Growing up Protestant and Lower Middle Class in a Northern English milltown is not the best preparation for appreciating Rubens. It was about as difficult to warm up to those big fat naked ladies as it was to take seriously Italian Opera. “Well, I only ‘ope YOU can sing while you’re dying!”
Going through architecture school deepened the distaste. According to our instructors, the previously brilliant Italians buggered-up High Renaissance by letting it debauch into writhing theatrical Baroque, an episode of deplorable taste that never really “took” in England.
Molded by this lofty mindset, exacerbated by the even more self-denying Modern Movement, those of us with any feeling for painting at all settled for the calm static figures of Fra Angelico, Filippo Lippi, and—ultimate sophistication—the sublime restraint of Piero Della Francesca. Botticelli’s diaphanous, almost-modern blondes were the most exuberant we ever got. Fledgling architects contemptuous of art history, we jumped for Piero to Seurat with very little in-between. The Bauhaus led us to Paul Klee and Kandinsky, Le Courbusier to Leger and Cubism.
Only too aware of this anti-mystical Cromwellian background, I accepted with some misgivings the invitation to comment on an artist as whole-hog Catholic as Rubens—grandmaster of the Flemish Baroque, but now I am glad I did. For quite apart from viewing the strange somber little exhibition, in Mario Ciampi’s still remarkable museum, the assignment prompted me to learn a lot in a short time about a brilliant multi-talented likable celebrity in a time of political and spiritual upheaval.
Younger son of an eminent lawyer in Spanish-controlled Antwerp, a Protestant who fled to Germany to escape religious persecution, Peter Paul Rubens, born in 1577, returned at age 10, a Catholic child with a widowed mother, to a war-ravaged Antwerp that was fast becoming an important center of the Counter Reformation. Blessed with a resourceful and well-connected parent, the 13-year-old boy, tall, handsome and already the recipient of a Classical education, was placed as a page in the establishment of a nearby countess. This was unusually privileged cultural training, so he must have shown some special art talent for his mother to change the plan and have him apprenticed to a local master painter.
The boy flourished, becoming a master himself at age 21, before moving to Italy, the world-center of advanced painting. After eight years of successful commissions and court employment there, he returned to Antwerp and a special appointment as court painter to the Spanish regent, with freedom to establish a large workshop and a varied practice of independent work. By this time, he had long been respected as a confidential advisor and emissary, and entrusted with important diplomatic missions, a combination of activities almost unimaginable today. One such trip in 1629 took him to England and resulted in a warm friendship with the ill-fated King Charles I, for whom he painted the Allegory of Peace, and who knighted him in return. This visit, though a diplomatic failure, also led to a commission to decorate the ceiling of Inigo Jones’s new Banqueting House, nine paintings celebrating the House of Stuart that remain one of the art-sights in London.
All this by the age of about 57, in the glorious autumn of his life, which had begun, symbolically, by his re-marriage at age 54 to an attractive 16-year-old—Hélene Fourment, whose beauty he celebrated in numerous portraits and allegories. By now, he had finally abandoned the diplomatic career, bought himself a country estate, and was spending more time close to nature and away from the pressures of court life.
Landscape elements that had previously been limited in his large dramatic works to backgrounds carried out by assistants now took his full attention, and resulted in, for him, a new genre paintings such as “Landscape with Rainbow,” and “Landscape with Het Steen,” his country house, take their place among his major achievements. In modern terms, he had finally become his own master, working to please himself rather than those in high authority.
There’s really no equivalent today for this kind of career, unless we imagine Picasso and Henry Kissinger combined in one awesome personality. Politicians don’t paint, while major artist hide from public view. As for the art itself, painting in Catholic Baroque 1620—major religious and political celebration—is hardly the same activity as painting today—visual expression of a private state of mind. The closest equivalent now to a group of talented assistants collaborating on a huge altarpiece under the supervision of a Rubens would probably be the making of a fine film under a distinguished director.
Thus it is easier for most of us secular moderns to admire and empathize with the sober tender portraits—Rubens and Isabella Brant of 1609, or Hélene Fourment with her Firstborn Son—than to identify comfortably with the Great Last Judgment of 1614, or the floating-in-the-sky bodies of Women of the Apocalypse in Munich—not to mention his superb, light-suffused drawings.
Indeed, the trouble with this current show in the University Art Museum is that it contains none of the pleasures of the tender family portraits, or the amazingly timeless chalk drawings, or, for those who love the big stuff, the overwhelming presence of great dramatic painting. These oil sketches are quite small—about the size of a modest watercolor—while the final “Woman of the Apocalypse” measure approximately 13 by 18 feet, and the “Raising of the Cross” triptych in Antwerp an impressive 15 by 22.
Typically executed to show a patron the proposed composition, to guide his own assistants, or as the basis for later engraving, they inevitable lack the vibrancy of final masterworks, and their florid dominating faded-gilt frames make this slightness worse. It would be interesting to see these 33 very uneven studies set in off-white mattes and simple wood frames! Or better yet, double-size photo-prints in a well-lit room, instead of these ill-framed ‘authentic artifacts’ on depressing mid-blue walls under subdued light. People seeking an aesthetic experience comparable to facing Manet’s Bar at the Folies Bergére or a Juan Gris still-life will not find it here in this impressive yet joyless show. It’s perhaps revealing that the cover of the tempting-looking catalog is dramatized by the powerful and timeless “Head of a Negro (No. 32)”— the only arrestingly ‘modern’ image in the room.
Visitor advice: Save yourself a lot of money in the Museum bookstore by just buying the Prestel Art Guide “Rubens” ($7.95), an amazing little summary. Background Reading: Simon Schama’s “Rembrandt’s Eyes” has a splendid four-chapter introduction devoted to Rubens.
“Drawn by the Brush: Oil Sketches by Peter Paul Rubens” runs through May 22 at the UC Berkeley Art Musuem, 2626 Bancroft Way, Wed.-Sun. 11 a.m.-5 p.m., Thur. 11 a.m.-7 p.m.