‘Even had he not felt a natural fondness for fat girls,’ writes Kenneth Clark in The Nude, ‘[Rubens] would have looked for accidents of the flesh as necessary to his system of modelling. That suggestion of movement flowing across a torso […] Rubens could reveal by the wrinkles and puckers of delicate skin.’
Clark’s attitude to women is antiquated, even for 1956, but his description does touch on something essential to Rubens’ art: his canvases are fleshy, tremulous with the movement of all those quivering brushstrokes, that pearly flesh shot with flashes of red and blue. This is the Rubens so visible in the nudes of Lucian Freud and Jenny Saville, both of whom are represented in a contemporary coda to Rubens and his Legacy at the RA. But that energy is also intrinsic to the vibrant Tiger, Lion and Leopard Hunt (c.1617), which combines energetic brushstrokes with a dramatic diagonal composition, and the Garden of Love (1633-5) (above), a rich evocation of (clothed) aristocratic lovers in a fantastical setting.
Both are exhibited here, alongside those puckered nudes – Pan and Syrinx, for which Jan Brueghel did the landscape, and Fortuna, delicately balanced on a bubble. Many missing Rubenses are represented by engravings by Louis Sailliar, Christoffel Jegher and others. In engraved form, the canvases’ ‘system of movement’ is revealed not by the painted ‘wrinkles of delicate skin’, but by the either/or lines of the engraver’s tool: these black and white reproductions invite us to consider how Rubens, this most three-dimensional of painters, might also be fundamentally interested in line.
Unfortunately, there is little interrogation of Rubens’ technique in Rubens and his Legacy. The first works of the first room are landscapes, heavy with English clouds, by Constable. A sketch for the Hay Wain faces the Cottage at East Bergholt, ‘illustrating’ how British artists were influenced by Rubens’ landscapes.
‘Influence’, a keyword for this exhibition, is a famously nebulous concept; fitting, since the word’s original meaning is ‘an emanation from the stars’. Threads, like the one that connects Rubens to his most famous pupil, Anthony Van Dyck – and both of them to their common ancestor, Titian – can be found in the records we have of Van Dyck working in Rubens’ studio, or Rubens himself studying Titian. When Rubens died, a copy he had made of Titian’s Rape of Europa was still in his studio; it was duly inventoried by his executors.
"'Influence', a keyword this exhibition, is a famously nebulous concept; fitting, since the word's original meaning is 'an emanation from the stars'."
More difficult to pin down, though perhaps more meaningful, are those allusions that bespeak rather a shared outlook, a common approach, perhaps unconsciously absorbed across generations. Despite being permeated with ‘influence’, this exhibition has opted for the altogether easier word ‘legacy’ in its title. In contrast to the vagaries of ‘emanation’, ‘legacy’ implies something consciously bequeathed, something handed on, though it may also retain the dimly Oedipal shadows of the father-son relationship. There is, indeed, a kind of anxiety at the heart of this exhibition, and no clear delineation of terms. Rubens permeates everything, but he does so through a mixture of general emulative ‘echoes’ or ‘impressions’ and nuggets of hard, documented fact whose dogmatic insistence in the wall labels casts doubt on the vague assertions of the ‘may alludes’. Thus the ‘prominence of the cart’ in Constable’s Hampstead Heath, Branch Hill Pond ‘may allude to Rubens’ The Carters’, but we are told, impatiently, that there is ‘abundant evidence’ for Gericault’s Rubensian inspiration.
It nonetheless remains bizarrely unclear exactly what Rubens is understood to be passing on. The exhibition is divided into vague ‘themes’ that could apply to almost any artist (‘Lust’, ‘Power’, ‘Landscape’), and those engravings representing absent Rubens canvases are most commonly co-opted as mere stand-ins communicating the salient points of composition for comparison with imposing canvases by Thomas Lawrence and Joshua Reynolds. Points like the materiality, the technique, of Rubens’ paintings, so central to an understanding of this most fleshy of artists, are thereby skimmed over.
Stranger still, whereas later painters are understood to have drawn largely from Rubens, Rubens himself is said to have taken inspiration straightforwardly from the earthly realities of his private life. The landscapes that ‘may have’ inspired Constable were apparently inspired by Rubens’ purchase of the ‘large country estate’ Het Steen in 1635, just as, for Clark, Rubens’ interest in ‘fat girls’ was tied, essentially, to his desire to consume them. The splendid Garden of Love, exhibited here alongside fêtes champêtres by Jean-Antoine Watteau (we are told) ‘perhaps reflects the happy times Rubens then enjoyed with his younger wife’, though it also, unacknowledged, looks back to the Louvre’s Fête champêtre,variously attributed to Giorgione and Rubens’ beloved Titian, upon which Watteau also drew.
"Structurally, Rubens and his Legacy reminded me of nothing so much as medieval illustrations of the Tree of Jesse"
Meanwhile, Van Dyck, court portraitist to the court of Charles I, is left as a kind of useful conduit bringing Rubens to England, though he was certainly a much more practical influence on Reynolds’ portraiture than Rubens. Towards the end of the exhibition, the curators are disappointed to find that Van Dyck’s Jupiter and Antiope was executed some years earlier than Rubens’ treatment of the subject: otherwise ‘it would be tempting to think that this painting was inspired by the composition of Rubens’ [painting]’. There is a less tortuous alternative possibility – maybe Rubens too was looking outward.
Structurally, Rubens and his Legacy reminded me of nothing so much as medieval illustrations of the Tree of Jesse: fabulous foliage springing from a sleeping patriarch’s loins, winding tortuously through the generations. Rubens, likewise, is fertile soil for this meandering exhibition, but in the end it is as confused and unclear as influence itself.
Rubens and his Legacy is at the Royal Academy until 10 April 2015