The National Gallery really is a remarkable place. In addition to displaying its diverse and beautiful permanent collection in increasingly sympathetic and attractive ways, it continues to mount a string of temporary exhibitions of great interest and unobtrusive scholarship. Yet these loan shows are generally housed in a suite of cellar rooms oppressive to the spirit, while the vast book-and-merchandise shop is situated on the ground floor with ample access to natural light. Should it not be the other way round? Is it feared that sales would plummet if the shop were in the basement? I am only expressing the opinion of a considerable proportion of gallery-goers when I ask — is it too late to acknowledge the mistake and to swap round the shop and the exhibition halls? How amazing it would be to see Rubens’s great masterpieces in daylight, for example. The current show (though there might be conservation problems with the drawings) could only benefit from such exposure.
Rubens (1577–1640) is back in fashion. On the surface, this might seem surprising. ‘Rubensian’ or ‘Rubenesque’ are adjectives which suggest a certain opulence of flesh when applied to living women and not to art-historical analysis, and ample corporeality would still seem to be démodé if you consult the appearance of the modelling sorority. Yet this is the third Rubens exhibition I have reviewed in the past couple of years. There was a splendid show of his oil sketches at Somerset House in the autumn of 2003, and then the ambitious survey of his entire career at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Lille last spring. Now we have the early years (in fact, his first 15 as a professional artist) at the NG, presented with great panache by David Jaffe, the Gallery’s senior curator. Although an unfashionably crowded hang, it’s a triumph.
The exhibition begins quietly with various battle paintings by the young Rubens, the first of which has a landscape background contributed by his friend, Jan Brueghel the Elder. (The pair collaborated on other works, with Rubens painting the figures of Adam and Eve, for instance, in Brueghel’s ‘Garden of Eden’ in The Hague.) Battle scenes ought not to be quiet, and actually these paintings aren’t — they’re just low-key in comparison to the full-blooded drama that explodes from Rubens once he really gets going. The second version of ‘The Battle of the Amazons’ (c.1603–5) is slightly more recognisable as Rubens, in the frieze-like arrangement of contorted naked figures along the front, but as yet there’s no real flow, and the contrivance is evident. However, the double portrait of the jovial Democritus and melancholy Heraclitus has a sculptural authority to it, underpinning the painterly verve. And ‘Leda and the Swan’ is based on a design by Michelangelo, though loosely and sexily painted: an old story effectively retold.
We are shown Rubens learning his trade and improving on it, as he studied the masters of antiquity and the more recent greats (with particular reference to Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo, not to mention Caravaggio), during a prolonged reconnaissance trip to Italy. He left Antwerp in 1600 and stayed abroad for eight years, travelling between Venice, Mantua, Genoa and Rome. It was while in Italy that Rubens began the extraordinary self-transformation which was to make the apprentice northern painter into a European master who not only pioneered the Baroque style but could also rival the Italians at history painting. The sheer brilliance of his skill, and the audacity of his ambition, can be overwhelming at first. It is perhaps difficult to get the feel of this artist immediately: the eye keeps slipping off highly polished surfaces. My advice is to go round once quickly, to gauge the scale and disposition of the exhibits, and then re-enter the show and proceed more slowly. Rubens will come flooding in as you attune your eye and mind.
He was an enormously intelligent artist, the friend of scholars and a scholar himself, an international diplomat and businessman, but above all a painter. His learning never got in the way of his ability to handle paint or compose a drama. He became an unparalleled painter of flesh, an assured and richly inventive colourist, an exceptional designer of altarpieces and murals, and an influential landscape painter. In later years, he was so successful that he had to employ a team of assistants in order to maintain a fully-functioning workshop to meet the demand for his work. But his earlier pictures, those which helped to establish his name, are by his hand alone, and it’s a substantial selection of those which constitute this marvellous exhibition.
Sculpture played a crucial role in Rubens’s art, directly in terms of providing poses and compositional devices, and more generally in conferring the dignity and authority of the antique on his productions. Rubens was extraordinarily eclectic, rather like Picasso taking from a wide variety of sources and transforming what he borrowed. This aspect of his approach is thoroughly underlined in the exhibition by the inclusion of sculptures he would have known, which serve both to identify his sources and to emphasise the physicality of his paintwork and his mastery of three-dimensional form. For instance, in the main gallery of the exhibition, Room 6, you can gaze for a moment at an oval marble sculpture of sleeping children from the Borghese gallery in Rome, but your eye is swiftly drawn to the terrifying and magnificent ‘Massacre of the Innocents’ behind it. The source is transcended, as it is when Rubens quotes in this painting from one of his favourite ancient sculptures, the ‘Crouching Venus’, two versions of which are on show here. The ‘Massacre’, which was only rediscovered in an Austrian private house in 2001, was bought by Lord Thomson for the record sum of £49.5 million. It’s been on loan to the NG for three years, and after this exhibition will be re-housed at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Canada. I urge you to see it now in this superb and informative context before it leaves.
Also in Room 6 is the magnificent ‘Samson and Delilah’, from the NG’s own collection, displayed with a row of comparative images hanging beneath it. So there’s an engraving of the subject, a drawing and a couple of oil sketches, all of which help to enrich our enjoyment and understanding of the great painting above. Room 6 is effectively the end of the exhibition, representing Rubens’s return to Antwerp at the illness of his mother, and his elevation to the post of court painter to the Governors of the Spanish Netherlands. It’s the high point to which the show builds. The mixture of drawings from the antique (see, for instance, the studies of Laocoon next to Flaxman’s painted plaster sculpture of the subject, and those of the Farnese Hercules, all in Room 3), and the preliminary studies — especially the gorgeous oil sketches — in which this exhibition abounds, are nicely balanced by the big ‘engines’, the vast ‘St George’, for example, in Room 2, or ‘The Descent from the Cross’ in Room 4. The energy is awe-inspiring.
Among museums, the NG seems to be leading the way with its publications. A very useful little Exhibition Guide, a modest stapled booklet, un-illustrated but full of readily assimilable information about the individual pictures, is offered to every visitor. The catalogue is a far more lavish affair, fully illustrated with excellent colour plates as well as details and comparative images, and bargain-priced at £9.95 in paperback. (Yale University Press distributes the hardback at £20.) It deserves to sell well: a fitting accompaniment to an irresistible exhibition.