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At home with Rubens

William Cook believes that the British cannot really understand the artist until they’ve been to Antwerp

10 March 2012

12:00 PM

10 March 2012

12:00 PM

William Cook believes that the British cannot really understand the artist until they’ve been to Antwerp

In a quiet corner of Tate Britain there is a little exhibition that sheds fresh light on an artist whom the British have never really learned to love. Rubens & Britain (until 6 May) is a fascinating show, documenting his work in England, and like all good exhibitions it leaves you wanting more. There are Rubens in countless British galleries, of course, but really to understand him you have to travel to his hometown, Antwerp. Here, Rubens is everywhere, even on the toilet doors in trendy bars and restaurants. My first visit was a revelation, and I’ve been back several times since. What makes Rubens’s Antwerp so special is that his works are scattered throughout the city — not in grand galleries but in the workaday places for which they were designed.

Standing outside the Rubens house, a splendid palazzo in Antwerp’s busy city centre, you can see why we find it so hard to take this artist to our hearts. We’ve been raised on the romantic myth of the suffering artist, a myth that Rubens emphatically refutes. A brilliant businessman and diplomat, he didn’t suffer for his art. When he built this Palladian landmark, he was still in his thirties. His Italianate mansion is an advertisement for his lucrative career. Yet though the exterior is flamboyant, the paintings inside are quite the opposite. Here you see the man in an entirely different light.

Mention Peter Paul Rubens to most Britons and the image that springs to mind is of vast canvases strewn with fleshy nudes. But these are his potboilers, made to flatter foreign monarchs, which tend to end up in national galleries, in Britain and abroad. But in his house you get a glimpse of him at home — in a portrait of Van Dyck, his star pupil, or Michael Ophovius, his priest. There’s also a self-portrait, one of only four he ever painted — a slim, dapper man with a winning smile and shrewd eyes. Unlike Rembrandt, he never depicted himself as an artist. He looks like a rich merchant or a courtier. There’s no paintbrush in his hand. These pictures are remarkable, but the most remarkable thing is seeing them in situ, in the place where Rubens and Van Dyck worked together, side by side.

Michael Ophovius heard Rubens’s confession at St Paul’s, on the edge of Antwerp’s lurid red-light district. Incredibly, this quiet church still contains three Rubens and a Van Dyck. The baroque building is delightful, but the surrounding area has always been a rough old place. In 1968, a fire threatened to destroy these priceless pictures. Transvestites from a nearby bordello were among the locals who rushed to save them, cutting them out of their frames.

St Paul’s receives a fraction of the visitors who flock to Rubens’s House, and there are several similar sites around town where you can escape the crowds. The house of Nicholas Rockox, mayor of Antwerp and Rubens’s friend and patron, is now a charming museum. Rockox commissioned ‘Samson & Delilah’ to hang over his mantelpiece. It’s now in our National Gallery, but Rockox retained something even better: ‘Virgin & Child’, with the artist’s first wife Isabella as Mary and his son Nicholas as Jesus. It’s intensely personal, a little window on Rubens’s world.

Rockox also commissioned his greatest religious painting, ‘The Descent from the Cross’, in Antwerp’s great gothic cathedral. ‘My talent is such that no undertaking, however vast in size or diverse in subject, has ever surpassed my courage,’ wrote Rubens. It sounds like a horrendous boast, but this hypnotic triptych bears him out. Christ is lowered from the Cross, limp and drained of life. Looking at this painting, you realise Rubens is actually a remarkably modern artist. His big set-pieces have an epic, almost cinematic quality. Today he’d be a Spielberg, making movies in his own film studio. His working methods were very contemporary, too. With troupes of anonymous assistants working on his paintings, his atelier was closer to Warhol’s Factory than the solitary compositions of Van Gogh.

Rubens is a pop icon in Antwerp, but he’s not just tourist kitsch. He’s part of the cultural fabric of the city, a living symbol for young and old alike. So why do so many Britons fail to ‘get’ him? Why, in Britain, has he become a byword for dreary academic art? Well, ironically, I reckon we’ve been the victims of his success. We got the pricey stuff, the stuff that’s dated. Antwerp got the offcuts. ‘I am, by natural instinct, better fitted to execute very large works than small curiosities,’ wrote Rubens, but it’s those smaller works — more fresh and intimate — that have better stood the test of time.

Another reason, I suspect, is that we’re still puritans at heart. Rubens was the artist of the Counter Reformation, and 400 years later we’re still uneasy with his ornate Catholic aesthetic. We may not think of ourselves as Protestants, but our tastes are still closer to Protestant Holland than to Catholic Belgium. In his rococo style, the religious schism of the 17th century endures.

In 1630, in London, Rubens was knighted by Charles I. For this self-made man, it was the ultimate accolade, but by now his heart was back in Antwerp. ‘I made the decision to force myself to cut this golden knot of ambition, in order to recover my liberty,’ he wrote from London. ‘Best of all, I should like to go home and remain there all my life.’ He left us the ceiling of the Banqueting House in Whitehall, where, in 1649, King Charles was executed.

Rubens died in 1640 and was buried at St James’s Church, a short walk from his Antwerp palazzo. His old pal Nicholas Rockox died later that year, and was buried alongside him. You can visit their graves, but a better spectacle is the joyous altarpiece, ‘Mary Surrounded by Saints’, one of the last pictures he painted. It’s full of life but there’s a tenderness that’s missing from his earlier, more bombastic works. Look carefully, and you realise this is actually his fifth self-portrait, with himself as St George. The Virgin Mary bears a remarkable resemblance to his youthful second wife.

I finished my tour back at the cathedral, in front of the mesmeric altarpiece, ‘The Ascension of the Virgin’. It’s a beautiful painting, but it’d have no meaning in a gallery. It was painted for this place of worship, and that’s what gives it its euphoric power. Rubens’s beloved first wife, Isabella, died while he was painting it. He portrayed her kneeling at the empty grave, as Mary ascends to heaven. As I turned for home it struck me how wonderful it would be if all the altarpieces in all the museums in the world were returned to the churches for which they were painted. Until that happens at least we have Antwerp, where Rubens’s evocative art remains gloriously extant.

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