Rubens Revised

Rubens and His Legacy: From Van Dyck to Cézanne, Royal Academy of Arts

Three, two, one, brace yourself… Rubens is here, at the Royal Academy, in all his gigantic, pulsating, Technicolor glory.  But hang on.  What’s this?  A rural idyll?  Some toiling labourers?  An atmospheric rainbow?  You could be forgiven upon entering the first room of Rubens and His Legacy, for thinking you had got the wrong venue, or had somehow stepped back in time to the V&A’s autumn Constable show.  Because the start of this display may come as a surprise: there are no tigers or bare ladies, and the canvases are, well, modestly sized.  It is not what the exhibition poster, featuring Rubens’ famously violent hunting scene, suggested we might find; nor does it seem very “Rubensy” in here at all.  A glance at the captions, however, confirms that Rubens did apparently do landscapes.  He did them very well, in fact; as well as Constable and Gainsborough.  Except that it would be more accurate to say that Constable and Gainsborough did them as well as Rubens, for Rubens was painting his craggy rocks and billowing trees some 200 years earlier.

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Peter Paul Rubens, Evening Landscape with Timber Wagon, 1630-40. Oil on panel. 49.5 x 54.7 cm. Museum Boijmans van Beuningen. Photo: Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam/Photographer: Studio Tromp, Rotterdam

The decision to kick the exhibition off with this lesser known genre of the painter, was a conscious one on the part of the curators.  We know all about the fleshy nudes and enormous canvases filled with myriad men and gods that dominate his reputation, but are in danger of forgetting the other areas of his art.  And so if this is an exhibition which aims to explore how Rubens touched the generations of artists which followed him, it is also a show which seeks to rehabilitate the painter by highlighting his quieter, informal and more intimate side.

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Peter Paul Rubens, The Carters, 1629. Oil on canvas. 86 x 126.5 cm. The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

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John Constable, Full-Scale Study for The Hay Wain, c. 1821. Oil on canvas. 137 x 188 cm. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

If you saw the V&A exhibition last year, the various old master influences on Constable’s work will be familiar, and seeing Rubens’ The Carters (c.1620) alongside a full-scale sketch for The Hay Wain (c.1821), makes it clear that the English artist looked further afield than just Gainsborough and Claude.  “In no other branch of art is Rubens greater than in landscape,” he said in 1833.  But what else is to be expected from Constable?  He was hardly going to wax lyrical about Rubens’ rippling torsos or shimmering flesh, and while the meteorological elements of the Flemish artist’s Landscape with a Rainbow (c.1630) may have captivated and inspired Constable, we do not find many lounging couples and exposed shoulders in his own works. Continue reading

Radical Rembrandt

Rembrandt: The Late Works, The National Gallery

Rembrandt did not invent the selfie: according to the OED, the image must be a photograph.  But if the self portrait is an early version of this twenty-first century trend, Rembrandt may well be one of its forefathers.  Although artists have been painting themselves for hundreds of years, not many did so as often as Rembrandt, who produced 80-odd self portraits; and these are just the ones that survive.  Unlike today’s self-snappers, Rembrandt did not tend to share his selfies, and the finished portraits were seldom bought by patrons.  Luckily for us, however, the National Gallery is doing the sharing for him, and on display as part of Rembrandt: The Late Works, are six self portraits from the last few years of the artist’s life.

Two of these pictures are from Rembrandt’s final months in 1669, and the artist does not look his best.  He may not have been – if you will excuse the pun – an oil-painting to begin with, but in these last works, in which his swollen, aged face seems to belong more to an 80-year-old than a 63-year-old, it is clear that his health is failing.  But not his painting, which is as robust as it ever was.  The artist was fascinated with his ageing appearance, and his self portrait habit peaked in the last two decades of his life.  On loan from Kenwood House, is the intriguing Self Portrait with Two Circles (about 1665-9), in which he paints himself against a backdrop of two perfect circles, the significance of which has baffled art historians for almost as long as there has been art history.  Is he emulating Giotto who could reportedly draw a perfect circle with a free hand, or are they there to counter-balance the massive triangular bulk of his body?   Whatever the answer, here is Rembrandt as Rembrandt.  He wears his work-a-day painter’s garb and has even eschewed the snazzy berets which feature in the 1669 Mauritshuis Self Portrait and the National Gallery’s 1669 version, donning instead a white artist’s cap and holding the tools of his trade.

Self Portrait with two circles (about 1665-69), Kenwood House, London © English Heritage

Self Portrait with two circles (about 1665-69), Kenwood House, London © English Heritage

Self Portrait at the Age of 63 (1669), The National Gallery © The National Gallery, London

Self Portrait at the Age of 63 (1669), The National Gallery © The National Gallery, London

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All-weather Constable

Constable: The Making of a Master, Victoria and Albert Museum

Let’s hope John Constable had some decent waterproofs.  The Duke of Wellington’s boots did not catch on until the 1830s, and Mr Macintosh did not start mass-producing his coats until shortly before Constable’s death in 1836.  Umbrellas had been around for a while, but they were both expensive and difficult to fold until 1852 when someone thought to use steel ribs.   And so how did Constable and his materials stay dry in the rain?  Because there must have been rain: this was England and, as the Victoria and Albert’s current exhibition shows, Constable spent a lot of time outdoors.  The museum has picked for its poster backdrop, a scene of white clouds against clement blue sky; inside, however, there is drizzle, rain and storm aplenty.  But no snow.  Even Constable had his limits.

Down the road, Tate Britain has devoted its autumn show to the end of Turner’s career.  And although it would have been poetic if that exhibition had been countered by a V&A display dedicated to early Constable – and the name of the V&A show is open to (mis)interpretation – Constable: The Making of a Master, is not about the painter’s formative years.  Rather, this is full-on Constable, a display which includes examples of all types of his work, from all phases of his career.  The running theme? How Constable made his art; and if we are being picky, the show’s title might more accurately read, Constable: The Making of a Master’s Art.  But that does not have quite the same ring.

Study of Cirrus Clouds (1822), John Constable &copy V&A

Study of Cirrus Clouds (c.1822), John Constable, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

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Real-Time Turner

Late Turner – Painting Set Free, Tate Britain

Turner did not take much of a retirement.  In 1851, the year he died, he missed the annual exhibitions; but the previous year, aged seventy-five, there he was at the Royal Academy, with four large oils to display.  During the final fifteen years of the artist’s life, he continued to work at much the same rate as he always had.  There may have been a slow down after 1845, but as Tate Britain’s current exhibition shows, these were not the twilight years.  Late Turner – Painting Set Free, which runs until January next year, is a hefty exhibition and the first of its kind.  There has been a constant flow of Turner shows in recent years – Turner and Venice, Turner and the Sea, Turner Whistler Monet, Turner Monet Twombly – but there has never been a Turner the OAP.  Victorian biographers and critics might have been surprised at today’s theme (one nineteenth century artist even described Turner’s later work as “repulsive”), but for the twenty-first century visitor, the current display includes some of the painter’s most well-known and well-loved works.

Mercury Sent to Admonish Aeneas exhibited 1850 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Mercury Sent to Admonish Aeneas (exhibited 1850), J M W Turner, © Tate

This is not, however, an exhibition designed only to showcase the artist’s post-1835 knock-outs and eulogise one of our so-called ‘Great Britons’.  Rather it is an academic display, devised to make the visitor think, learn and reassess.  Turner the Impressionist, Turner the proto-abstract painter, these twentieth century interpretations of the artist have no place in this show.  And stripped of such reductive labels, it is a real-time Turner who emerges, a Turner whose pieces can be viewed as both modern and traditional, while remaining untainted by references to the future.

It all started in the 1890s when art historians began to look at Turner’s later output, much of which was incomplete, in a new light.  Continue reading

Beyond Civilisation – Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation

If you are looking for Civilisation in Tate Britain’s Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation, you will have to keep on looking until the sixth and final room of the exhibition.  And when you do find the 1960s television series, all you will see is a smallish screen showing clips on a loop, and a set of headphones.  The program’s success when it was aired both in Britain and then around the world, was huge, and its legacy has been lasting, so much so that it is not unusual to hear its presenter referred to as “Lord Clark of Civilisation”.  But before he wrote and appeared in the documentary, which was filmed in 1967-8 and shown in 1969, and before he branched into broadcasting at all, Clark had done a few other things, and it is these which are at the heart of Tate Britain’s new display.

Kenneth Clark in front of Renoir’s La Baigneuse Blonde (pl.1), c.1933 Private collection

Kenneth Clark in front of Renoir’s La Baigneuse Blonde (pl.1), c.1933
Photograph: Marcus Leith, Private collection

In 1934 Clark was appointed director of the National Gallery.  By this point he had spent a stint revising Bernard Berenson’s catalogue of Florentine paintings at the Villa I Tatti outside Florence, catalogued the Royal Collection of Leonardo drawings, organised a blockbuster exhibition of Italian Renaissance art at the Royal Academy, curated the Ashmolean for two years, published a book on Gothic art and bagged a beauty by marrying Jane Martin, whom he had met at Oxford.  Not bad for a man who had only just turned 31.  Clark described the years 1932 to 1939 as the “Great Clark Boom”, when he and Jane lived in a grand house in Portland Place, entertaining London’s fast set and appearing in 1930s equivalents of Hello.  “We were borne along the crest of a social wave”, he later wrote of this feverish period.

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John Constable, Sketch for ‘Hadleigh Castle’ c.1828–9 Tate; acquired by Clark for the National Gallery in 1935

It was not, however, as if Clark had come from nowhere, and the two portraits on display of him as a boy make it clear that his was not a story of rags to riches.  Continue reading

Very Veronese

The National Gallery’s latest Renaissance instalment, Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice, turns the gallery’s walls into a colourful theatre of Venetian style and drama. 

Veronese loved clothes.  So much is evident from the canvases hanging in the upper rooms of the National Gallery, where Venetian noblewomen rustle against saints, gods and Roman soldiers in a parade of damask and taffeta.  Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice, which took five years to organise and brings together fifty of the painter’s works from across Europe and the United States, has transformed the walls of the gallery into a sixteenth century catwalk, with the artist’s models cropping up again and again, clad in one lavish item of fine couture after another.

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The Family of Darius before Alexander (1565-7), Picture: Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

This is the first show in the UK devoted entirely to Veronese, which seems surprising given the artist’s stature as one of the foremost painters of the Venetian Renaissance, alongside Bellini, Giorgione, Titian and Tintoretto.  But if Veronese’s reputation was big during the sixteenth century and in the centuries that followed, so were many of his canvases, making the staging of any exhibition a major logistical undertaking.   A rumour that someone else in London was planning a show, a bout of jealousy on the part of Nicholas Penny – then newly appointed as Director of the National Gallery – and some hefty postage and packaging, however, have resulted in today’s display.

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Strange Beauty: Masters of the German Renaissance – The National Gallery

A review of the National Gallery’s new exhibition, the critics’ mixed reactions and what the Victorians made of it all…

“Beauty, like supreme dominion

Is but supported by opinion”.

Benjamin Franklin (Poor Richard’s Almanack, 1741)

“What exactly makes a work of art beautiful?” asks the press blurb to the National Gallery’s latest show, Strange Beauty: Masters of the German Renaissance, which opened in the Sainsbury Wing on 19 February and runs until 11 May.  The gallery, I am afraid, does not at the end of the exhibition’s final room reveal the answer to this particular question.  Nor is this really the theme of the current show, which considers how and when the National Gallery built up its collection of German Renaissance pictures, as well as changing attitudes to these paintings over time.  The gallery would have been better off looking to David Hume, who in 1742 in his Essays, Moral and Political, wrote, “Beauty in things exists merely in the mind which contemplates them”, for this is the exhibition’s real point.

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Saint Catherine of Alexandria (1507), Raphael, The National Gallery
Picture: Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

The title of the show is closer to the mark and in the first room, where the raw emotions and juddering forms of Hans Baldung Grien’s The

The Trinity and Mystic Pietà (1512), Hans Baldung Grien, The National Gallery

The Trinity and Mystic Pietà (1512), Hans Baldung Grien, The National Gallery
Picture: Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

Trinity and Mystic Pieta (1512) hang next to the smooth sumptuousness of Raphael’s Saint Catherine of Alexandria (1507), it  becomes easier to understand the attitudes of many Victorians, who at least until the last quarter of the nineteenth century, found little to admire in German Renaissance art.  It is not that Baldung’s work is ugly by comparison to the Raphael.  Rather the beauty of the Trinity is less conspicuous: to find it, the viewer must work harder.

Today’s visitors may delight in seeing works by the big shots of the German Renaissance (your Holbeins, Dürers and Cranachs), as well as by the period’s other important artists (Hans Baldung Grien, Matthias Grünewald and Albrecht Altdorfer, for example).  But when the National Gallery was founded in 1824, its initial collection included no German paintings, and thirty years later, at the beginning of 1854, the gallery had acquired just three German works, two of which were, in all honesty, a bit Dutch.[1]

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