Andrew Lambirth

Art for the people

Andrew Lambirth visits a triumphantly successful Rubens exhibition in Lille

How do people respond to Rubens these days? Is all that lush flesh so out of fashion that he is of historical interest only? The good people of Lille evidently think not, for a large and ambitious Rubens exhibition has been organised under the special patronage of M. Jacques Chirac to celebrate the fact that this year Lille shares with Genoa the status of European Cultural Capital. Rubens is considered an apt choice for a landmark exhibition, and certainly the sumptuous display at the Palais des Beaux-Arts is impressive. It is also the first major exhibition devoted to Rubens ever to be held in France. It deserves to be a huge success.

Sir Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) is the great Flemish master of the Baroque style, an art conducted on a colossal scale, full of sweeping diagonals and exaggeration, heightened colour and drama. It is not an art form designed for subtlety or understatement, but for the grand gesture and the large expression, intended to be understood by all, and even to exert a kind of social cohesiveness on a Europe threatened by political and religious schism. The Baroque dealt largely with history painting and allegory, religious subjects and portraits, and made it accessible to all. This was not art for an elite, but for the people.

The exhibition is structured in five sections: from the artist’s beginnings in Italy (1600–8) after his initial training in Antwerp; his return to Antwerp and successful bourgeois patronage; then on to religious commissions; followed by royal and aristocratic patronage; ending with his tapestry designs. It makes for a lively development, though there are no dates on the labels, which can be disorientating. The museum is a splendid building in itself, and it has been decorated to show off Rubens to his best.

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