Friday, 13 February 2015

'Rubens & His Legacy' at the Royal Academy of Arts

The big exhibition at the Royal Academy at the moment is about Rubens and his influence on other artists at the time and over the years down to Picasso. This is always an interesting idea for exhibitions - show someone with a big name and then hang paintings by other artists near the relevant master to show his or her influence. I saw a great exhibition a few years ago on this theme at Tate Britain about the influence of Picasso on British artists and that exhibition introduced me to some new artists I hadn't really looked at before. Its all about balance.

The exhibition was split into different themes for each room based around one of Rubens' paintings. We see a Rubens landscape and then a Turner or Constable or someone else illustrating the influence of Rubens from a similar composition or use of colours or brush strokes. Some careful thinking has obviously gone into this exhibition.

One of the first paintings that got me looking closely was 'Christ on the Straw', a triptych of Virgin and Child, Christ taken down from the cross and John the Baptist. The thing that really attracted my attention was the simple leaden nature of Christ's arms, the sheer dead weigh of the arms hanging uncomfortably and the body in an unnatural position. The other two panels and the people around Christ don't really interest me, it's the body of Christ and the leaden weigh of it, the embodiment of death. I even waited for a couple to move on so I could get a closer look.

One of the 'big' paintings of the exhibition was 'Tiger, Lion and Leopard Hunt' from 1617. It's a large painting (taller than me) and was surrounded by slightly smaller paintings of hunt scenes, some of which looked a little too gory for me.

I'm definitely with the tiger in this one - savage him! The painting tells a compelling narrative of a hunt in which the animals fight back. The lion is being killed, the leopard is already dead but the tiger fights back to protect his family - momma tiger is protecting her cubs and has one in her mouth while her mate tries to give her the time to escape the barbarous hunters. I stared at this painting for a while, grabbing a seat opposite the painting ad just looking at it. All the violence, the careful composition and colour palette, the movement and, bottom right, the stillness. It's a great painting but I didn't really look at any of the other hunting paintings.

Another great painting was the far smaller 'Pan and Syrinx' painted with Jan Brueghel. I spent some time in front of this puzzling over how it was painted by Rubens and Brueghel - which one did which bits? It's nice and bright in oils which keep the colour and it looks fab.

One of the great things about exhibitions of this kind is that they introduce you to paintings and artists you might not otherwise come across. There were lots n this exhibition. There was a lovely self-portrait by Elisabeth-Louise Vigee-Lebrun, several Delacroix and Watteau paintings as well as Cezanne and Picassos.

A painting I'd never come across before but fell in love with was 'Drunken Silenus Supported by Satyrs' by Van Dyck. This is such great fun with a fat old Silenus obviously out of his head on a Friday night and getting into bad company with the satyrs. I hope he got home okay.

It's a good exhibition and well worth seeing for the range of artists and styles on display. I can't help but feel it would have been better if there were more works by Rubens on display - his is the name over the door, after all. Some of the links with other paintings also seemed a bit tenuous but that's possibly a bit churlish of me. I enjoyed it and learned from it and that's the main thing.

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