularly from the work of Pieter Brueghel the Elder.

Landscape as an independent form of art was essentially a northern invention. In the book which accompanies the exhibition Christopher Brown quotes a few sniffy remarks made by Michelangelo about the early Flemish landscape painters. They depicted, he complained, `stuff and masonry, the green grass of fields, the shadows of trees and rivers and bridges. . . and all this, though it pleases some persons, is done without reason or art, without symmetry or proportion, without skilful choice or boldness and, finally, without substance or vigour'. Rubens proved Buonarroti wrong about all of that, most of all about the vigour.

Brueghel had developed two distinct landscape types: the world landscape andthe forest view. The first depends on a high viewpoint - perhaps suggested to Brueghel by his journey over the Alps to Italy. From on high the viewer sees the earth spread out, disappearing into misty blue distances - a mountain-top panorama that automatically produces a sense of exhilaration and well-being. The forest painting, on the other hand, leads the eye past knotted tree-roots and giant trunks into shadowy leafy depths. It is grandly mysterious. To these basic ideas - and one or two he added himself -- Rubens added his own supercharged vitality and inventiveness.

There is a feeling of abundance and fertility about some of these pictures which brings to mind Bernard Berenson's phrase `life-enhancing'. A pile of cabbages on a wheelbarrow in the foreground of `Milkmaids with Cattle in a Landscape' (c. 1618), is charged with more energy than many another painter's human figures. That whole picture, apparently, with its placid, ample girls milking equally contented cows, and mediaeval church on a hill above, is intended as a paean of praise to the rich land of Brabant, safely Catholic and newly at peace after the long wars of religion. …

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