Exhibitions: Rubens and His Legacy: Van Dyck to Cézanne

By Gayford, Martin | The Spectator, January 31, 2015 | Go to article overview

Exhibitions: Rubens and His Legacy: Van Dyck to Cézanne


Gayford, Martin, The Spectator


Rubens and His Legacy: Van Dyck to Cézanne

Royal Academy, until 10 April

The main spring offering at the Royal Academy, Rubens and His Legacy: Van Dyck to Cézanne , teaches two useful lessons. One -- not much of a surprise -- is that Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) was a protean giant of a painter, expending sufficient artistic invention and energy to power other artists for centuries to come. The other conclusion is how hard compare-and-contrast exhibitions of this kind are to pull off.

The basic idea -- that Rubens was a towering figure in European culture -- is plainly valid (the best riposte to the tired observation that there are so few famous Belgians is that there are plenty of celebrated Flemings, among whom Rubens is pre-eminent). Demonstrating this in visual terms, however, involves piling up umpteen examples of later artists influenced by the great man. Most of these fail to come up to the grand original, some miserably.

Furthermore, the displays are arranged thematically, under such headings as 'Lust' -- or nudes and mythological subjects -- and 'Compassion', meaning Rubens's religious works. The recent Rembrandt: The Late Works at the National Gallery was organised along similar lines. There, however, the fact that the themes made little visual sense on the walls scarcely mattered since the basic ingredients -- one great Rembrandt masterpiece after another -- were overpowering. At the RA, however, though there are some marvellous works by Rubens, these are rationed out -- sometimes only a few per room -- and surrounded by pictures by later and often lesser painters.

So it is almost tempting to conclude that this is one of those projects that work better as a book than an exhibition. Almost, but not quite: one gallery is so magnificent as to be worth the price of admission in itself. It contains 'The Garden of Love' (1635), one of Rubens's most compelling masterpieces, painted for his own satisfaction, a picture so rich in subject matter -- courtship, beauty, fertility, the abundant pleasures of life -- and so brilliant in painterly execution that you could stand in front of it for hours.

This is surrounded by Rubens's preparatory drawings and works by Watteau, proving what fertile effect 'The Garden of Love' had on the art of the future. Here at least the legacy seems worthy of Rubens. An entire genre -- the 18th-century French fête galante -- visibly evolved from a single idea of the great man's.

Elsewhere, it's a patchy and sometimes lowering experience. The third room, for example, is assigned to 'Elegance', which means portraiture. It contains a show-stopper of a Rubens from Kingston Lacy, 'Maria Grimaldi and Dwarf' (c .1606), an almost surreal exercise: the attendant's huge head is at least twice the size of the noblewoman's neat little face, which is framed in a ruff the size of a bicycle wheel. …

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