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Rubens and his legacy: Van Dyck to Cézanne at the RA
February 23, 2015
When you think of the art of Rubens, you imagine huge counter-reformation altarpieces and large naked women. Works in both these forms instantly cause a problem when creating a Rubens exhibition. Altarpieces can’t be transported down Piccadilly, yet one could not create a show about Rubens’ influence on other artists without his most visually stunning and accomplished works present. No discussion on how his work came to shape the works of future generations can take place without addressing these pieces. And the issue in regards to the large naked women? Rubens is famous for his fleshy depictions of rambunctious females, fully formed in rose tints, but a discussion on the female form in art is one that happens regularly, and of late, is often discussed in a feminist context – something that can often be a slippery and controversial aspect to tackle.
Fortunately, the Royal Academy has managed to overcome both these problems with great success. The show opens with a rather sombre Constable landscape, inspired by a Rubens. This clever piece of curatorial works set the scene for the show – Rubens as the master of colour, shape and form. By presenting this Constable picture, the audience are instantly aware that there is more to Rubens than altarpieces and nudes. When you scratch the surface, Rubens is about a sense of drama, sculpted though rounded forms and bold dramatic colours.
This show runs thematically through poetry, portraiture, religion, violence and lust. It carefully displays the many facets of Rubens and how he drew on the styles he discovered on his travels; particularly around Italy of Michelangelo, Titian and Caravaggio. Through the placement of adjacent pictures by his contemporaries the show then carefully deconstructs how his thick painty forms and bold baroque compositions went on to inspire the likes of Fragonard, Rembrandt and Reynolds. The careful and precise curatorship leaves no need for text – parallels between Rubens and the later painters are clear and concise.
A final room curated by the artist Jenny Saville shows how Rubens is still influencing artists in the 20th and 21st centuries. Fleshy reclined Lucian Freuds, dramatic Francis Bacons and colourful Andy Warhols make it clear that Rubens is still very much present and potent in the minds of modern artists.
Rubens and His Legacy, Van Dyck to Cézanne continues at the Royal Academy until the 10th April. For more information go to www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibition/rubens-and-his-legacy.