Among the many exhibitions of Rubens’s work that took place in the year 2004, the Brunswick exhibition Peter Paul Rubens: Barocke Leidenschaften deserves particular mention. Here a topic is explored that was from the early seventeenth century onwards intrinsically connected with the experience of Rubens’s art: the visual energy of his figural inventions reaching out to the viewers, the emotional impact and bold actuality of his historical, mythological and allegorical tales. Rubens’s work epitomizes a quality that had become of central importance in art theoretical literature from the late sixteenth century onwards: the capacity of a lively and life-like image to engrave itself deeply on the mind, provoking our physical response. The Brunswick exhibition investigates the mechanisms and visual strategies of Rubens’s emotionally effective art through all genres and periods of his vast work.
Like the exhibition, the catalogue is organized into six sections focusing on three clusters of affects and passions: ‘Love, Ecstasy, Desire’; ‘Fear, Wrath, Triumph’; and ‘Faith, Love, Hope’. A section titled ‘Withstanding’ (‘Standhalten’) assembles the artist’s most gruesome and psychologically most difficult inventions as well as his images of Seneca, which were motivated by classical statuary and his preoccupation with the Stoic and Neostoic virtue of constantia. Two final sections, ‘The Atelier of the Passions’ and ‘The Theatre of the Passions’,discuss Rubens’s work sheets and sketches as the building blocks of his pictorial compositions and assemble the large and more than life-size paintings for which Rubens’s artistic temperament, as he himself claimed, was particularly suited. Both exhibition and catalogue begin with Paulus Pontius’s engraved Rubens portraits, presenting the artist as a high-ranking aristocrat with a composed and serene mind.
While focusing exclusively on Rubens’s work, the book reaches far beyond an exclusively monographic approach; it is first and foremost a contribution to the study of emotional culture in early modern Europe, a topic which has received increasing attention in the course of the past ten years. The catalogue is introduced by nine essays that investigate various aspects of Rubens’s art or its early modern reception. Büttner’s comments on Rubens’s biography are particularly suited to introduce an exhibition on ‘Baroque passions.’ Rather than searching for biographical elements that would allow insight into Rubens’s ‘affective household,’ Büttner explores the topoi Rubens and his humanist friends employed to fashion an artistic self that conforms with the ideals of Antwerp’s urban elites. Aristocratic dignity, too, was in accord with the claims and self-understanding of the higher stratum of Antwerp’s elites. Within this context the publication of Paulus Pontius’s engraving after Rubens’s self-portrait for the Prince of Wales (later Charles I) in 1630 – the year Rubens received knighthood from this very king – suggests a calculated use of printed portraits and an individual and social self-understanding that Rubens shared with the city’s humanists and high-ranking officials.
Ulrich Heinen’s essay (‘Peter Paul Rubens – Baroque Passions’) introduces the project as a whole. Heinen is currently preparing a broader study on the representation of the passions in Rubens’s work and the visual media of the early Baroque, on which the concept of this exhibition is based. Departing from a broad and multifaceted understanding of affects, Heinen investigates the role of emotions in rhetorical practice, philosophical anthropology and visual aesthetics. It has long been known that Seneca’s work had a great appeal for Rubens and his friends, and newer studies have once more documented the importance of Neostoicism for the history of natural science and political thought. Rubens owned both Lipsius’s Seneca edition and the edition of Seneca’s tragedies by the Jesuit Martin Delrio. Delrio’s poetics offers a parallel model of aesthetic experience in which the profound and immediate emotion of the audience serves as a means to achieve an equanimous, even-tempered mind.
Heinen further employs Seneca’s description of the effects of ‘ictus’ – a blow or shock involving intellect and emotions – in order to explain Rubens’s violent imagery that takes the spectator by surprise and works on the mind independent from the will. In a similar manner, one might add, did Bishop Gabriele Paleotti speak of realistic images (imagini fatte al vivo) that ‘violate our unwary senses’ (che quasi violentano i sensi incauti), provoking ‘bodily alterations and signs.’ Rubens’s powerful paintings, as Heinen further explains, were created at a time when the concept of passion itself changed, from something that afflicts or befalls one (passio, affectus) to a more inward movement or emotion caused by the physical movements of the heart. Combined with a careful analysis of Rubens’s artistic strategies and techniques, Heinen’s broad anthropological, philosophical and historical approach to Rubens’s artistic project introduces his work as part of a larger attempt to understand, represent and interpret the passions of the mind: a project intimately linked to a new affective culture, which began to emerge in the 1600s in the scientific disciplines and the arts.
In her article on ‘love as painted by Rubens’ (the subtitle may be translated as ‘perceiving the unexpected, interpreting the expected’), Fiona Healy convincingly demonstrates that Rubens often inversed conventional iconographies and compositional patterns by adding gestures or attributes in order to complicate the depicted story, give it a new or ambivalent perspective. It is through these elements that the attention of the viewer is stimulated and engaged. With the example of the Louvre Kermesse flamande Healy shows that Rubens frequently mixed pictorial genres – in this case adding elements of erotic and matrimonial allegories to a subject of comical satire. Rubens’s depictions of violence, as Andreas Vetter argues, similarly make use of motifs and gestures that directly address the viewer offering him or her an aesthetic vocabulary of choice.
While Healy and Vetter argue primarily from the visual evidence of the paintings themselves, the articles by Birgit Franke and Barbara Welzel investigate the social and visual practices in which Rubens’s works were received. Franke interprets Rubens’s Garden of Love and his Bacchic Scene in the Vienna Galerie der Akademie as images that stimulate and allow for sensual delight, the grotto imagery referring to the artificial garden grottoes that served as both private areas and ‘free spaces’ within the context of courtly life. Welzel looks at the frequent practice to veil and reveal the most prominent art works in early modern collections. The painted picture galleries, a pictorial genre invented in early seventeenth-century Antwerp, reflect a social use of images and visual media that implies the verbal and gestural response of the beholder. The study of early modern practices of display and concealment is of particular importance in that it shows the picture gallery as a site of pleasure, communication and affective response. The essays by Silke Gatenbröcker and Thomas Döring present the Brunswick collections of Rubens’s paintings and prints, while Claus Kemmer discusses the central role of Rubens in Roger de Piles’s theoretical writings and in seventeenth-century art theory in the Netherlands.
The core of the book is – according to this reviewer – formed by the 93 catalogue entries. Written by Ulrich Heinen and Nils Büttner, they are beautifully tailored to the general theme. The authors explore the range of expressive possibilities of Rubens’s work; his artistic and painterly techniques that make a figure appear to communicate with the beholder. Both authors refer extensively to Rubens’s practice to use figural inventions in various contexts and thus change and vary their emotional color and tone. If available, information about owners or early viewers is given; when applicable, subsequent artistic explorations these works provoked is discussed. In their richness and density the catalogue essays form an intriguing commentary on a central problem of early Baroque art – the representation of the passions of the mind. From various perspectives they document the forms of friendship and shared love of art that were lastly the source of Rubens’s pictorial inventions.
University of Washington