`IN the late twentieth century," writes Peter Sutton, curator
of the "Age of Rubens" exhibition currently at the Museum of Fine
Arts in Boston, "Rubens and Flemish art, particularly for American
audiences, is an acquired taste."
The aim of the exhibition, and that of a sister show of Flemish
drawings of the same ilk that will open at the Cleveland Museum of
Art in January, is to challenge this perceived American distaste.
Mr. Sutton adds his conviction that what he calls "the generous
rhetorical language" of Flemish 17th-century Baroque painting, of
which Peter Paul Rubens is the unrivaled star, "can speak again
with a universal grandeur and eloquence." He argues for "making
this language intelligible once more."
Though it is true that exhibits of the Flemish Baroque have been
staged much more frequently in Europe than in the United States, it
is not only Americans who find Rubens difficult. For anyone who
looks to art for a quiet or restrained sincerity of statement, or
for a stillness suggesting that the control of emotion rather than
its indulgence is the better ideal, Rubensian exuberance and
unabashed relish of the sensuous is likely to seem unappealing.
But Rubens, though a Northern European artist, schooled himself
in Italian art at a time when a renewed fervor was taking hold of
the Roman Catholic church and the art it commissioned, a defiant
determination to face down the challenges and accusations of the
Protestant Reformation. Rubens, devoutly Catholic, became one of
the outstanding proponents of the Counter-Reformation art north of
Italy, especially in his paintings for ecclesiastical settings.
AFTER a period as a young artist in Italy, Rubens returned to
Antwerp (then in Flanders, today in Belgium) never to return to the
land of Mantegna, of Raphael and Michelangelo, of Titian, and of
Bernini and Caravaggio, artists whom he loved intensely. From
Titian in particular, he and other Baroque artists learned that a
strongly felt religious devotion might be communicated through a
vigorous, jubilant enjoyment of color and rich paint and an almost
musical movement between one part of a painting and another.
Titian's religious paintings are passionate and heartfelt. And they
are no less concerned with conveying human touch and feeling than
his "profane" works.
Rubens carried such concepts much further. Like Titian, he
clearly believed that religious paintings should be directed at the
feelings of viewers, so that they might vividly experience
something of the agony and ecstasy of the saints. It was images of
the saints and veneration of their relics that Protestants found
offensive and suspect. Counter-Reformation iconography sought to
reinstate all that, no holds barred. As Sutton writes, this art was
"devout and hieratic ... and proselytizing, art at the service of
organized religion and the state."
And if it is not simply today's Protestantism that continues to
find such art alien, Sutton suggests some other late 20th-century
reasons for such dislike. Our age, he writes, is "highly
secularized" and "egalitarian," and instead of the gestural and
public expression of shared faith and authority found in Baroque
paintings, we "treasure ... the private artistic statement, its
idiosyncrasy and traces of individual emotion."
It is true that such things are valued in art today. But Sutton,
for the sake of his argument, may be overlooking the public shared
character of much of today's art. An obvious aspect of this is the
degree to which modern art has turned away from work that might
adorn people's living rooms or studies. The museum - or the Mojave
Desert - has become our temple for modern art.
On the other hand, Rubens's own artistic output, though largely
for public church settings and royal palaces, also had its
persistently private side: He painted and drew himself
infrequently, but his wife - in particular his young second wife,
Hne Fourment - appears in his late work almost obsessively. …