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Rubens: A Master in the Making
National Gallery, London

Michael Savage
posted 10 November 2005

The dreadful paintings in this exhibition are what make it so exceptional and so brave. It explores the early development of an artist loathed at least as much as he is liked, and it shows that his first steps were faltering, and his early works often failures. The magnificent successes - the rediscovered 'Massacre of the Innocents' especially - make it worth seeing. But the exhibition, unlike so many bland blockbusters, is more than the sum of its parts. It sheds new light on Rubens' development from a hesitant northern artist to an internationally renowned genius, through his travels in Italy and engagement with the vibrant, competing artistic trends of the time.

The re-discovery of 'The Massacre of the Innocents' in 2001 was the impetus for this exhibition, but much else has been re-discovered or re-attributed in recent years. The Massacre has been on loan to the National Gallery for several years, and has been the subject of an excellent (and unheralded) mini-exhibition that has juxtaposed it with other early works of Rubens, and also effectively with Tetrode's contemporary sculpture. It is an overwhelming masterpiece, previously attributed to the justly forgotten Jan van de Hoeke. The powerful and controlled composition relies on pose and gesture rather than strong individuation - the impact is from the whole not the parts. The colouring is subdued, with the bright red dress in the middle leading our imagination to conjure up more gore than is actually there. No Italian artist of the time could capture the violence and the pathos as well as this. But whilst modern audiences relish a lively brush and spectacular surface, this is controlled virtuosity, where the parts are subordinated to the whole, and the forms have a convincing physical presence.

A number of other rediscoveries and re-attributions from the early 1980s onwards have allowed us to re-assess Rubens' early development, and now many of them have been brought together. The earliest works are minor and provincial. Some are in especially poor condition - the ruinous 'Martyrdom of St Ursula' really shouldn't have been shown. But Rubens learned quickly. The 'St George', used in the publicity posters, is a powerful image that shows just how quickly he advanced. The great dynamic St George on his horse runs diagonally from left to upper right, but with the great billowing cloak and main pulling towards the lighter sky at the left. The heads of St George and his horse are an energetic central focus. But it is still awkward. The virgin is rather a pathetic character, and the dragon's form is unresolved. Neither are effectively integrated; they are too much overpowered by St George. Ironically, the most effective depictions of the legend are the gentlest - Paolo Uccello upstairs in the National Gallery, Raphael in Washington and Paris.

The best work from this period is the portrait of the Marchesa Brigida Spinola Doria. The virtuoso depiction of costume is a herald of what is to come. She is set outside, framed by grand classical architecture that uses perspective to create the impression that we are looking down at her, from a gallery or balcony. But her presence and grandeur are magnificent.

There is much else that is wonderful - Rubens' copy of Caravaggio's 'Entombment' alongside his own re-working (here a reproduction of the original would be welcome, as even the copy is freely interpreted), the 'Death of Hippolytus', 'Cimon and Pero'. And there are more failures. The famous 'Hero and Leander' is a disappointment, only partly because of its condition. The 'Samson and Delilah', though a very good Rubens, does not measure up opposite the much greater 'Massacre of the Innocents'. The Hermitage 'Susannah and the Elders' is catalogued as 'attributed to Rubens', which seems optimistic. The odd highlighting is mentioned in the catalogue, but the strongly horizontal axis of action is atypical, and the diagonal axis of Susannah's arms suggests a weak reading of Rubens' own compositional innovations by a student or follower.

One of the advantages of the much maligned basement exhibition space is that paintings and drawings can be shown together in controlled lighting. Rubens was an obsessive draftsman, and his copies - more accurately, re-interpretations - of artworks seen in Italy are crucial to understanding his early development. It is a single-minded focus that perhaps leads us to underestimate his strength as a colourist. Some will lament the absence of story, about his life and times or the intellectual context. Important though this is, many exhibitions suffer from a surfeit of patronising anecdotal detail because the curators do not trust the exhibits to be sufficiently interesting alone.

My only real quibble is with the catalogue. It is big and glossy with lots of close ups. But the reproductions are mediocre, and the highlight - 'The Massacre of the Innocents' - is split across two pages, losing all the detail across the join. The entries are too brief, with the space taken up with enlarged details. I suspect that this is due to the unseemly haste with which the exhibition was organized - maybe because 'The Massacre of the Innocents' is going to be taken to its new Canadian home soon. But this exhibition is sure to inspire lively scholarly debate, which I hope will lead to a more definitive publication on this period.

The preparatory works, copies and multiple versions together show Rubens' evolution through engagement with all around him, stealing rather than borrowing as Picasso said of himself. The weaknesses are clear - his range of human expression is limited, and a few stock figures and gestures are endlessly repeated in new contexts. Seeing this doesn't detract from his greatness. Quite the contrary; they highlight his unique magic, creating something quite his own from active dialogue with his sources. On the one hand, there's a certain geeky pleasure in tracing influences and debating attributions. On the other, there's a sense of elemental wonder before the greatest masterpieces, which soar above their sources.

Rubens is one of the greatest artists of all time. He was recognised as one of the greatest even in his own time, which is no mean feat in the century of Poussin, Rembrandt, Velazquez, Vermeer, Caravaggio and the Carracci. The quintessential baroque artist, he was also the quintessential Renaissance man, well versed in the classics, involved in diplomatic intrigue, friend of the humanist intellectuals and confidante of princes. But above all, he is a painters' painter, glorying in the physical qualities of paint, covering acres of canvas with swashbuckling arabesques and rapidly sketching improbable numbers of dramatic compositions. He continued to engage with the art he saw, producing his own copies even at the height of his success. Even to the very end, his need to paint was manifest when he turned to landscape, for his private pleasure. His voluptuous exuberance is perhaps a little unfashionable today, but this exhibition is a rare treat for his admirers.

Till 15 January 2006


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