Rubens at the Royal Academy is yet another art institution indulging the fast growing fashion of the (Legacy) exhibition. The end of last year we saw Anarchy and Beauty William Morris and his legacy at the National Portrait Gallery and the From East to West,the legacy of Pop Art at London Saatchi Gallery both of which did a reasonable job at (albeit with far more obvious links) dealing with the tricky subject of influences. So how has the Royal Academy gone about its business of linkage and influence with this much anticipated exhibition without taking us to the land of Tenuous Connection.
For those lovers of the Rubens trade mark chunky nudes or eye blisteringly coloureful dramatic action scenes, the six Rubens oil(yes I did say six) paintings on display in this six room exhibition will leave you to ponder in greater detail, the connections between some very unlikely bedfellows in team legacy. Every day, in every art gallery in the world, vast armies of art students, pencils in hand are tasked with vacuuming up the styles and techniques of the good and the greats before them, to influences or dismiss as they see fit in search for their own identity and style. So when a nationally recognised gallery decides to mount a exhibition who’s subject is based on legacy, the foundation of these connections needs to be stronger then those of the Golden Gate Bridge.
The exhibition begins oddly with a Constable oil sketch The Cottage of East Bergholt which we are told was inspired by Ruben’s landscapes, with the delicate use of light as the storm departs replaced with the exhilaration of the returning sun, bringing with it a rainbow and this it seems acted as the incentive to the likes of Constable, Turner and Gainsborough who thus regarded him as the father of form. I must admit I have never given Ruben’s landscapes a great deal of thought until now, but yes I can see how Turner might have been influenced by the Ruins of Mount Palatine in Rome 1615 or Constable and Gainsborough by Milkmaids with Cattle 1618 but the same might be said of any one of a hundred landscape painters and I find it hard to believe there is a single road to Demascus epiphany that points in one direction, but rather a steady life long learning curve.
Rubens is a painters painter there is little doubt of that, but where does he figure in the great scheme of things. If for instance you ask ten people to name their top ten European master painters, would you bet on Rubens being on the list along side Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Van Gogh or Leonardo da Vinci. The point is, Rubens has never been trendy and the RA has had to work hard selling this exhibition and resorts to some progressively desperate measures to retain the Legacy theme, like a rock concert play list with Rubens the star turn with lots of support bands under collective heading of Rock music.
Eugene Delacroix Crucifixion 1846
The exhibition is arranged thematically and progresses through poetry, portraiture, religion, violence and lust and features an entourage of the most famous names in art from Van Dyck to Warhol and even Sarah Lucas and Edwin Landseer have found something in common. There is enough in this exhibition to justify the ticket price, but I think we have gone a Legacy exhibition to far with Rubens, its connections far too tenuous to the point of verging on opinion, but this was never going to be easy exhibition to stage and we must respect their ambition for trying.
Words David Coomber
Pictures courtesy Royal Academy of Arts
Rubens and his legacy
24 January-10 April
Price £16.50p( without donation £15)Concessions available
open Sunday-Thursday 10am-6pm