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.