Tuesday, 27 March 2007

I don't like Rubens but...

I've never liked Rubens.

His fleshy, ruddy nudes and well fed cherubs don't do much for me. I find them a bit overdone, and there's a feeling of grotesquerie in some of his painting that suggests the Breughel/Bosch streak in Flemish painting never died out.

So I wasn't expecting much from a trip to Antwerp and Mechelen.  However, I was in for a surprise.

First of all, the 'Miraculous draught of fishes' in Our Lady's Church over the Dijle in Mechelen. It's amazing - the matte surface, the vibrant, bright colour, reminded me of 1930s works rather than the high Baroque. The treatment of the apostles' bodies and drapery could almost come from the socialist realism tradition. It's a striking painting - almost the antithesis of everything I thought Rubens was about - and the fact that the evening sun was falling full on it brought the colours out in all their liveliness.

I found another Rubens painting I liked in the Rockox House in Antwerp. Nicholaas Rockox was Rubens' friend and patron and so you'd expect to find a couple of Rubens paintings here. And so no surprise to find a Rubens crucifixion hanging on the wall.

What's surprising is that it was so small. I thought Rubens was about big things - most of his best known paintings are huge, super-life-size canvases. But here, the whole scene of the crucifixion is reduced to a canvas not much bigger than an A4 piece of paper, and you can actually see Rubens' brushwork, swirls and flows of paint. Sometimes it's diaphanous, thinned right down; elsewhere there are blobs of thick impasto. It's all alive, bright, a moment caught on the fly.

My last Rubens shocked me. It's in the Plantin Museum in Antwerp. I'm interested in the craft of letterpress printing so this was a compulsory stop for me; Plantin was the greatest printer of his age in the Low Countries,  and Rubens even contributed frontispieces for the Plantin/Moretus press's books.

The 'Dying Seneca' here is related to a number of paintings which include a large history painting in the Prado, and the 'Four philosophers' painting in the same room of the Plantijn Museum. But this painting is striking in a way that the others aren't. Here, we see simply a portrait of the dying man; no event, no disciples, no philosopical reference frame, just a man dying. His eyes stare yet they're already becoming blind with death; there's a starkness in the delineation of the naked flesh that implies pain and struggle, and yet the painting as a whole is also strangely peaceful. And around Seneca's figure there is nothing but darkness; the darkness he will soon enter.

I haven't been so struck by a painting since I saw one of the Rembrandt self-portraits 'in the flesh'.

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