The first essay I ever wrote as an undergraduate History of Art student was about Rubens’s Peace and War (1629-30, National Gallery). While most of the art that I choose to study and write about now is starkly different to the Flemish master – I currently study the contemporary art of Asia and Africa – I still hold Rubens in high esteem.
Peter Paul Rubens had a profound influence on the artist’s that came after him. Our very own (although adopted from Belgium) Van Dyck was educated by the master, and countless other great painters owe much to Rubens and his paintings. The Royal Academy exhibition places Rubens on display beside the works of those artist’s that succeeded him historically, showing his influence on their work. In effect, Rubens is portrayed as master, where his followers (the likes of Watteau, Constable and Cezanne) are his students.
The show moves thematically, with each gallery devoted to a specific genre of painting, illustrating that Rubens could turn his artistic talent to any genre: portraiture, allegory, landscape. The artwork is often presented in the form of the Rubens masterpiece in the center with his followers’ interpretations being presented on either side of it. Where the show really succeeds in my opinion is in the display of multiple preparatory studies by both Rubens and his admirers, which enable the viewer to see the work done in anticipation of creating a work of art.
I was impressed with almost the entirety of the show’s content until I came to the final room. A single gallery seems to have been attached to the show, which doesn’t flow at all. A bright white annex has been attached to the luxurious shades of greens, blues and purples that make up the gallery walls of the majority of the exhibition. This room has been curated by Jenny Saville and contains modern artwork, which she feels relates to the work of Rubens. Unfortunately, I did not quite share the same opinion about the work in this room, which contains prints of Jackie Kennedy by Andy Warhol and a rather vulgar sculptural offering by Sarah Lucas. At a push, I could perhaps see the link with Cy Twombly, but in all honesty, I feel that the exhibition would have been much better off without Saville’s offering.
Regardless of the show’s disappointing conclusion, for anyone with a genuine interest in the history of art this show is unmissable.
Rubens and his Legacy: Van Dyck to Cezanne is on display at Royal Academy until 10 April