In July 2002, the art world gasped when Sotheby’s knocked down to Lord Thomson of Fleet an old master painting for the unheard-of sum of almost $76 million (£49.5 million) – a financial league in which hitherto the only players had been Impressionists and Picasso. The astonishment was all the greater given that the artist was Rubens, whose merits are beyond question but whose popularity rating certainly lags behind many of his contemporaries, the painting a (relatively) early work (ca. 1612) and thus not what a wider audience would hold as a ‘typical’ Rubens, and the subject, a disturbing Massacre of the Innocents , never easy to take at the best of times but rendered here with rarely seen violence and horrific realism. Following its acquisition, the painting went on display at the National Gallery in London, where under the aegis of David Jaffé it formed the focal point of an on-going, informal, in-house presentation, which continually juxtaposed the composition with various stylistically relevant works from the Gallery’s own Rubens collection as well as works lent by other institutions and private collectors. Visitors to the Rubens Room never knew what constellation they would encounter, what confrontations Jaffé had arranged to demonstrate the position of the Massacre within the artist’s oeuvre in the years following his return from Italy (1608).
It has then to be said that it was not without a degree of risk for the National Gallery to subsequently organize an exhibition that would again address – if in an expanded context – the same material. Moreover, given the spate of Rubens exhibitions in 2004-2005, what was to be learned from yet another show? As it happened, quite a lot. The exhibition immediately dispelled any fears of being treated to ‘more of the same.’ The National Gallery has considerable experience in organizing exhibitions that focus on a particular period in an artist’s career, and the Rubens exhibition reaffirmed the value of such an approach. An innovative and sometimes unconventional hanging succeeded in stimulating the viewer into seeing and understanding just how Rubens’s artistic mind worked, how a motif once applied was filed away – perhaps in the notebook known as the ‘Pocketbook’ (from which one of the two surviving sheets was exhibited), but certainly in his mind – to be used again in an improved, adapted or varied form. This approach was immediately evident upon entering the first room where the Battle of the Amazons (Potsdam; landscape by Jan Brueghel; cat. 1) of about 1598, but in any case pre-Italy, hung next to a hitherto unknown composition of the same subject (cat. 3), dated by Jaffé to 1603-1605 – the earlier date more convincing. This juxtaposition showed the extent to which Rubens was still occupied with what he had painted years previously. Instead of simply overwriting his northern experience with the new visual impressions of Italy, he recalled with astonishing clarity his earlier composition, reworked certain central motifs such as the group of two Amazons struggling with Hercules and the mounted Amazon holding aloft a severed head, and incorporated new ideas gleaned in Italy. This was for example admirably conveyed by the display of three drawings below the painting which allowed viewers to see, among other things, that Rubens derived the rather ungainly figure of an Amazon wrestling with one Greek while another grasps her around the waist from Michelangelo’s marble relief of The Battle of Lapiths and Centaurs – some would question the validity of including the drawing (cat. 31; Paris, Institut Néerlandais) since its attribution to Rubens has been doubted (by Anne-Marie Logan, Master Drawings 1977*), as is acknowledged in the catalogue; nevertheless, its presence contributed much to elucidating exactly how Rubens extracted ideas from visual sources and inserted them, suitably amended, into his own works. Precisely how much importance Rubens placed on re-working pre-Italian compositions was further apparent in the display of his three earliest renditions of the Judgement of Paris – for this reviewer a particular treat: the pre-Italian panel from the National Gallery, the small copper painting from Vienna (though I suggest a date closer to 1605 than the proposed 1601) and the Mannerist portrayal from Madrid (dated to 1606-1608, though it could conceivably be post-Italy).
Rubens’s preoccupation with ancient sculpture is a well-explored subject, his many drawings (plenty of which were on show) testifying to his intense study of famous and less well-known examples. But it is rare to find statues and paintings displayed together; when they are it is most illuminating, as was the case with the grouping of the Venus Medici (a cast) and Abraham Janssens’s Pan and Syrinx (Bremen) in the 2004 Pan and Syrinx exhibition in Kassel. In London the focus was on the famous Crouching Venus of Doidalses, present as a small bronze and a large marble version. Their strategic positioning afforded visitors a continually changing perspective of the sculpture itself, and placed it against a changing panorama of paintings, thus illustrating not only how Rubens perceived and incorporated the figure or variations thereof into compositions as diverse as the Fall of Phaeton (cat. 65), theMiraculous Draught of Fishes (cat. 64) and the Massacre of the Innocents (cat. 82), but also providing visual confirmation of the extent to which he followed his own theoretical principal of infusing figures inspired by or copied after stone sculpture with life. Another fascinating exhibit was a marble relief of three sleeping putti (Galleria Borghese; unfortunately not illustrated in the catalogue), which had been acquired by the Borghese in 1607 and on the evidence of a comparison with the group of slain children in the right foreground of the Massacre of the Innocents most probably was known to Rubens.
Though the Massacre of the Innocents had previously been seen in the company of many of the exhibits, it came as a surprise that here it appeared quite flat, its figures merging into a rather undifferentiated mass, and possessing somewhat insipid colouring – especially when compared to the luxuriant Samson and Delilah on the opposite wall. This impression had however much to do with the fact that one approached the painting from the right, an experience less pronounced in the Gallery’s upstairs Rubens Room; but on turning back to look at the picture and thus viewing it from the left, the composition suddenly opened up to acquire an astonishing depth and three-dimensionality, and this shift of vantage point made the brutality of the slaughter, and especially the horrific scene of the man about to dash a baby against the pedestal, appear unbearably and realistically alive. It therefore seems to me that the Massacre was most likely painted for a specific location, one where Rubens knew viewers would approach from the left and thus walk into (as it were) the very centre of the carnage. Hopefully, some unexpected documentary discovery will some day shed light on the painting’s earliest history.
It was however a great shame that the large Recognition of Philopoemen of 1612-13 (cat. 89) on loan from the Prado was displayed out of context in the upstairs Rubens Room – apparently because of lack of space. Many visitors will have missed seeing this great painting, which would have provided admirable company in the actual exhibition – after all, its compositional structure, with its strong left to right movement, receding (albeit abbreviated) architecture with greenery, and still life in the lower right, is not altogether different from that of the Massacre of the Innocents , and its strong visual language and coloring could have provided a powerful statement in the last room of the exhibition, which, notwithstanding the presence of fine works, paled in comparison to the earlier rooms. There it would moreover have taken up the theme of artistic co-operation that first appeared in Rubens’s pre-Italian Battle of the Amazons (cat. 1), painted together with Jan Brueghel the Elder. The magnificent still life in theRecognition of Philopoemen was executed by Frans Snyders, with whom Rubens was subsequently to co-operate on many occasions, as indeed he did with Brueghel. The Prado painting thus in many ways stands on the threshold to the next phase of Rubens’s career, when the involvement of other painters, be they well-known specialists, young artists like Anthony van Dyck, at the onset of their careers, or the many anonymous assistants who populated his well-run studio, was essential if Rubens was to satisfy the enormous demand for his work.
The catalogue opens with three relatively short essays. The first by David Jaffé and Minna Moore Ede is a brief biographical account of Rubens’s early years, mapping the most important topographical locations, their artistic relevance, and received commissions up to the completion in 1614 of the Descent from the Cross (Antwerp Cathedral). In “Rubens’s ‘Pocketbook’: An Introduction to the Creative Process”, Jaffé and Amanda Bradley look anew at the artist’s famous notebook, which was destroyed by fire in 1720 (bar two sheets), though a partial (and often disputed reconstruction) can be made on the basis of three other sketchbooks and a printed source. Avoiding the problematic issue of the make-up of the lost original, the authors keep the theme of the exhibition in mind and discuss the Pocketbook as a compendium of invention and creativity by looking in particular at how Rubens reworked familiar motifs. Among other aspects, they take a closer look at his transformation of figures taken from Holbein’s Dance of Deathand the varying contexts in which they subsequently appear in his paintings; Rubens was of course well acquainted with the German artist’s prints, having copied them (often with intriguing changes) prior to his departure for Italy (cf. exh. cat. Images of Death , Antwerp, Rubenshuis, 2000).
The final essay by Elizabeth McGrath on “Words and Thoughts in Rubens’s Early Drawings” examines the artist’s many inscriptions in Latin, Flemish or Italian on drawings, identifies the literary source in the case of citations (often from ancient texts) and discusses the nature of other types of inscriptions: sometimes these are notes to himself: about coloring, the illustration of different gestures, emotions, natural phenomenon etc.; sometimes they record more fundamental aspects of composition or means of expressing the passions; or they tell us of works of art he has seen and what he admired in them (e.g. Daniele da Volterra’s Deposition ). Not all inscriptions are decipherable or easily understood, as is apparent from McGrath’s fascinating analysis of the sheet with Medea and her Children (fig. 24). As in the exhibition itself, we again see Rubens’s mind at work, how his visual sources (an ancient sarcophagus, an engraving by Bonasone) inspired his expressive sketch of the insanely jealous Medea while at the same time his vivid imagination is conjuring up an alternative form of depiction, recorded only in the inscription, and then (as McGrath astutely observed) revealed only through one small but essential word: vel (or).
The 91 catalogue entries were written by David Jaffé, Minna Moore Ede, Ulrich Heinen, Veronika Kopecky and Elizabeth McGrath, with contributions by Delfina Bergamaschi and Amanda Bradley, though in fact the great majority are a joint production by Jaffé and Moore Ede. The entries are organized into six categories, each prefaced by a short introduction to the particular topographical (On the Move; Reworking of Rome; Back in Antwerp) or iconographical (Battle Painter; Religious Painter; Sequences: Building a Composition) grouping; obviously some groupings are more homogenous than others. A more rigorous editing would have removed inaccuracies or inconsistencies, many of which scholars will catch but not the general public. The publication is lavishly illustrated, with comparative works reproduced in color and many interesting details of the actual exhibits. Under the best of circumstances, a catalogue can only offer a pale reflection of the visual experience of the exhibition it documents. The extravagant use of color illustrations throughout the present catalogue, notably for the illustrations of ancient sculpture (often shot from unexpected vantage points), does at least go some way towards conveying a flavor of the dynamics of this visually driven exhibition.
*Anne-Marie Logan communicated verbally her opinion on the following drawings: cat. 13 (Last Judgement – doubtful); cat. 29 (Two Men Wrestling – perhaps gone over by another hand); cat. 35 (Study of Legs – a copy, cf. Master Drawings , 1977); cat. 38 (ƒcorché Nude – not by Rubens, more likely the printmaker, but not Pontius, to whom she attributes a drawing in the Welcome Institute); cat. 59 (The Entombment – too complete, too much wash, darker ink more like that used by Van Dyck)