Arts & Books

Art review: The painter whose work never stops moving

Originality and energy: Tiger, Lion and Leopard Hunt by Rubens (1616)

Rubens and His Legacy: Van Dyck to Cézanne
Royal Academy, London, until April 10

In its scale and daring, Rubens and His Legacy: Van Dyck to Cézanne at the Royal Academy is of exceptional quality. It’s daring in its comparisons, which veer from Constable to YBA Sarah Lucas; from Joshua Reynolds to Warhol; and Delacroix to Bacon. Sir Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), the artist and diplomat, indeed seems to have wielded a statesman’s influence on art for 400 years. The show sparks questions about memory – whether memory was of importance for 17th-century painters; how painting formed a way of remembering Christian rituals; and, of course, how Rubens’s legacy is remembered in art today.

What an extraordinary character and personality Rubens was. He was the first artist to combine all the possibilities of education and historical knowledge with an instinct for diplomacy. This was quite apart from his extreme talent for drawing and the handling of oil paint, which comes to rival the greatest master of that touch, Titian.

Rubens combined his genius with the talent – rare in those days – of becoming an international celebrity. In the first instance, he could speak six to seven languages with ease and accuracy. These were Flemish, French, German, Italian and English, as well as Latin and probably Greek. He also had that prerequisite of the 17th century: an excellent memory. A remnant of the rote-learning, “memory experience” survives today in Italy where one can see the whole of Dante’s Divine Comedy recited from the stage.

In the 17th century, something of this “memory talent” was written in the mind of every painter, as they repeated the stories of the Catholic Church in their work, with energy, accuracy and belief. Rubens’s memory gifts of sight, hearing and brush stroke were added to a prodigious talent in paint management and drawing. These were unified by intellect and feeling, which combined to form Rubens’s singular genius.

The Royal Academy show is divided into six themes – “Poetry”, “Elegance”, “Power”, “Compassion”, “Violence” and “Lust”. It ends with a “Contemporary Coda” highlighting the preoccupation recent artists have with Rubens. There are some disappointments – for a show about Rubens, the exhibition could have used more paintings by him. But we can see an enormous amount of artists who have been influenced by Rubens, dating from the 16th century to the present time. The viewer becomes conscious of Rubens’s influence on many of the greatest painters of the late 17th century through to the 21st, all looking to his extraordinary capacity for originality and energy. So in this exhibition we have almost too many artists who followed the master.

But this is not a huge disappointment. It merely calls for our greater attention to the many things that Rubens inspired in others – from landscapes (Constable copied his rainbows), portraits (Van Dyck) and compositional achievement, to the brilliant and actual handling of the paint.

As well as being an artist of genius, Rubens was a diplomat of enormous talent, effortlessly mixing with the aristocracies of 17th-century Europe, no matter what their personal beliefs might be: Protestant in all its varieties or Catholic. Needless to say, this was in no way a denial of Catholicism. His energy still went into expressing the brilliant visual accomplishments of the Counter-Reformation and Catholic devotion. The feelings of religious devotion in the paintings inspired by traditional Catholic subjects – such as the Baroque Elevation of the Cross – are on a very large scale and impossible to have in this exhibition owing to their position in cathedrals.

Rubens’s international activity was made very effective when he adopted the use of etchings and woodcut copies of his elaborate drawings and paintings. They were distributed to people who circulated them throughout Europe, as well as in the Americas and even the Philippines. Anyone worth knowing could learn what Rubens was doing. This was probably the first time that an artist had used the possibilities of publicity contained in these multiple reproductions – there was no way anyone could ignore him now.

Rubens’s handling of paint and brush stroke to accomplish his enormous and highly energetic paintings made his work a forecast of the theatrical brilliance and originality of the opera of the 17th century and beyond.

Furthermore, it is almost as if he anticipated the advent of great film innovation. In the bigger paintings there is a feeling that we are following something that is constantly on the move, something in motion. We can’t tear our attention away from what is moving: the theatre is there.

This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (6/2/15)