Monday, January 26, 2015

Rubens and Temporal Chauvinism

         The current show, Rubens and his Legacy, at the Royal AcademyLondon (until April 10th) is intended to illuminate the Old Master’s influence on later artists … but in her review, Jackie Wullschlager says “the Royal Academy set itself a challenge which could have been magnificently met, but has resulted in the most misjudged Old Master show I have ever encountered." 

I haven’t seen the show, so I can’t agree or not. I mention the review primarily because I think both the analysis and writing are exemplary. Too many reviews of exhibits seem intended more to display the erudition of the reviewer and less to inform the reader.

Wullschlager goes on to say, “… no Old Master is in greater need of reviving for contemporary taste and rescuing from clichéd response than Peter Paul Rubens, the eloquent, erudite and now remote pioneer of the Flemish baroque. He has been out of fashion for generations. Van Gogh called him “superficial, hollow, bombastic”, and, to audiences reared on modernism’s introspection and angst, Rubens’ easy self-confidence was anathema.”

Being “out of fashion” is one thing … tastes change. But to criticize Rubens as “superficial, hollow, bombastic” displays temporal chauvinism … my term for judging a thing in today’s terms rather than in the context of its own times.

The reviewer compares two works in the exhibit: Rubens’ “The Garden of Love” (1633, Prado) and Watteau’s “The Pleasures of the Ball” (1714, Dulwich Picture Gallery)

Speaking of the Rubens painting: “It is a voyeur’s paradise — buoyant, celebratory, but touched with moral seriousness: an allegory of joys — bourgeois order, affluent display — that seem alien today. Lacking is a frisson of qualities we value more: the mystery, fragility, melancholy underlying a similar scene exhibited nearby, Watteau’s The Pleasures of the Ball.”
Apparently, Constable’s comment when he saw Watteau’s ephemeral figures and light brushstrokes: “So mellow, so tender, so soft and so delicious . . . this inscrutable and exquisite thing would vulgarise even Rubens.” 

If you have a few minutes, I recommend reading the review.


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