Learning to Speak the Language of Rubens

By Andreae, Christopher | The Christian Science Monitor, December 7, 1993 | Go to article overview

Learning to Speak the Language of Rubens


Andreae, Christopher, The Christian Science Monitor


`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. …

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