Where’s all the wobbly flesh? What’s happened to the dimples, the love handles, the softer parts of a woman’s anatomy? Anyone anticipating a vision of flushed and squidgy nudity inside Dulwich Picture Gallery’s new exhibition, Rubens & Women, will be surprised.
For while, in the popular imagination, the great Flemish Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens is so associated with voluptuousness that “Rubenesque” is now a byword for a roseate, ample physique, the eight figures depicted by him in the opening gallery of this cliché-demolishing show (all of them, aside from a self-portrait, women) are fully clothed. Indeed, one – Rubens’s powerful patron Archduchess Isabel Clara Eugenia, ruler of the Southern Netherlands – is dressed as a nun.
Yes, there’s the odd flash of décolletage – a low neckline’s softness enhanced by the illusion of blue veins beating just beneath the skin – but, in several cases (such as a soft-hearted likeness of the artist’s daughter, Clara Serena), the overriding impression is of tenderness, not sensuality. In a sumptuous portrait, executed in 1606, from Kingston Lacy in Dorset, the head of a marchesa from a Genoese banking family appears to float upon her ruff like a beach ball on water, as if her identity were disconnected altogether from her body.
What a clever, enterprising show this is. Ben van Beneden and Amy Orrock, its curators, have spotted an opportunity not only to overturn widely held assumptions about a well-known artist (tick), but also to make a show of historical art mesh with contemporary concerns (double tick). An exhibition rescuing the women painted by Rubens from the “male gaze”, thus absolving the artist of any suggestion that he was a sort of proto-Picasso, lecherously painting sex objects: doesn’t that feel fourth-wave-feminist and 21st-century? The National Gallery pulled off a similar trick three years ago, with its exhibition about another Baroque painter, Artemisia Gentileschi.
After that opening, which introduces us to several women important to Rubens (including his sharp-eyed first wife, Isabella Brant, who died in 1626), the exhibition shifts gears. While, though, the oil studies and drawings in black and red chalk on display in the second room (look out for a miraculous loan from the Uffizi) may be smaller, they are no less confounding.
Consider, for instance, an astonishing study, evidently from life, for the head of another of Rubens’s female patrons, Maria de’ Medici (wife of Henry IV of France, and mother of Louis XIII): examining her in three-quarter profile, from below, Rubens makes no attempt to disguise her double chin. Here, then, is a glimpse of plumpness, but recorded in the interests of truth-telling, not titillation.
Which isn’t to say that the exhibition denies the sexiness of Rubens’s oeuvre. A marble version of the Crouching Venus, a famous Hellenistic sculpture, with which Rubens was obsessed, is installed in the gallery’s mausoleum; mirrors placed behind the piece, which was designed to be seen in the round, afford views from several angles, but the effect is tacky, as if she were a dancer at Stringfellows.
Moreover, following his marriage, in 1630, to Helena Fourment, his much younger second wife, the sensuality in his work increased – as we discover in the show’s final room, which contains four imposing mythological paintings (including two lent by the Prado). Here, we encounter several of the nudes for which Rubens remains famous: a couple of broad-hipped, bejewelled goddesses, for instance, with abundant folds around the midriff, squirt milk from their breasts with abandon.
For all their sensuousness, the curators would argue, these are empowered women, wielding “agency”. Yet the paintings in which they appear seem to me to have an odd, fantasy-like, even fetishistic quality.
But an earlier, psychologically complex composition, on loan from Dresden, of Diana and her retinue returning from the hunt, is a spellbinding meditation on the battle of the sexes. How tired this strong-armed goddess of chastity, swathed in crimson, appears, how weary of the leering male satyrs on the left. Yet how electric, and knowing, is the glance of her fierce-spirited follower in blue, catching the viewer’s eye. Try ogling this intelligent nymph, whom Rubens likely modelled on his first wife, Isabella: you’d swiftly regret it.
From Sept 27; Tickets: dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk