Rubens. The Power of Transformation at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, and the Städel Museum, Frankfurt, was a truly opulent show about the creative processes of Peter Paul Rubens. The KHM tightly filled eight rooms with 120 works from collections worldwide, providing the opportunity to delve into the painter’s world where emulation, allusion to famous models, the use of and variations on well-known formulae were intellectual exercises among the republic of learned men, appreciated by royal patrons and other noble clients. Paintings, sculptures, drawings and prints by German, Netherlandish and Italian Renaissance artists and statues by ancient sculptors, mostly shown in plaster casts, demonstrated the way in which Rubens copied, analyzed, arranged and transformed these models in his own works. Thematically organized, in the Vienna showing the numerous loans were displayed around the museum’s own magnificent paintings, especially the large altarpieces, too large to be moved, whereas in Frankfurt the exhibition was more intimate for lack of the larger Viennese canvases. For reasons of preservation, some of the drawings too were limited to one venue only.
From a well-to-do family, but not a prodigy child artist, Rubens preferred painting over a diplomatic career or a life at court, two venues that also would have been open to him. After an apprenticeship with three Antwerp artists among whom the most prominent vas Otto van Veen, Rubens traveled to Italy in 1600 where he spent most of his time at the court of the Duke of Mantua and in Rome. While still a pupil he copied the prints of Hans Holbein the Younger (Cat. 5), Tobias Stimmer and Jost Amman (Cat. 2, 88), Barthel Beham (Cat. 9), Hendrick Goltzius (Cat. 7, 87) and other Netherlandish printmakers. Not surprisingly, among Antwerp artists his teacher Otto van Veen exerted the greatest influence on him as a young painter, as convincingly demonstrated in Vienna by the latter’s curious Amazons and Scythians (Cat. 36), recently discovered in the KHM’s depot by Gerlinde Gruber, curator of Flemish Baroque Painting at the museum and one of the organizers of the exhibition (diplayed in Vienna only). Hanging next to Rubens’s early Judgment of Paris (National Gallery, London; Cat. 34), it is all too evident how the younger artist emulated his teacher in the depiction of the female nude, especially the pink flesh tones on the female bottoms, at the same time reaffirming the pre-Italy dating of the London painting.
Rubens’s eight years in Italy in his early and mid-twenties opened a painterly universe to him, providing him with the vital stimulation to develop into an outstanding draftsman and painter. He studied the works or compositions of Mantegna, Leonardo, Raphael (Cat. 26, 27, 37), Giulio Romano, Pordenone (Cat. 20), Michelangelo (Cat. 13), Titian (Cat. 17, 18, 103, 104, 108, 120, 122), Veronese and Tintoretto (Cat. 73), not to mention those by lesser known artists, such as Bartolomeo Passarotti (Cat. 14) and Francesco Salviati. Among contemporaries, he turned his attention to Caravaggio (Cat. 90), Federico Barocci (Cat. 68), Annibale Carracci (Cat. 25), Adam Elsheimer (Cat. 24, 31, 83, 97) and Hans Rottenhammer (Cat. 38). This encounter took the form of simple copying or collecting and retouching the copies of other artists after these exemplary works. From them he learned the use of color and form, of the body’s movements and expressions, of composition and design on a grand scale.
Rubens’s principal interest, however, was devoted to the works of antiquity, as witnessed by his many copies after ancient sculpture, shown in the exhibition by his drawings after the Laocöon (Cats. 50, 51), the Belvedere Torso (Cat. 46, 47) and Centaur and Cupid (Cat. 55). These ancient models were adopted in paintings of subjects that either preserved their original meaning, that converted their pagan origin into Christian iconography or transformed them into contemporary portraiture. Thus the Crouching Venus (on loan from Naples; Cat. 57) appears as Venus Frigida (Antwerp; Cat. 58) and Venus Mourning the Dead Adonis (Jerusalem and Dulwich; Cat. 59, 60); the Centaur and Cupid is transfigured into the image of the Ecce Homo (St. Petersburg; Cat. 56); and the Venus de’ Medici, combined with Titian’s Girl in a Fur (Cat. 123) metamorphosed into the magnificent portrait of Helena Fourment Wrapped in a Fur (“Het Pelsken”; Cat. 122). From Tobias Stimmer, Jost Amman and Hendrik Goltzius to the giants Michelangelo, Raphael and Titian, to the great sculptors of antiquity – this is the broad spectrum of artistic expressions from which Rubens appropriated those aspects that would be useful to him and which he moulded and transformed into his own unique style.
The catalogue accompanying the exhibition consists of the Introduction, twelve essays discussing Rubens’s different aspects of “Transformation” (the antique, creative processes, visual eloquence, invention, composition, passions) followed by 127 short catalogue entries. Rubens’s indefatigable study of other artists’ works is not a new topic amongst Rubens scholars, as witnessed by the four volumes (twelve physical volumes) – and more to come – in the Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard, yet this exhibition demonstrated this skill on a mighty scale.
Veronika Korbei (Kopecky)