Troy: Myth and Reality @ the British Museum

What Troy means to me

For me the Iliad will always be the greatest story ever told. The Christian story is hugely more rich and complicated and influential and subtle, but the tale of Troy is, for me, more true.

It is, for me, a description and investigation and celebration and commiseration of masculinity. It starts with two men fighting over a woman (Agamemnon and Achilles fall out over who should possess the slave girl Briseis, captured in a small Greek raid on an outlying Trojan temple), it climaxes in two tragic, avoidable deaths (Patroclus of the Greeks, Hector of the Trojans), and leads up to the most moving scene in all literature, when King Priam of Troy sneaks by night into the Greek camp and confronts Achilles in his tent, falling to his knees and weepingly imploring the mightiest warrior of the age to give him back the battered body of his dead son (Hector). And instead of slaughtering him on the spot and bringing the war to a swift end, Achilles also falls to his knees and both men weep unappeasable anguish at the loss of their beloved ones.

From a thousand years BC right up to the present day, how many parents and lovers have wept unassuageable tears of grief and anguish over the pointless deaths of their loved ones in pointless wars. That agony has been repeated over and over again hundreds of millions of times.

For me Achilles’ great scream of anguish when he learns that his lover Patroclus is dead and that it was he, Achilles, who sent him to his death, his huge superhuman cry of pain which rings out over the battlefield and brings the fighting to a terrified halt, is the cry of all men against a cruel, uncaring universe, the agony of realising we are our own worst enemies, the tormented howl of someone who has understood human nature to its bitterest depths.

The Iliad is truer than the Christian story because there is no redemption and no comfort anywhere. The human condition is endless conflict and the relentless death of the people we love most. Men are compelled to fight, they don’t know why, and then bewail the devastation they have caused and the lives they have pointlessly destroyed. Nothing changes and no-one can be saved. Syria. Yemen. Libya. Myanmar. Congo.

Achilles kills the Amazon queen Penthesilea, Athenian amphora (530 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

The exhibition

1. Long gallery of ancient artifacts

This epic blockbuster exhibition at the British Museum brings together over 300 objects to give a comprehensive overview of the myths and legends and long legacy surrounding the siege of Troy. It is, like most recent BM exhibitions, beautifully staged, with the wall of the long gallery painted black and evocatively decorated with archaic Greek patterns, while half way along the gallery the wooden ribs of enormous horse arch up over the visitor, obviously referencing the famous wooden horse.

Although it’s divided into lots of sections, Troy is essentially in two halves. The first, long narrow gallery displays umpteen red-figure vases, statues, sarcophagi, carved reliefs and so on from the era of the Athenian empire (5th century BC) onwards including and later Roman efforts, depicting numerous episodes from the long series of myths and legends connected with the epic story.

Roman sarcophagus lid including detail of the Trojan horse (late 2nd century AD) Photograph © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

The curators increase the size of their subject matter by including the legends surrounding Odysseus and his ten-year-long journey back from the war to be reunited with his brave long-suffering wife Penelope. Homer’s Odyssey is very different in tone and subject matter from the Iliad. It is more full of fairy stories and legends about the Sirens or Calypso or the one-eyed Cyclops or Scylla and Charybdis.

And they also devote some sections to Virgil’s epic poem, The Aeneid, which follows the adventures of Aeneas, a minor character in the Iliad, who is promoted by Virgil to become a semi-Odysseus in his own right, fleeing burning Troy to wander the Mediterranean, have a long love affair with Dido Queen of Carthage, before being compelled to fulfil his duty which is to sail to Italy and found the precursor of Rome.

Including Odysseus, Virgil and all their related stories in the exhibition gives the curators more subject matter but, in my purist eyes, weakens the impact of the Iliad material, the material solely about the war, which focuses on battle, conflict, male anger and destruction only.

There are informative sections about the Greek gods, the geography of the Homeric world, how the Romans co-opted the Greek legends for their own purposes, if you didn’t already know.

And then the first gallery comes to an end and you turn the corner and come back on yourself along a narrow gallery running parallel to the first one.

2. Archaeology and Schliemann

At this turning point is a section devoted to the excavations carried out on the coast of modern-day Turkey by a series of Victorian archaeologists, which climaxed in the German excavator Heinrich Schliemann who loudly claimed to have uncovered the true site of Troy in 1873.

Display of objects found by Schliemann at Troy along with books describing his excavations. Photo by the author

3. Troy in European art

And when you progress beyond Schliemann and turn the corner you discover that the second long corridor is – rather surprisingly – an art gallery.

If the first half of the exhibition shows how the legends of Troy were depicted in ancient Greek art and sculpture, this second gallery shows how the same legends were depicted by European artists from the Middle Ages onwards.

I enjoyed this second half more, partly because it was so unexpected. So, for example, there’s a section devoted to European literature on Troy which contains some marvellous medieval illuminated books. We see a copy of John Lydgate’s Troy Book (1420), learn that the first book printed in England by William Caxton was a translation of a French account of Troy. There are first editions of Chapman’s complete translation of Homer (1616), Dryden’s translation of the Aeneid (1697) and Pope’s translation of The Iliad (1715-20).

A page of a 1485 manuscript of Virgil’s works showing the wooden horse being taken into Troy, and Aeneas carrying his father on his back

But most of the space in the gallery is devoted to paintings, drawings and a handful of sculptures, of which the standout example is this masterpiece of sensuality by Filippo Albacini, a portrait of the wounded Achilles (apparently, the gilded arrow in the heel of this sculpture has been restored especially for this exhibition).

The Wounded Achilles (1825) by Filippo Albacini. Photograph © The Devonshire Collections, Chatsworth

But the main impression is of a long, narrow gallery space hung with lots of paintings and drawings and prints.

As well as surprise, another reason for enjoying this part of the exhibition more was that it was far less crowded: I arrived fifteen minutes after opening time but already the first, more archaeological half of the exhibition was packed with crowds of people shuffling very slowly past each red-figure vase and fragment of stone relief – and because the exhibit labels were at knee height almost all of them were completely unreadable, concealed by people packed as tight as commuters on a tube train.

By contrast, for the hour or more that I was there, the second half, the long gallery of paintings, stayed almost empty, with only a dozen or so people drifting through it – which meant that you could enjoy the paintings (or prints or drawings) and read the wall labels, at your leisure. Works on display include:

Clytemnestra, 1882, oil on canvas by John Collier (1850-1934) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

Clytemnestra, 1882, oil on canvas by John Collier (1850-1934) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

It’s amazing to learn that this is the first full-scale exhibition about Troy ever held in the UK. Among other treasures it features, at the very end, the gold jewelry Schliemann found buried deep in the ruins of the city he excavated on the Turkish coast and which he declared to the world must be the jewelry of Helen herself, a preposterous claim he sought to back up by getting his wife to pose for photos wearing them.

Sophia Schliemann wearing the ‘Jewels of Helen’ excavated by her husband, Heinrich Schliemann, in Hisarlik (photograph taken c. 1874)

Modern art interpretations

Right at the start of the show visitors are surprised by two big artifacts which are not at all historic, a vast painting, Vengeance of Achilles (1962) by American artist Cy Twombly and an assemblage of forty or so objects by British sculptor Anthony Caro which he titled The Trojan War.

Dominating the section about medieval manuscripts of Troy, rather jarringly some might feel, is a video screen showing an adaptation of Euripides’ play The Trojan Women acted by Syrian refugee women, whose wailing voices can be heard echoing across the second half of the exhibition.

And the show ends with a spectacular wall-sized creation of fluorescent tubes radiating out from a central point and named The Shield of Achilles by British artist Spencer Finch.

The Shield of Achilles by Spencer Finch (2019)

My point being that this is a very wide-ranging idea of what an exhibition about Troy should look and feel like, spilling out from the narrow fields of archaeology and ancient artifacts to encompass scores of works of European art, and even – as indicated here – up-to-the-minute contemporary art.

Feminist interpretations

The people who wrote the press release have just discovered that there are women (yes, women!) in this 3,000-year-old story, and are breathlessly excited to share this new discovery with us:

The cause of the Trojan War was a woman, Helen who was taken to Troy by Paris, This exhibition presents a chance to re-examine Helen, not just as a beautiful victim or a feared seductress, but as her own woman.

Artist Eleanor Antin (b. 1935) explores history and its characters as a way to examine issues in the present. In 2007 Antin created the photographic series Helen’s Odyssey. Here, Helen of Troy is allowed to speak for herself in a series of imagined scenes from her life. This exhibition will feature Judgment of Paris (after Rubens) – Dark Helen from this series, where Helen is pictured looking unhappy to be used as a bribe, prompting visitors to re-examine the representations of Helen that have gone before.

Judgement of Paris (after Reubens) – Dark/Light Helen by Eleanor Antin (2007)

And the wall label introducing the section on ‘Women of the Trojan War’ shares their discovery that:

Helen and other women play central roles in the story of Troy.

Helen is a pawn in a divine quarrel. Iphigeneia is sacrificed for a fair wind to Troy. Cassandra and the other surviving Trojan women are enslaved when Troy falls. Queen Clytemnestra acts fearlessly in taking revenge on Agamemnon, but pays for it with her life.

Unusual in having a happier ending, Helen has fascinated artists through the ages. Many have attempted to capture her irresistible beauty, while questioning whether she is an innocent victim or knowing seductress.

It’s no surprise that the curators disapprove of the whole idea of the Judgement of Paris, the first ever beauty parade. As the introduction to the feminist section laconically points out:

Even the powerful goddesses are subject to male judgement.

Yes, but you could also point out that the goddesses murder and doom men for their sport. But that central element of the story doesn’t fit the feminist women-are-always-victims paradigm and so is glossed over in preference for yet another condemnation of the male gaze. If only all men were blinded like Oedipus, what a better place the world would be for feminist academics 🙂

BP

Meanwhile, the exhibition is sponsored by BP, one of the world’s biggest producers and refiners of fossil fuels, the burning of which is propelling the earth and all its life forms towards a global warming disaster.

To me it is typical and symptomatic that a handful of fine art paintings of an ancient Greek myth get feminist curators and artists hot and bothered enough to criticise them and parody them – but destroying the planet and exterminating all the life forms on it… they’re happy to go along with that. After all, the profits from poisoning the planet pay their wages and sponsor their exhibitions.


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Every room in the Courtauld Gallery

The aim of doing all the rooms in a gallery isn’t necessarily to look at every exhibit in the place. It is to:

  • discover the out-of-the-way corners where treasures are sometimes hidden
  • get a feel for the complete geography of a place, to understand how it fits together as a building
  • and understand how the works exhibited in it fit together to tell a story (or multiple stories)

Background

The Courtauld Gallery houses the art collection of the Courtauld Institute of Art, a self-governing college of the University of London specialising in the study of the history of art.

The Courtauld collection was formed largely through donations and bequests and includes paintings, drawings, sculptures and other works from medieval to modern times. It’s a kind of miniature National Gallery, following the same story of Western art through a much smaller selection of, in many ways more exquisite, pieces. It’s best known for its French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings; those rooms are always packed.

In total, the collection contains some 530 paintings and over 26,000 drawings and prints, displayed in 12 rooms over three floors reached via the charming old stone circular staircase.

The rooms

Room one: 13th-15th century 30 paintings and altar pieces, a big statue of the crowned Virgin Mary, 12 exquisite little ivory carvings, five caskets, a marriage chest and 12 pieces of Islamic metalwork. I liked:

  • The ivory Virgin and child with a chaffinch. I understand the symbolism, having seen the same subject at the V&A ie the chaffinch was thought to eat seeds from thorny plants, thus prefiguring the crown of thorns which the little baby Jesus was destined to wear 33 years later.
  • An ivory depicting ‘Scenes from the life of Jesus’, with an Ascension scene where the crowd are, Monty Python-style, looking up at a tunic and pair of sandals disappearing out of the frame (top left section).
  • What I liked about the medieval ivories is that the figures are cramped and packed into the composition, yet important ones, the Virgin in particular, are still willowy and sinuous; it’s the combination of cramped with willowy which is one of their appeals.
  • I discovered I like Robert Campin at the National Gallery: here, I liked his Seilern Triptych (1425). The most obvious thing is how dark it is; he uses an intense black to create variety or drama across the picture plane. On a separate level, I also liked the use of the grapes motif in the gilt background. And homely details like the handmade hedge in the bottom right.
  • Compare, in terms of light, with the nearby Coronation of the Virgin by Lorenzo Monaco, amazingly sumptuous and golden, but without the extremes of black, the density and drama of the Campin.
  • I realised at the National Gallery that I like northern European medieval and Renaissance painting for its concern for individuals. A good example here is the portrait of Guillaume Fillastre from the workshop of Roger van der Weyden (1430s)
  • Ugliest baby award went to Virgin and Child with angels by Quentin Massys

Mezzanine room: ‘Panorama’ Half-way up the stairs to the first floor is a small room which holds changing displays of prints. Currently it houses 14 drawings or prints on the theme of ‘the panoramic view’, including Canaletto, two Turners, a Towne etc. The wall label said the panorama derives from Dutch interest in landscapes, confirming my view of northern Europe as being humanist, interested in individuals and places, as opposed to Italy and Spain, home to countless images of the simpering Madonna, weeping saints and the limp corpse of Jesus, all set in rocky, barren deserts.

Room two: 16th century Renaissance Europe 19 paintings and some painted marriage chests, objects whose long narrow front panels are well suited to paintings depicting processions or battle scenes. There are also 23 Renaissance ceramics in an exhibition case, but the room is dominated by Botticelli’s Trinity with saints. As I discovered in the National Gallery, I like Botticelli as a cartoonist but not as a serious painter of the human condition.

Room three: 17th century Rubens and the Baroque 18 paintings, 11 of them Rubens, and a chest. My favourites were:

  • Cranach Adam and Eve (1526) for the medieval feel, the sumptuous northern flora, and the symbolic animals. Although it’s a well known story, the painting has a strange mysterious air, as if pregnant with additional, hidden meanings.
  • Hans Mielich Portrait of Anna Reitnor (1539) A typically north European, humanistic and individualistic portrait of a specific person. Compare and contrast with…
  • Rubens Cain killing Abel The wall label can go on about what Rubens had learned from his visit to Italy and his debt to Michelangelo – this still seems to me an over-muscled, deformed account of the human body, glorifying in a kind of murder porn.
  • Similarly, I disliked the nine sketches by Tiepolo, typified by St Aloysius Gonzaga. Words can’t convey the kitsch nastiness of this Catholic propaganda.

Room four: 18th century Enlightenment As at the National Gallery, it is a great relief to walk from rooms full of tortured saints, crucified Christs and weeping Maries into the common sense, calmness and reason of the English Enlightenment. This rooms contains a pleasant selection of comfortable, bourgeois paintings by Romney, Ramsay, Gainsborough and display cases full of silver plate, cups and so on. I liked:

Room five: 19th century Early Impressionism And now for something completely different, the rooms the Courtauld is famous for, this one holding 6 paintings, 2 sculptures. I liked:

  • Degas Two dancers on stage (1874) He did hundreds of studies and oils of this subject, this one is good.
  • Renoir La Loge (1874) When I went to see the Inventing Impressionism show at the National Gallery, Renoir emerged for me as the most consistent of the Impressionists, finding his style early and sticking to it, in paintings that look more consistently finished than his colleagues’ ones.
  • Monet Autumn effect at Argenteuil (1873) Exactly the kind of Monet which looks better compacted onto a computer screen or chocolate box, than how it appears here, in the flesh, where it is much larger, much blurrier and wispier.
  • Compare and contrast with Manet’s Banks of the Seine at Argenteuil (1874). The wall label says this is the most impressionist painting Manet ever did, made while he was staying at Monet’s house at Argenteuil. Although using the same short dabs of paint and showing the same hazy disregard for detail, as his friend, the striking thing is the quality of the black in the painting, a really deep, intense, black black, there in the boat but especially the woman’s hat, and giving the other colours, especially the blue, a darker hue. This gives the whole painting a greater intensity. It kind of roots it into a starker world, a firmer world, than anything in the pink and yellow creations of Monet’s which are hanging near it.

Room six :19th century Impressionism and post-impressionism

  • Manet The bar at the Folies Bergers (1880) This isn’t a very good reproduction, but again it highlights the importance of black in Manet’s compositions.
  • Cézanne The card players (1896) The stylisation of the human form is completely convincing.
  • Cézanne Mont St Victoire (1887) Characteristic deployment of the blocks and rectangles of colour which anticipate cubism.
  • Gauguin Te Rerioa (1897) I didn’t like Gauguin when I was young. I think exposure to lots and lots of tribal and native art has helped me ‘read’ him better, so that now I just accept and enjoy the whole composition.
  • Gauguin Nevermore (1897)

Room seven: 19th century Post-impressionism Just seven paintings, the standout specimen being Self-portrait with a bandaged ear by Vincent van Gogh. I like the strong back lines and the forceful, not necessarily realistic colouring.

Room eight: An exhibition room this is currently dedicated to Bridget Riley: learning from Seurat.

Room nine: 20th century French painting 12 paintings and statues by among others Derain, Braque, early Matisse, Vlaminck.

Room ten: 20th century French painting 1905-20 12 paintings, including specimens by Dufy, Bonnard, Picasso, Léger, all dominated by the Modigliani.

  • Modigliani Female nude (1916) Perfectly and completely itself.

Room eleven a: Late 19th-early 20th century painting 8 paintings.

  • Cézanne Route tournante (1905) a) Unfinished, so I like it. b) Even more of Cézanne’s characteristic cubes and blocks of paint, creating a powerfully dynamic image.
  • Degas Woman at a window Unfinished and with strong black lines, a wonderful visionary image.

Room eleven b: 19th century Seurat sketches. A small room with 8 tiny paintings by Seurat (died 1891)

Room 12: 20th century German Expressionists A bit of a relief to emerge from the fuzziness of France into the bright, barbarian virility of strident German expressionism. 12 big bold crude paintings.

Room 13: 20th century British painting Half a dozen big horrible paintings by Leon Kossof and Frank Auerbach, with an early Lucien Freud to brighten the gloom.

Rooms 14 and 15 are devoted to temporary exhibitions – earlier in the year Goya’s Witches and Old Women Album, currently the wonderful show of Peter Lanyon’s gliding paintings.

Conclusions

If I didn’t know before, spending three hours walking slowly through these wonderful rooms packed with treasures, made me realise a few simple things about my taste:

  • I like unfinished paintings, sketches and cartoons, where the image/work/composition is struggling to emerge, struggling to create order and beauty from the chaos of perception, or has the pathos and fragility of incompletion
  • I like firm lines which define the subject, especially the human subject, as in Degas or van Gogh
  • I like works which contain black blacks: for some reason its presence makes the entire work seem deeper, as if the spectrum from a really deep black to the light which reveals the object is wider, the experience of the colours on the canvas or wood, deeper and richer.

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Rubens and his Legacy @ The Royal Academy

This is a large exhibition in terms of number of items, but a vast one in terms of scope. It sets out to track the legacy of the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), one of the most influential of all western artists, and makes large claims for his impact on a wide range of genres and painters in every European country.

As it is setting out to demonstrate his impact and legacy, the majority of the pictures (and sketches and engravings) in the exhibition are not by Rubens; in some of the rooms it feels like only 3 or 4 out of 20 items are by Peter Paul (PP). Most of them are by the contemporaries or later artists who followed in his footsteps. It might be possible to misread the posters and publicity and feel a bit cheated…

Nonetheless, as the exhibition proceeds, its curators’ intentions are to some extent fulfilled, insofar as you do start to genuinely see Rubens’s influence – in composition and colour and treatment – in a growing number of the paintings by other artists. You begin to have an intimidating sense of the breadth and depth of his legacy. (And, from the enjoyment point of view, many of the works by other artists are masterpieces in their own right, a pleasure to see whatever the context.)

The audioguide (26 items, 50 minutes) claims that without Rubens, no rococo, no romanticism, no impressionism. Bold claim: is it justified?

Poetry

The exhibition is divided into six themes. By ‘poetry’, the curators mean landscape. Early on the commentary makes an amusing statement of national stereotypes. Apparently, English painters took from Rubens his techniques in landscape, the French were interested in his treatment of love and eroticism, the Spanish copied his Counter-Reformation religious drama, and Germans liked the virility and pathos of his paintings. Each conforming to type, then.

The exhibition starts with ‘the English theme’, Rubens’s treatment of landscape. We are shown a Rubens landscape with carters and are told that the left side of the picture is in moonlight, the right side in sunlight, impossible in reality, but adding drama to an otherwise mundane scene. Near it the curators hang similar subjects by the English landscapists Gainsborough, Constable and Turner, among others – notably Constable’s full-size oil sketch for The Haywain. Rubens dramatised landscape, the moonlight-sunlight being an example. Another popular one was showing a landscape just after a rainstorm has ended, leaving a brilliant rainbow behind. There’s a Rubens showing just such a post-storm rainbow – and then a number of examples showing how English artists copied him. Constable, in particular, explicitly praised Rubens composition and colour in his notebooks. (Apparently Constable is famous for his use of red and the commentary says he copied this from Rubens). The section on Constable reinforced the impression gained from the recent Constable exhibition of how artful and calculating an artist he was.

Rubens to one side, I enjoyed many of the works by other artists on show in this room, including a wonderful sketch by Gainsborough, The Harvest Wagon, notable for its handling of the human figures, a cartoon, Daumier-like precision of shape and line and action. Also – very English – for its modesty.

The Garden of Love

Like many of Rubens’ larger paintings, the hugely influential Garden of Love is drenched in allegory and classical models: the elaborate architecture, the flying putti, the statue of Jove, queen of the gods, squeezing water from her ample breasts. Beneath them, in their shade and protection, these flirting mortals are featuring in one of the first ever scenes of contemporary people enjoying leisure time outdoors. Previously it was gods or military heroes or landscapes with peasants. Here are real people – albeit well-off people – but still real contemporaries, wearing contemporary costume, flirting and partying in the open air.

Peter Paul Rubens  The Garden of Love, c. 1633  Oil on canvas, 199 x 286 cm  Museo Nacional del Prado. Madrid  Photo c. Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Peter Paul Rubens, The Garden of Love, c. 1633
Museo Nacional del Prado. Madrid

This painting bewitched the French painter Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) who went on to develop his own style of light-hearted love scenes set outdoors. The argument goes: Rubens invented Watteau who invented the fetes galantes, inaugurating the age of rococo art in France.

More examples of Rubens, such as Chateau In A Park, are set against numerous sketches and oil paintings by Watteau, including the wonderful La Surprise, as well as works by other 18th century rococo painters such as Jean-Honoré Fragonard.

Jean-Antoine Watteau  La Surprise: A Couple Embracing While a Figure Dressed as mezzetin Tunes a Guitar, 1718-19  Oil on panel, 36.3 x 28.2 cm  Private Collection  Photo: Private Collection

Jean-Antoine Watteau
La Surprise: A Couple Embracing While a Figure Dressed as mezzetin Tunes a Guitar, (1718-19)
Private Collection

Elegance

By which the curators mean portraiture. Rubens spent four years in Genoa (then a city made rich by trade in silks and fabrics) painting the wives of the richest bankers and merchants. The largest example of this period is the portrait of Marchesa Maria Grimaldi, and Her Dwarf – an ugly painting but, wow, the detailing of the gold cloth of her dress is amazing and lustrous in reality (reproductions completely fail to capture it). Note the classical columns (aren’t I classy) and the rich velvet curtain (aren’t I rich) and the bounding little dog (aren’t I sensitive).

The most direct influence of Rubens’s portrait style was on Anthony van Dyck, child prodigy and Rubens’s pupil, working directly under him in Antwerp before himself travelling to Genoa to make money. Van Dyck toned Rubens down, his portraits are cooler, more detached. In the Genoese Noblewoman and her Son, we have the classical architecture in the background and the luxury curtain (aren’t I cultured and rich) but the sitter is side on to the viewer, that much more self-contained, less revealing (aren’t I aloof). The boy is staring at us with the look of command and authority he is destined to grow into, and the dog is looking up at his future master. The thing is dripping with multiple layers of power and authority.

Sir Anthony Van Dyck  A Genoese Noblewoman and Her Son, c. 1626  Oil on canvas, 191.5 x 139.5 cm  National Gallery of Art, Washington, Widener Collection, 1942.9.91  Photo Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

Sir Anthony Van Dyck
A Genoese Noblewoman and Her Son, c. 1626
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Widener Collection

Van Dyck came to the court of Charles I (generally thought to have been the most genuinely cultivated of all British monarchs and who was rewarded for it by having his head cut off) and was knighted for his services to the crown and aristocracy. Van Dyck forged an image of Charles as the tall (he was short), wise (he was stupid), and authoritative (he alienated everyone who ever served him) ruler that he wasn’t.

The commentary made the striking claim that van Dyck invented the English gentleman which, if you’re familiar with his portraits of the English aristocracy, is at least plausible.

Back with PP, the exhibition is making the claim that Rubens is the father of the grand British portrait, and sets off to prove it by placing his huge portrait with dwarf opposite a selection of equally imposing portraits of rich people by Sir Joshua Reynolds, Sir Thomas Gainsborough and Sir Thomas Lawrence, portraitists to the British upper classes from the 1770s to the 1830s. The examples here – say, Elizabeth Lamb Viscountess Melbourne with her son – are very large like the Rubens originals, they keep an architectural frame and a drape, but they are less sumptuous and rich, the colour is drabber, and the background is, in line with the English fondness for landscape, a realistic slice of countryside, presumably the estate of this rich woman.

Or take Thomas Lawrence’s Portrait of Mrs Arthur Annesley, a big slab of classical architecture, but with quite an extensive view over the estate on the right, and the painting dominated by sweet little darling children, appropriate to the Age of Sentiment.

Power

The previous rooms feel like they’ve been warming us up for the heart of the exhibition, two rooms dedicated to Rubens’s work as a propagandist of genius. It is staggering to be reminded all over again of his achievements completely outside the realm of art, for Rubens was also a diplomat, a spy and an antiquarian – a figure famous across Europe. Rather as with The Garden of Love, mentioned above, his achievement in political painting was to integrate classical mythology with everday reality, in this case with accurate depictions of living contemporary rulers, and to set both in a convincing space and tableau.

His masterpiece is the series of massive 24 paintings showing the career of Marie de Medicis and her husband, King Henri IV of France. A room is dedicated to a small selection of the numerous preparatory sketches Rubens made, and to an enormous screen projecting a video compilation of the finished paintings which currently hang in the Louvre. They are overwhelming, brilliant, vast, powerful in conception and in their myriad of details

Peter Paul Rubens  The Triumph of Henri IV, 1630  Oil on panel, 49.5 x 83.5 cm  Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1942 (42.187) Photo c. 2013. Image copyright The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Art Resource / Scala, Florence

Peter Paul Rubens
The Triumph of Henri IV, 1630
Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1942 (42.187)

Also in the same room and given the same treatment is the immense roof of the Banqueting Hall in Whitehall, London, which can still be seen today. It is covered in its entirety by scenes painted by Rubens and commissioned by Charles I to depict the power and glory of his father, King James I of Britain. It, also, is a commanding series of images, though less overwhelming than the Medici ones – and its impact slightly spoiled for anyone who knows that the paintings were still not complete when Charles I was led from that very room onto a scaffold built along the first floor of the building, to be beheaded. Absolute Monarchy, English style.

Hundreds of painters copied the example Rubens set of lending mythological force and dramatic mises-en-scenes to the depiction of contemporary rulers, from the Sun King to Hitler. The results are splendid but may be the most antipathetic to English taste…

Compassion

Or at least that’s what I thought till I entered the 5th room, which is about religion. Rubens was a devout Catholic and painter to the Counter-Reformation authorities. Ah. The largest Rubens in the room is the altarpiece Christ On the Straw, in which I found all the faults I dislike about most Christian art (and which I loathed in the recent Veronese exhibition at the National Gallery) – sentimental, lachrymose, stagey, inauthentic and banal.

There were lots of copies of this image, or something like it, by numerous subsequent artists, from David Wilkie doing the Grand Tour to Vincent van Gogh (!). Maybe the only one I liked was another sketch by Gainsborough, Descent from the Cross (after Sir Peter Paul Rubens). Seems to me Gainsborough expresses compassion in the shape and flow of the composition – the agony is implied, unlike the Rubens original where the white operatic faces are white with extreme emotion, the eyes drenched with tears and turned imploringly up to an angel-infested heaven.

Violence

Hell Along with the sentimentalism it evokes around the story of the crucifixion, Christianity is also famous for the extreme violence of much of its imagery of revenge, and the weakest room in the exhibition is devoted to these images which take their cue from Rubens’ large and vividly imagined Fall of The Damned. Shame we couldn’t see the original, which is in a church in Germany to terrify the faithful. The engravings and copies here show the delight in a multitude of grisly physical tortures which always tickle the Christian imagination (Dante’s Inferno) but not the sense of falling into the picture and joining the devilish throng which the original was presumably designed to make you feel.

Rape The violence of the religious imagination is set by the curators next to the popular of myths and legends about the rape or abduction of women in classical mythology, which Rubens depicted repeatedly, along with his copiers and devotees – The Rape of Proserpina, The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus. These compositions are stagey, operatic, full of carefully arranged violence, at the centre of which are plump women with their clothes falling off. Various reviews mention how uncomfortable the British have been with elements of Rubens’s legacy, and I personally dislike this and the religious iconography, both, for shamelessly exploiting the viewer. With a landscape I feel my aesthetic sense is being appealed to. With a painting of Mary bursting into tears or scantily clad women being abducted by musclemen in armour I feel much baser emotions are being aimed at.

The Hunt Another room was dominated by Rubens’s very big painting of a Tiger, Lion and Leopard Hunt (1617) and around it hung works showing the way this scene – the full drama of the capture of a large, exotic, wild animal – was repeated with variations by painters like Eugène Delacroix and the Englishman Sir Edwin Landseer. It was Delacroix, apparently, who said: ‘Be inspired by Rubens, copy Rubens, look at Rubens.’

Lust

We arrive, exhausted with sensual overload, at the final room which has numerous paintings of scantily clad women being leered at, or just about to be seized by, a satyr. The women are notable for their large thighs, buttocks and bellies and relatively small breasts, as in the Pan and Syrinx of 1617.

Peter Paul Rubens  Pan and Syrinx, 1617  Oil on panel, 40 x 61 cm  Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel, Gemaeldegalerie Alte Meister, Kassel  Photo: Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel, Gemaeldegalerie Alte Meister/Ute Brunzel

Peter Paul Rubens
Pan and Syrinx, 1617
Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel, Gemaeldegalerie Alte Meister, Kassel

The women are always painted as pink and light-skinned, symbolising their purity and innocence. The pans or satyrs are super-muscular figures, their sunburnt skins darkening towards their crotch, wherein lies the source of lust and the hellish pleasures which will buy their owners a one-way ticket to the Fall of Damned, mentioned above.

It was interesting to learn how Rubens used a variety of tints to create the appearance of flesh, including the use of blue or green tints to imply shadowed skin, next to unshadowed pink or white.

And it was interesting to see a roomful of works depicting the same subject by Watteau, Boucher, Renoir and Picasso – but whether this is due to Rubens’ influence or to the abiding interest in revealing the naked female body to the male artist’s male patrons and buyers, to the male gaze generally – is open to debate.

Certainly a room full of predatory, half-bestial men caught in the act of preying on exaggeratedly innocent, wide-eyed maidens left me feeling queasy and was maybe not the best final image to have of Rubens.

But this exhibition, exhaustive and exhausting, succeeds, and then some, in convincing you that Rubens was one of the most important and influential painters in western art.

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