LONDON — The term “blockbuster” is defined by the equation: major name or subject + major loans = major ticket sales. Positive critical reception is a valuable though by no means essential by-product. Londoners have been spoilt for choice over the past few months with several blockbusters demanding attention: Vikings at the British Museum, Veronese and Rembrandt at the National Gallery (also to open a major show on Impressionism), and now the Royal Academy is sticking its neck out with Rubens and His Legacy.
Except, while the National flexed its negotiating muscles with superloans from major worldwide collections, and justified its loot with solid curatorial vigor, the Royal Academy’s show — for an artist renowned for his work-by-the-meter-size-canvases — has precious few square meters of Rubens to show, opting to widen its survey to examine his “influence” on art history. This widening is so enthusiastic and expansive that it seems to claim that Rubens influenced seemingly everyone and everything in Western art history, resulting in some worryingly inventive assertions. The exhibition makes extremely tenuous links and comparisons between Rubens and artists as diverse as Watteau, Constable, Turner, Daumier, Corinth, Bacon, Picasso, and Reynolds, right from the 17th century to the present, within themed rooms as academically fluffy as “Lust,” “Power,” “Violence,” “Elegance,” and “Compassion.”
It is an extremely problematic method of display that relies on iconographic content rather than stylistic. In fact, the RA seems so anxious to dispel the common assumption that Rubens was just miles of fat fleshy pink nudes — a lifelong ode to cellulite — that little attention is drawn to arguably his most influential contribution to the history of painting: a prodigious understanding of flesh and its constructive use of hues and fantastic brushwork.
Instead, in the first room, entitled “Poetry,” a landscape sketch by John Constable (!) featuring a rainbow is placed next to a Rubens landscape sketch, also with a rainbow. What deeper analysis are we meant to conclude from this most superficial of comparisons? Little is made of the painterly differences; Constable’s handling of paint, famous for its vibrancy and loose vigor, stands up stylistically — was Rubens’s contribution simply the motif of a rainbow?
Elsewhere, a landscape with a cart descending a hill, “The Harvest Wagon” (1767) by Thomas Gainsborough, is shown next to one by Rubens, also showing a cart descending a hill. The link between the two is not helped by less than watertight assertions made in the accompanying captions: “Gainsborough may have seen Rubens’s ‘The Carters,’ or a copy that was in the collection of Nuneham House, Oxfordshire. He was also almost certainly familiar with the master’s ‘Evening Landscape with Timber Wagon.’” The show is peppered with such vague ties, doing little to progress from simple assertions to clear and definitive evidence of influence.
This type of comparison has more worrying implications in a room entitled “Elegance,” where a series of full-length, three-quarter turned portraits by Anthony van Dyck, Gainsborough, and Sir Joshua Reynolds are placed in sequence with one by Rubens, appearing to suggest that Rubens directly pioneered this type in itself. This absence of explicit and constructive analysis of both style and content between each example of Rubens and the selected paintings enables us to leap to such rash conclusions.
Given the general lack of physical examples of Rubens’s work, it is also unfortunate that the best supported evidence of his significance as a historical figure, found under the theme “Power,” which examines his widely documented and pioneering success as an artist and diplomat, should be represented by videos showing films of his works in situ. Commissioned paintings that acted as propaganda among highly powerful political circles, such as the immense Banqueting House ceiling in Whitehall Palace, London, are visible only in digital projection. Again, we are starved of stylistic evidence with which to draw parallels between this as precedent to the surrounding collection of paintings the RA has selected. Though it is no fault of the RA that several works are attached to buildings, it feels like a last resort in scrabbling for material to present when so little else is available.
A brave step has been taken in commissioning the contemporary painter and Royal Academician Jenny Saville to curate an adjacent room of selected pieces showing “the continuing preoccupations artists share with Rubens … from the treatment of human form and fleshy handling of paint to the use of colour, violence and spectacle.” Finally, the definitive and undeniable influence of Rubens which runs throughout art history like in a stick of rock, is made explicit: the fleshy handling of paint and unflinching depiction of skin and muscle in the nudes of Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon, and even Young British Artist Sarah Lucas’s stuffed tights share the clear visual distinction and mentality of Rubens’s, making for a persuasive and satisfying example of his real, continuing influence in an otherwise severely problematic display. With more significant loans in greater number we might have had the comprehensive and academically satisfying show a real blockbuster usually provides.
Rubens and His Legacy continues at the Royal Academy (Burlington House, Piccadilly, London) through April 10.