Would Rubens recognise a Kebab?

Back in 1994, the New York police mounted a sting by circulating a leaflet saying that a film crew wanted to film graffiti artists at work and those featuring in the film would get a free trip to Los Angeles.  When the unfortunate youths had demonstrated their style and identified examples of their work, the film crew whipped out the handcuffs and nabbed them. I thought of this when, unexpectedly, I received an invitation from the Royal Academy to attend a bloggers evening to see the new Rubens and his Legacy Exhibition.  I kept expecting the photo police to jump out from behind the bar and cackle– “you lot are the worst offenders for taking unauthorised photographs,” and then herd us into some lock up in the basement.

But of course they didn’t and instead gave us a glass of wine, asked us very nicely not to take photographs of the exhibitions (and because I was  their guest I haven’t,  though a glass of wine does not necessarily buy my good behaviour on future occasions.) One of the RA’s experts also gave us a talk and told us quite a bit about Rubens which included the fact he was one of the most successful artists of his time and made over 5,000 paintings and drawings during his lifetime, making him very rich. Also that four years after his wife died, he married his niece, Helen Fourmant when she was just 16. He was 53, which was thought distasteful at the time. And remains so today.

The speaker also told us about a conversation he had had in the modern part of the exhibition which has been curated by Jenny Saville and includes Sarah LucasTwo Fried Eggs and a Kebab. A member of the public had maintained that it was not art and it surprised him that such attitudes still existed. I was surprised that he was surprised . But I did possibly have something in common with that unnamed member of the public, while I was happy to agree that the work is art, I couldn’t see what it possibly had to do with Rubens.

The exhibition does have a few fine paintings by the Master, including Garden of Love where all the women are disconcertingly modeled on Helen Fourmant. But if Rubens really did paint something in the order of 5,000, you would have thought that the folks at the RA would have managed to lay their hands on more of them. They have only managed to bring together six of his major works and, to make up for this,  the exhibition is padded out with a job lot of paintings that are supposed to have been influenced by him.  But it doesn’t really work . I can’t believe that when Constable was sketching out the Haywain he was thinking much of the fact that Rubens had also done a landscape; I think he was looking at the wide open skies around Dedham . Similarly artists had been painting Nativity scenes for centuries before  Rubens and it was hardly surprising that they continued to do so afterwards.

But it was  in the contemporary gallery that this kind of pretence that Rubens was single-handedly responsible for virtually all art became the most ridiculous. I often find that viewing contemporary works at the same outing as more classical paintings is a bit indigestible. It’s like starting a meal with wonderful roast beef and then finding the next course is a delicious spicy curry. Both are good It’s just not what you want together. Nonetheless, having started on this course of bringing in a whole lot of other painters who were supposedly influenced by Rubens, I can see why they chose Jenny Saville to do the curation of the recent stuff. In her large fleshy nudes, it is possible to see a line of direct influence. But Saville chose to include a work of her own that she made specifically for the exhibition. A near monochrome in charcoal with just touches of colour it was surprisingly different in style; it is called Voice of the Shuttle (Philomela).

The Rubens  influence appeared researched rather than emotional. Doing away with her habitual obsession with flesh, Saville has chosen to do her own version of the grisly myth, told by Ovid, in which  Philomela is raped by her brother in law Tereus, the king of Thrace who then, for good measure,  tears her tongue out.  She becomes a nightingale, whilst her sister revenges her by serving  the king his own son’s flesh at a banquet. Whilst Rubens indeed painted this subject, it is hard to imagine that Saville would have gone there if not asked to curate the exhibition. In some of the choices the links become extremely  tenuous. Lucien Freud’s works clearly shows signs of having benefited from the Rubens legacy, though the painting on show is not one of his better ones, but what about  William de Kooning? He used pink paint sometimes; Rubens used pink paint; is that it? As for the Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab, surely the fried eggs metaphor depicts flat chested women, hardly the best example of Rubens’ influence.I can’t believe that Rubens himself would have claimed responsibility.

So if you go to the exhibition you can expect annoyances. Even so, I felt it was well worth the visit if only to see two paintings. The first was the hunting scene widely used in the RA advertising. This is quite extraordinary, the tensions, the detail and the sheer virtuosity is dazzling,  But my favourite was Maria Grimaldi and her Dwart. I spent ages looking at it. Seen full-size it is immensely powerful. You cannot help but want to know  more about their lives.  There is such a contrast between her beauty, her perfect proportions, his enormous head and unreadable expression.  I still keep wondering about his opinion of the portrait and whether he liked how he was depicted.

Rubens and His Legacy is showing at the Royal Academy until 10 April 2015.

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