Rubens and His Legacy: Van Dyck to Cézanne

Rubens and His Legacy: Van Dyck to Cézanne opens at the Royal Academy this weekend. As a member of the Visitor Services team I was able to pop along to the staff tour of the exhibition, led by its charismatic curator Arturo Galansino.

I know little about Sir Peter Paul Rubens being a student of mostly modern and contemporary art, so I was excited to see what the much anticipated show would entail, and how it would develop my interest and knowledge of Renaissance Classicism and the wider Baroque period. After a brief reading of some recent essays relating to Rubens – including Waldemar Januszczak’s Baroque ‘n’ Roll article in the RA’s quarterly Magazine – I felt ready to take on ‘the prince of painters’.

The exhibition is split into six themed sections: poetry, power, compassion, lust, elegance and violence. As a newcomer to Rubens work I felt this really helped me walk through the exhibition at ease. The different sections allow for a clear narrative helping gallery-goers to avoid feeling overwhelmed by the vast, lush paintings by the Baroque Master.

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Overall Rubens work can be described as exciting. They have a depth of story behind them; they are as Januszczak states, the epitome of ‘the disaster movie’ – think Hunger Games of the 17th Century. His work has it all: hopeless romantics, violent deaths, mythological sceneries and gentle, poetic lust. One of the highlights of the exhibition is Rubens amorous painting The Garden of Love (1610). This work depicts a flirtatious celebration of love between several men and women, crowned by angelic cherubs who hold symbols of love in their chubby hands. Rumoured to be a self-portrait of Rubens and his second wife Helena Fourment (the portico in the background matched Rubens own house in Antwerp), this work hangs boldly in the RA galleries, consuming passers-by with an intense scene of romance. For this reason, the curator made a detail facsimile of the work to decorate the walls of a temporary tunnel in the exhibition, what he refers to as the tunnel of love.

I should also mention the power and magnitude of Rubens The Tiger, Lion and Leopard Hunt (1616). One of the largest works in the exhibition (not a quarter of the size of many of Rubens paintings, including The Rubens Ceiling at Banqueting House), this work is a spectacle to see in person. The power and beauty of Rubens anatomically realistic wild animals is astonishing. Violence and power erupt alongside more tragic aspects of the painting, such as the female tiger attempting to protect her young cubs in the lower right-hand corner of the work.

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In a marvellous addition to the Rubens exhibition, Royal Academician Jenny Saville was asked to curate a show in contemporary response to the Baroque master’s majestic work. Titled La Peregrina, the exhibition celebrates the work of such artists as Francis Bacon, Andy Warhol, Lucien Freud, Sarah Lucas, Pablo Picasso and Cy Twombly. Each work explores the human body/identity in different capacities and brings a fascinating contemporary approach to Ruben’s legacy. Jenny Saville also includes a newly commissioned work of her own, which considers grotesque human anatomy and its mutilation through the inspiration of Philomela and Ovid.

Rubens and His Legacy opens in Burlington House at the Royal Academy this weekend. The exhibition will run until April, so you’ll have plenty of time to pop by Green Park and see it!

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