Rubens and his Legacy, at the Royal Academy

Tiger, Lion and Leopard Hunt (c1617)
Tiger, Lion and Leopard Hunt (c1617)

If you choose to reach for the stars, you will on occasion overreach and fall to the ground. And that, I’m afraid, is what has happened to the Royal Academy with its new exhibition Rubens and his Legacy. Like many others, I have been keenly anticipating this exhibition for some months and the opportunity I thought it would provide to revel in some fine masterpieces by Rubens and those who followed him. My sense of anticipation had been further heightened by Waldemar Januszczak’s recent and fascinating BBC4 programme on Rubens as painter, counsellor and diplomat. This exhibition was surely going to be up there with the National Gallery’s Veronese exhibition as a global ‘must-see’ exhibition. Alas, it is not to be.

This is not of course to say that there are not a few wonderful pieces in the exhibition and, once my initial disappointment has settled, I shall probably return to look at them in more detail. But as an overall concept and experience the exhibition falls flat, as was very evident from the whispered comments from those around me.

The overall purpose of the exhibition is to demonstrate both how wide-ranging an artist Rubens was, in his breadth of painting genres, and how powerful an influence he has been on artists which followed him, right down to the modern age. This was effected by organising Rubens work into six major themes, Poetry, Elegance, Power, Compassion, Violence and Lust, and for each theme centring the exhibition on a small number of significant Ruben’s pieces, surrounded by works which represent his legacy.

The Garden of Love (c.1635)
The Garden of Love (c.1635)

Where the theme was centred around a significant Ruben’s piece and the legacy pieces were relevant and of quality, it was a concept that just about worked. But there were only two rooms in the exhibition were this concept was really effective, those centred around two magnificent paintings by Rubens, Tiger, Lion and Leopard Hunt and The Garden of Love. The Garden of Love, for example, is supported by some wonderful preparatory pencil drawings, another important Rubens work, Hagar in the Desert, and a nice Watteau, The Pleasures of the Ball, demonstrating the influence of Rubens on the Rococo and C18 French painting.

The Pleasures of the Ball by Watteau (1714)
The Pleasures of the Ball by Watteau (1714)

Sadly however, in many rooms there was not a defining Rubens to centre the theme but a small Rubens you had to search to discover, or in some cases no Rubens at all. For example, we were asked to look at the legacy of Ruben’s delightful picture Le Chapeau de Paille on artists such as Elisabeth-Louise Vigee-Lebrun.

La Chapeau de Paille
La Chapeau de Paille
Self-Portrait in a Straw Hat by Elisabeth-Louise Vigee-Lebrun (after 1782)
Self-Portrait in a Straw Hat by Elisabeth-Louise Vigee-Lebrun (after 1782)

The Vigee-Lebrun picture is indeed delightful and clearly owes much to the earlier Rubens. But unfortunately the Rubens is on display 15 minutes down the road at the National Gallery, at no charge, not in this exhibition. Indeed there is a room of Ruben’s paintings in the National Gallery which are not included in the exhibition but whose presence would greatly have enhanced it. It is tough, for example, to think about Ruben’s female nudes without including one of his pictures of The Judgement of Paris. There are two such pictures in the National Gallery but none in this exhibition.

The Judgement of Paris by Rubens (1630s)
The Judgement of Paris by Rubens (1630s)

The other failing of the exhibition is that the attempt to demonstrate the extent of Ruben’s legacy sometimes seem forced or even downright wrong. For example, the exhibition includes a lovely painting by Renoir, Bather with Long Hair. But to my mind this painting does not reflect the legacy of Rubens at all. If you want to find a Renaissance antecedent, surely it is Titian’s Venus Anadyomene.

Bather with Long Hair by Renoir (c1895)
Bather with Long Hair by Renoir (c1895)
Venus Anadyomene by Titan (c.1520)
Venus Anadyomene by Titian (c.1520)

As I said at the beginning, there are of course some very special and wonderful pictures in this exhibition. But as an exhibition it falls short of what is promised. The intellectual concept on which the exhibition is based feels forced and too many of the pictures you might expect to see, or need to see as reference points, are simply not there. In some places it really feels like Hamlet without the Prince. Furthermore, too many of the legacy pictures are simply not first class. I think everyone understands that the curators of an exhibition like this are constrained by what they are able to borrow. But you feel in this case that there should have been a point in the development of the exhibition where someone concluded that ‘this just isn’t working’ and changed direction accordingly. It is a great pity they didn’t.

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