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How Rubenesque became a dirty word

The Birth of the Milky Way, 1636-38
The Birth of the Milky Way, 1636-38 - Museo Nacional del Prado

When we say Rubenesque, what do we mean? Do we mean lush, full, ­textured and vibrant? When we say a ­woman is Rubenesque, how do we mean it? Is it said in a ­complimentary ­manner?

I think not. The relish of 17th-century Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens’s lusciousness hurts the modern eye. We are discomfited by his notion of a female beauty that is so at odds with current tastes.

Even curators are keen to rescue Rubens from the cliché of the Rubenesque – a new exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery brings together his paintings of women in an attempt to demonstrate that he was more than a painter of pink, plump nudes. Certainly, the richness he brings to his painting produces a vibrancy in his subjects. His use of colour and light invites us to look and look again. But when we do, we see women in his work who are not necessarily corpulent: take Rubens’s touchingly subdued portrait of his daughter Clara, painted shortly before her death at the age of 12, or his dramatic scene of Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus fleeing Bethlehem under cover of night.

Nevertheless, the trope of the Rubenesque (originally coined in the 19th century to describe a curvy or voluptuous woman in a positive manner) has endured precisely because it tells us so much about how we have viewed women’s ­bodies over the last century.

Betty Friedan’s landmark work The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963, detailed the malaise of the post-war American (call her suburban, call her white) woman. Magazines swapped Rosie the Riveter for the slogan of “give us back our wives and sweethearts”, aiming to persuade women out of the ­munitions factories and reinstall the returning soldiers into civilian jobs. It initiated what Friedan called “the problem that has no name”.

Peter Paul Rubens, Venus Mourning Adonis, c.1614
Peter Paul Rubens, Venus Mourning Adonis, c.1614 - Dulwich Picture Gallery

With this return to the hearth, women’s purpose was refashioned – no matter that many of them worked outside of the home as teachers, scientists, carers, cooks, hairdressers and so on. The new representation of women filled screens and magazines under the label of the feminine.

Part of that sell of domesticity – housework, children, emotional nurture and the provision of food, dentist appointments and everything related to the running of a family – was the sell of beauty. It was there to wash over the work of the household and the labour of caring, producing fulsomely sexual bodies available to husbands when the children were safely in bed. Female sexuality in that historic moment ran from Marilyn Monroe, Lena Horne and Sophia Loren to Jayne Mansfield, Elizabeth Taylor and Diahann Carroll. The women were gorgeous and, yes, luscious and if the variety of women’s bodies meant that many women didn’t come by that fullness naturally, no matter, there were weight-on ­tablets at the chemist, and padded bras and corsets at the lingerie counter, to reshape their form into the desired voluptuousness.

Women’s representation as sex symbols, while still tethered to the home, soon came to clash with the burgeoning sexual revolution of the late 1960s. Along with Black Power, the Student Movement, the Hippy revolution against consumerism, and the protests against the war in Vietnam, a movement for the liberation of women touched all corners of the globe.

Second Wave feminism attempted to upturn received ­wisdom about women’s limited and limiting contribution – and their look. The disruption of the Miss World Contest in 1970 at the Royal Albert Hall, in which feminist activists flour-bombed the host, was testament to that. But as women crashed against the postwar rules on femininity, they were sold back a story which now marketed the female form as slim, slimmer, slimmest. Breasts all but disappeared with Twiggy and the various markers of class were eradicated by a shape which, while not androgynous, implied new freedoms. Paradoxically it also conveyed a visual message about not taking up too much space. Virginia Slims cigarettes invoked the age – you can be out there baby, but be sleek, ­slender, one size and one look.

Miss World Beauty Competition in London, 1970
Miss World Beauty Competition in London, 1970 - Mirrorpix

Whatever women were doing, they were encouraged to view themselves with a critical inner eye, to evaluate their appearance, their movements and how to convey the coming of sexual freedom with apparent nonchalance. The trouble was, many women neither felt nonchalant, nor could see their bodies fitting in. Women of a certain size felt excluded and judged. They embraced the pill for sure, but many came to feel themselves outsize, in the wrong decade. They couldn’t get their bodies to be the bodies that were represented on billboards and in magazines. The allure of the easy swinging Sixties escaped them and they entered adult life with a feeling of inhabiting the wrong kind of body. A body that needed to be taken in hand and disciplined. A body that needed to be worked on. A body that should be “perfected”.

Thus, the idea of the Rubenesque was reborn with a sigh, with a sense of regret and failure, and evocative of a lost age: an earlier epoch in which larger, voluptuous women’s bodies were adored and celebrated.

The digital revolution has renewed the idea of the Rubenesque. While lighting tricks, face enhancements, make-up adjusters and so on are built into apps and every girl pretty much knows how to shape her image on screen, not everyone uses those filters and transformers. They don’t want the disjuncture of a two-body problem – the one they actually inhabit and the confected one on screen. The disguise is too jangly and unreliable. Instead, they have reached for something pre-modern, daring to call themselves Rubenesque in an attempt to extend the remit of beauty to their bodies, too. A cursory look on ­TikTok or Instagram reveals posts of pride and defiance by and of ample women. Women display their large bodies in alluring ways while in other posts, men talk to camera of adoring “their” Rubenesque women while bemoaning their partners’ self-criticism that they aren’t svelte enough.

In the Dulwich Picture Gallery’s selection of Rubens’s work, we see pictures of the cherubic, the saintly, of Venus and of noble women. The devoted and angelic figures are often studies in nude while the nursing mother is semi-revealed. We read the wealth of the noblewomen from the richness of their clothes. Size per se was not such a determinant of wealth. Certainly, being well nourished and gorgeously attired was a prerogative, but it wasn’t necessarily attached to a specific body shape. When we look at Rubens’s portraits of noblewomen in the Dulwich show – for instance, his impressive picture of the Genoese Marchesa Maria Serra Pallavicino, clothed in white satin – it is their affluence and power (rather than ample proportions) that we see.

Diana Returning from the Hunt, c. 1623
Diana Returning from the Hunt, c. 1623 - Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden

But despite some women’s attempts to reclaim the Rubenesque body – and indeed despite women’s struggles to be taken seriously whatever their size today – they remain a minority view. Our contemporary picture of femininity remains a narrow representation of form. We make unconscious judgements before we even know we are doing so. Our eyes are still trained to appreciate thin and slender bodies, while to be large continues to be derided, pitied, scorned, and depending on one’s social location, to be discriminated against. Size has come to be regarded as ­something an individual can ­control. And variation, particularly of the ample sort, is deemed a moral failing. The body is judged as a calling card and signal as to how one is to be seen and valued.

Over the past century, then, ever since women endeavoured to claim more nuanced and varied social and work spaces, there has been a curious shrinkage of body types – their range slimmed down both in reality and desire. Is this a coincidence? If it was an accident of the freedom proclaimed by the sexual revolution, why has it predominated? And how does this look, the look of thinness twinned with ­elegance, nonchalance, belonging, and confidence come to rule all ­others? Where once how the body was covered was a sufficient signal (and remains so in some cultures) today it is the shape that indicates place and entitlement.

Bodies are now a site for aspiration. Not just women’s bodies but all bodies endeavouring to enter modernity. Globalism has ushered in a culture of conformity, no ­matter that we come in different sizes, shapes and ethnicities.

Just a few years after televisions arrived in Fiji – in the mid-1990s – playing such serials as Friends, 11.3 per cent of teenage girls were over the toilet throwing up in an attempt to match the westernised bodies they saw on their screens. These young women did not see this as oppressive in any way. Rather, such actions were manifestations of progress, of taking power, of entering into modernity.

The Three Graces, c.1636
The Three Graces, c.1636 - Dulwich Picture Gallery

In Seoul, the insertion of a westernised eyelid is favoured by parents for their 16-year-old daughters. Jaw shaving has also become a common operation to reshape the face of young South Koreans. In Brazil, the favoured bottom – long a symbol of beauty – was “enhanced” by breast implants as Barbie became a new symbol of femininity. Meanwhile in the metropolises of China, legs were broken and rods inserted to give a western height to women and to men. Such surgeries, ­including the reshaping of noses in Iran and Arabia, were undertaken as a mark of stylishness. Body variety was flattened as globalisation appeared to promise new forms of fitting in.

Intriguingly, this remaking of the body to fit a narrow aesthetic is occurring at a moment in our history when we use our bodies less and less to manufacture things. Industrialisation, the internet and now artificial intelligence offer robotic, virtual bodies, while increasingly prosthetics and bespoke therapies rebuild our aging physiques.

Rubens never sought to manipulate the human body in such ways. His fleshy, muscular studies, which rebel against our contemporary conformism and constraint, were admired for their individual grace and construction. At Dulwich, when we look at his oil sketch of The Three Graces, swirling in dance, we see bodies alive with their connection to nature and the heavens. Rubens conveys the magisterial, the sensual, the nurturing, the ethereal. These are magnificent, desired women, rendered in radiant and stunning undulations of paint. And for that reason, the Rubenesque remains an important idea to hold on to in an increasingly dematerialised world: it’s a reminder of our own living, breathing corporeality.


Rubens & Women is at Dulwich Picture Gallery (dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk), London, SE21, from Wednesday to Jan 28