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A disappointing date with Rubens

Rebecca Willis on the trend for over-curation

Rebecca Willis | January 21st 2015

To manage the expectations of exhibition-goers, I suggest that the Royal Academy changes the name of its latest show from “Rubens and his Legacy” to “Rubens’ Legacy”. That way people will not be surprised when the first painting they see is by John Constable, or that only three of the eight pictures in this initial room, entitled “Poetry”, are by Rubens himself. Similarly, when they get to the room called “Elegance”, which looks at portraiture, they won't feel so cheated when they discover that the ratio of Rubens to other artists is just 2:11. The emphasis here is definitely on the word “legacy”.

When it comes to history’s great artists, galleries these days seem increasingly reluctant to tackle their subject head-on and attempt the definitive, one-man show (and it is always a man) that looks chronologically at the works. Recent examples include last year’s “Constable: The Makings of a Master” at the V&A, which showed him in relation to the painters who influenced him. Perhaps this 21st-century shift in emphasis is because it is harder—for reasons of security and insurance—to get major loans from other countries. One suspects, too, a spot of curatorial attention-seeking, possibly with one eye on the CV. But it is also part of a trend to put artists in context and to highlight their relationships to other artists—to join the dots, so to speak, in the history of art. Instead of seeing it as a timeline on which various talents shine out at intervals like a string of fairy lights, we are encouraged to see it as a broad and interconnected web, like a starry sky. 

You could see this trend for compare-and-contrast in “Matisse Picasso” at Tate Modern in 2001 and “Turner Whistler Monet” at Tate Britain in 2005. The benefits were not always clear. If memory serves, in one room at Tate Britain there was a series of sketches of the Alps by Turner and on the opposite wall a series of sketches of haystacks by Monet. The only thing they seemed to have in common was the fact that there were several of each. The juxtaposition felt forced and unhelpful, touched by the dead hand of over-curation. 

Another tendency has been to divide exhibitions into themes: “Rubens’ Legacy” (as I shall now call it) does this, and that’s fair enough when looking at the separate areas of his influence (although why the room on landscape needs to be called “Poetry” and the room on portraits “Elegance” is a separate issue). But at the National Gallery’s recent show, “Rembrandt: The Late Works”, which looked only at a few crucial years of the painter’s life, it seemed baffling to have the works arranged in themes rather than the order in which they were made. His 1666 Lucretia was in room two, “Experimental Technique”, because he “was probably the first artist to manipulate paint on canvas with a palette knife”, while his earlier 1664 Lucretia came later in room seven, “Inner Conflict”.

I find it harder to engage emotionally with the works when I am so conscious of being taught a particular lesson. If, like me, you are an old romantic and want to get a sense of Rubens as a human being, you may feel as I did at the Royal Academy: you thought you were going on a date with someone and instead someone else just showed you their family tree. The highlights of the show for me were the sketch “Seventeen studies of dancing peasants”, where you sense the artist wrestling with his pen to capture the contortions of the dancer, and another sketch, “Young man embracing a young woman”, in which you see Rubens’ genius in the evident pressure of the man’s fingers on the woman’s back. Most of the time, though, the mission to convey his legacy obscures the artist himself. The exhibition is so insistent on putting Rubens in context and showing us the big picture, that he becomes a mere historical road junction. I would have been quite happy to look at his actual big pictures. And some of his small ones, too.

Rubens and his Legacy Royal Academy of Arts, London, to April 10th

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