Rubens: The Power of Transformation

Rubens: The Fur

(Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum, until 21 January 2018)

My apologies for the recent silence. It’s been a rather frantic weekend and I’m only just getting to the point where I can think again. I was also off on a business trip last week in Vienna, which was (as ever) an utter joy. I fetched up at the Kunsthistorisches Museum last Tuesday afternoon, planning to have an indulgent hot chocolate in the wonderful café, and then to potter in the Italian galleries; but my visit was supplemented by this very impressive exhibition about Rubens.

Now, on an average day, the Kunsthistorisches Museum already has one of the best collections of Rubens in the world. This show juxtaposes those masterpieces with casts of classical sculpture, Old Master paintings, statuettes and prints, through which the curators explore Rubens’s adoption and adaptation of sources both classical and modern. It was an illuminating journey through Rubens’s working practice, as well as a very good introduction to the intellectual world of the 17th-century artist.

Imagine you’re an ambitious young artist around 1600. You would almost certainly aim to become a history painter, working in the most distinguished of artistic genres, and producing scenes from religious, mythological and secular history. To familiarise yourself with the artistic canon, it was practically obligatory to go to Italy and, in particular, Rome. Here you could study the human body through famous works of classical sculpture, whether that was the tortured masculinity of the Laocoön or the coy eroticism of the Venus Pudica. You could stand before the works of Michelangelo and Raphael, who occupied opposite ends of the spectrum between grace and terribilità. 

Such trips cost money, of course, and it helped to be born into a well-off family with connections – as Rubens was – and to have enough talent to win the admiration of patrons along the way – as Rubens did. When he set off for Italy in 1600, at the age of 23, he was able to find a position with the Gonzagas at their court in Mantua. The Duke sponsored his further travel (sometimes using him as a diplomat) and it was thanks to him that Rubens was able to go to Rome and see, for the first time, works of art that he can only have seen in prints before. The experience must have been dizzying.

But how did Rubens make use of the things he saw in Rome, and elsewhere in Italy? It’s easy to make sweeping statements about how he was influenced by Michelangelo or Titian, but this show homes in on several specific sources. We can look from statue to painting and see very clearly how Rubens studied, engaged and then incorporated his source into his art. Take a look, for example, at how he translated the FarneseHercules, leaning heavily on his club, into a St Christopher (Alte Pinakothek, Munich) in around 1612. This wasn’t considered cheating at the time. On the contrary, it was a display of erudition. If, as an artist, you casually referenced a famous classical sculpture in a picture, it showed off your cultural intelligence. Your learned patrons would be able to congratulate themselves on recognising the source: it would become a talking point. And, if you could improve upon the original, so that it blended seamlessly into your own composition, that was even more impressive.

Before Rubens went to Italy, he studied with the painter Otto van Veen, and his earliest works are very close in spirit to his master’s. A well-chosen group of Judgements of Paris displays Rubens’s growing confidence and individuality as a painter pre- and post-Italy. His earliest Judgement (National Gallery, London), made before he set off, is deeply indebted to van Veen’s idea of female beauty. Here it’s shown alongside van Veen’s Amazons and Scythians (Kunsthistorisches Museum; ‘Scythians!’ I squeaked inwardly) and you can see the master’s influence in the student’s women: slim, dark eyes, small pinched mouths, red lips and small breasts. The composition nods towards Marcantonio’s famous engraving after Raphael, but the spirit is entirely Northern.

It might have been a different artist who painted another Judgement, not long after Rubens arrived in Italy. This picture (Akademie der Bildenden Kunste, Vienna) develops Rubens’s earlier composition and the figures occupy much the same positions, but it feels totally different: it shimmers with light, the forms dissolving in the lucid air. Rubens must have been studying late Titian. The women aren’t yet the voluptuous sirens of Rubens’s maturity, but they’re less coy, more physically powerful. Rubens shows Venus holding court in the centre, while poor Minerva on the right is still struggling, rather inelegantly, to get her robes off. Struck by the comedic possibility of this pose, Rubens returned to the subject again in around 1607 (Museo del Prado), where he ramped up the wit of the composition. Venus stands in demurely elegant contrapposto, while her two sister goddesses wrestle with recalcitrant draperies. The young artist hasn’t changed the composition all that much, but he’s completely transformed its effect through the dynamism of his figures’ movements.

Rubens painted another Judgement in around 1639 (also at the Prado), at the very height of his career. Here all trace of van Veen has vanished. This is pure Rubens: the comedy aspect has been toned down again and the viewer is invited to share the (fascinated, delighted) Paris’s dilemma. The three goddesses have become fleshy, soft and sumptuous, white flushed with pink at heels, knees and cheeks. (You look at Minerva and she could almost be a Renoir, transported from 250 years later.) Once again, the composition has barely changed, but the source has now been almost completely subsumed into the brilliance of Rubens’s own concepts. It proves that it wasn’t always what he did so much as how he did it.

The female nude also dominates the second room, where a brace of reclining Danaes are tripped out, by Goltzius and Titian respectively. I felt this was a tad tenuous, as Rubens never painted a Danae and there must be other Titians that one could use to make the point; but I’m never sorry to see that gorgeous picture with its trembling golden light and its air of voluptuous expectation. Goltzius’s Danae is comparatively modest – in fact, she’s asleep – although the label drew attention to the amusingly-shaped pouch carried by the putto on the left (it doesn’t take too much imagination to read it as an erect penis and two testicles). Rubens drew on these recumbent beauties for his own more erotic pictures, which were disguised behind literary or mythological themes. Here were his Cimon and Iphigenia with its heaps of nubile flesh, and the voyeuristic Angelica and the Hermit, where the sleeping woman is gawped at by a prurient old man.

Nude women of the upright variety were supplied in the next room, where the exhibition uses Titian’s Venus at the Mirror and the Roman sculpture of the Crouching Venus (or VenusPudica) to show the development of Rubens’s own Venuses. Most of the goddesses in this room are shown with Adonis, watching him go off hunting or kneeling in despair beside his corpse. By this stage in his career, Rubens felt confident enough to develop his source pose so that it feels allusive rather than borrowed: the shivering, crouching Venus in Sine Cerere et Baccho friget Venus has only a passing resemblance to her sculpted sister. Something that did catch my attention was the way in which Rubens revisited ideas in different contexts. In exploring the theme of Venus with the dead Adonis, he came up with compositional ideas which he translated into his religious pictures, showing the Virgin with the dead Christ. Transformation, it is clear, wasn’t just a matter of borrowing from other sources. This infinitely creative man also revisited and transformed his own ideas.

Another example of that self-transformation comes from Rubens’s exploration of the theme of the Deposition, inspired largely by Caravaggio’s magnificent picture in the Pinacoteca Vaticana. Rubens went so far as to paint a copy of this, and then used it as a jumping-off point to experiment with the composition, heightening the drama even further by showing Christ’s body being lowered precipitously over the edge of the tomb, supported by taut swags of drapery. But Rubens had already been thinking about the dramatic potential of draperies in another context: it’s interesting to look at these pictures alongside his drawing of The Discovery of Callisto’s Pregnancy from c.1601, where the nymph’s flailing body is trapped by the same kind of supporting, confining fabric. In the drawing, it’s her shift, ripped to pieces, but (considering her fate) it might as well be a shroud. Two subjects, poles apart, but each offering scope for Rubens to play with similar dramatic notions of revelation and tragedy.

More forceful inspiration came from the Laocoön, a statue which had already inspired Michelangelo (look at his Haman on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, of which Rubens owned a drawn copy by Passarotti). This agonised and twisted sculptural group helped Rubens to delve even deeper into the expressive potential of the male body. For me, his most impressive use of the Laocoön was in his Capture (or Blinding) of Samson, for which an oil sketch (Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza) was on view in the exhibition, and the finished picture just a few rooms away in the main galleries of the Kunsthistorisches Museum. This composition throbs with power, even in the small-scale sketch – which perhaps appeals even more strongly to modern taste than the finished work. The Biblical hero wrestles against the strength of four men, while the duplicitous Delilah twists away in mingled shock and triumph. The male and female bodies echo one another in their poses, one seen from behind, the other from the front, drawing the eye up to the turbulent storm of bodies beyond. It really is a splendid piece.

Towards the end of the exhibition, we come across the fragmentary sculpture of a centaur tamed by Cupid (an allusion to the civilising power of love). Rubens executed an even more impressive leap of imagination here, transforming the lusty centaur into the proud and defiant figure of Christ in his EcceHomo. Here the mood, as well as the genre, is transformed. The twisting pose in the centaur is a sign of defeat, of uncertainty and bondage, but in the figure of Christ it becomes an assertion of strength and confidence – especially because Rubens’s Christ stares straight out of the canvas at us. This isn’t the kind of Ecce Homo in which we’re invited to mourn the torn and bloodied body of Christ; on the contrary, Pontius Pilate points at Christ’s unblemished body as if to invite our amazement, while the Roman soldier holds up the crimson cloak as if to frame Christ’s body. It’s a brave, but very successful reinterpretation of a very pagan source.

One difficult thing about identifying sources is that it’s never as simple as it seems. An artist is very rarely drawing on a single source when he creates a new composition. Of course, an exhibition is restricted by what can be borrowed, and it’s always best to keep things straightforward, but there was one case where I felt that slightly more could have been said. This was in the case of the reclining male nudes, which were related to Michael Coxcie’s Cain andAbel. Now, it’s true that this strongly foreshortened nude did have an impact on Rubens’s work, but not all the paintings on display around it were that closely connected to it. I thought the parallels with Michelangelo’s presentation drawings, particularly the Tityus, could have been played up a little more strongly (maybe a print could have been included, even if it wasn’t possible to get the drawing).

Something that I did appreciate about this show, though, was the number of drawings. It’s particularly important in this case, because the young Rubens made drawings during his travels in Rome which he then used as sourcebooks for the rest of his career. But there’s also an element of ‘transformation’ which is especially important for drawings. Rubens also bought Old Master drawings in Italy, often later copies of the great works of the Renaissance. In many cases, he would then go to work on these drawings himself, going over what the original draughtsman had drawn, adding touches of lead white or grey bodycolour to strengthen the volume, correct infelicities or improve other parts of the composition. This shows the extent of his engagement with the history of art – even from the earliest date, he was thinking of how to challenge it, improve it and reflect it in his own art. It emphasises the man’s bubbling creativity, and it was great to see several examples of this practice on display here.

The show ends with a section devoted to landscape, and then a final wall displaying two treasures from the Kunsthistorisches Museum’s own collection: Titian’s Girl in a fur and Rubens’s overtly sexy picture of his wife Helena Fourment. The classical Venus Pudica was held to be the inspiration here, though the picture of Helena is anything but pudica (the Titian is far more demure). Ah, Helena: how the Kunsthistorisches Museum loves you. Last time I was here, she’d just been cleaned and stood proudly in a side room, full-length and knowing. Some parts of the painting are magnificent, especially her knees and legs – Rubens, God bless him, looked at real women and painted their wobbly kneecaps and those strange little dimples in the flesh – but some aspects are less pleasing. I’ve always found Helena’s breasts particularly troubling. They are the most highly articulated pair of breasts in the history of art. I can’t quite believe they’re real.

This exhibition really impressed me – especially considering that I had no idea it was on until I got there. I’ve come away with the catalogue, which I haven’t had a chance to read yet, but which seems to take the discussions even further in a very engaging and useful way. It may not be the conventional monographic approach to ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions, but it’s a sumptuous and very rewarding introduction to the work of a brilliant artist. It encourages us to look beyond the tumbling bodies and acres of sensuous, overpowering flesh, to understand more about the craftsman at work, and to emphasise that great art doesn’t just appear from the ether. Everything comes from something. And it wasn’t just the idea behind the exhibition that was smart: the exhibition design was also one of the most intelligent I’ve seen, bringing together sources, preparatory drawings and paintings in a way that sparks sudden moments of understanding and a delighted inner ‘Yes! 

The show doesn’t have much longer to run in Vienna but, if you can’t make it, don’t despair. It will be moving on to the Staedel in Frankfurt, where it’ll be on view from 8 February until 21 May 2018. And, of course, there’s always the catalogue (which is available in both German and English editions, to my inexpressible relief).

Find out more about the Kunsthistorisches Museum

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