Rubens – The Power of Transformation shows a master channeling the past to create something entirely original.
Enormously productive, Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), was and still is a star of the art world. But to get there, he had to learn a lot. Now showing at the Kunsthistorisches Museum (KHM), the show Rubens – The Power of Transformation is a journey through his creative development, showing how the master studied anatomy and iconography from sources ranging from classic antiquity to the Italian Renaissance and his own contemporaries. Incorporating glimpses, figures, and muscle structures, Rubens was a master of reinterpreting his predecessors, creating something new by building on what already existed, eventually becoming synonymous with Baroque painting. Besides the KHM’s own collection, the Hemitage, the Prado and the Getty Museum in Los Angeles among others have provided over 120 works, including 48 paintings and 33 drawings by Rubens himself.
Standing on the shoulders of giants
Rubens himself opens the exhibit: A Self-Portrait of the painter in his old age stares visitors down with the stern look of a the middle class Flemish gentleman, ready to lecture you on art history. Indeed, the various studies of muscle masses, buttocks and massive bodies in motion sketched by Rubens are juxtaposed with works that inspired him, like Belvedere Torso, sculpted by Apollonius of Athens in the 1st century BC. This allows visitors to appreciate both the individual works and the connection between them, and nowhere is that more apparent then with Rubens’ favourite subject: the nude female form. Seeing this blaze of baroque flesh transported me back to my lessons at the art academy, where me and other aspiring painters would sit in a circle around two blushing naked women on a red velvet sofa who were trying to stifle their giggles.
Titian’s Danae, visited in her sleep by Jupiter transformed into golden rain, hangs directly in front of the Rubens’ Angelica and the Hermit; Angelica’s relaxed pose is too similar to Titian’s to be a coincidence. Rubens’ Venus Frigida is an over-the-shoulder view of the goddess of beauty, lust and fertility, virtues he emphasizes in her soft hips – cleverly borrowed the roman copy of Doydalses of Bythinia’s sculpture Crouching Venus.
The last room drives the point home with some of the most seductive and chromatic works the KHM has. Titian’s Girl in a fur seeks in vain to cover her ample bosom, showing a soft, uncovered sensuality; right next to it is its direct successor, Rubens’ Helena Fourment (“Het Pelsken”), his own ideal of feminine beauty: an attractive and buxom young woman, coquettishly emphasizing her breasts while trying to cover them.
The newly restored is a fitting ending: Rubens kept adding fresh canvas pieces to the original, making it three times bigger and inserting all the characters, gestures and love for detail he picked up during his career. Comprising the sum total of his skill, the landscape painting is a window into Rubens’ soul, showing the essence he expressed in every portrait from the suffering of the Christ to the solemn passion of the Virgin Mary’s face in The Lamentation; from the rays of sun piercing the clouds in to his own stern expression which opened the exhibit.
Thus, The Power of Transformation shows precisely that: it’s less about Ruben’s realistic portrayal of human anatomy or his dramatic use of chiaroscuri (strong contrasts between light and dark) but rather a journey through a master’s artistic scrapbook. From Greco-Roman references to Catholic iconography, Rubens kept what works and made it entirely his own, forming the next link in the chain – and becoming a giant himself for others to stand on.
Through Jan 21, KHM. 1., Maria Theresien-Platz. khm.at