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Art review: Rubens, Van Dyck and the Splendour of Flemish Painting

23 January 2020

Alexander Faludy sees a blockbuster exhibition in the Hungarian capital

© Liechtenstein. The Princely Collections, Vaduz-Vienna

Peter Paul Rubens, The Lamentation

Peter Paul Rubens, The Lamentation

THE blockbuster exhibition “Rubens, Van Dyck and the Splendour of Flemish Painting” is the fifth in a series the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest (MFAB), intended to showcase the potential of its extensively redeveloped exhibition spaces. From MFAB’s own holdings and international loan institutions, 120 pieces have been assembled. This is a large — at times, overwhelming — display.

Of its ten sections, four may especially interest Church Times readers: the middle group (sections 4-6) focusing on mythological, biblical, and devotional subjects, and the penultimate section, which is a portraiture display foregrounding Van Dyck’s likenesses of the Stuart monarchy.

The role of Counter-Reformation piety in shaping the visual language of Golden Age Flemish painting is oft emphasised in the text boards. It is highly apparent in two canvases by Rubens. These works tie together scriptural texts and the enacted liturgy in a manner harnessed to the Council of Trent’s reform programme.

Reubens’s The Lamentation (c.1612-14) introduces a novel twist of pathos into a familiar subject. Mary closes Jesus’s lifeless eyes with one hand while removing a thorn from his temple with her other forefinger and thumb. The white linen sheet beneath his limbs on the stone block suggests a corporal. The sacramental connection is strengthened by the stay strands of wheat crushed together by the weight of Jesus’s right foreleg: a powerful visual expression of Tridentine eucharistic teaching on the Real Presence.

The Lamentation has a later, contrasting, companion in The Resurrected Christ Triumphant (c.1615-16). Here, not only does the wheat make a reappearance, but the sarcophagus-tomb lid is (with apparent narrative illogicality) shown as closed while Christ sits atop it. The effect is to reinforce the resemblance between sarcophagus and altar, thereby affirming the sacrificial, not just transubstantive, aspects of Concilliar eucharistic theology.

© Mauritshuis, The HagueAdriaen Brouwer, Fighting Peasants

The arrangement follows guidance on sacred art penned by the influential Leuven (Louvain) theologian Joannes Molanus (1533-85). Molanus’s treatise De Picturis et Imaginibus Sacris (1570) added detail and colour to the the bold iconographic norms sketched in outline by Trent’s Decree on Sacred Images (1563). It rapidly became a manual for South Netherlandish Catholic painters.

This exhibition is, though, as much London as Leuven. Van Dyck’s innovative 1636 full-length portrait of Charles I, the template for all later official portraits, is present via an early autograph copy (c.1637). In the exhibition, it is paired with a slightly earlier (1633) and less formal one of his consort Henrietta Maria.

The juxtaposition reminds us obliquely that Van Dyck, in fact, repainted Henrietta Maria in 1637 in a manner designed to harmonise more with her husband’s official portrait from the previous year. That diptych is thought to be the earliest surviving pairing of British state portraits — perhaps attesting to the unusual depth of affection between the royal couple. Many duplicates of the spousal pair were made for presentation as diplomatic gifts. These images helped monarchs to put a “face to a name” when corresponding with each other over great distances: the 17th century’s answer to a Facebook profile picture, perhaps.

The exhibition tells us that, though Rubens is significantly remembered as a painter of female flesh, his models were nearly all taken from other paintings or (more commonly) from classical sculpted male nudes. This is a fascinating insight that makes one wonder why. Was Ruben’s constrained by deference to Counter-Reformation norms of modesty, or perhaps by Aristotle’s view of woman as, biologically, an inferior version of man? Perhaps Lady Rubens objected? We are not told. Alas, this is not the only missed opportunity when it comes to exploring the construction of sexuality and gender.

© National Galleries of Scotland. Photo Antonia ReeveAnthony Van Dyck, Portrait of Charles I in Robes of State 1636/37

The commentary offered on Gerrard Segher’s Judith with the Head of Holofernes (1616-20) rightly notes the artist’s decision to portray Judith with one breast exposed and a thin red band running directly over the nipple results in a “maximising of erotic tension”. More interesting, however, is how this device contains the potentially disquieting phenomenon of the donna crudele: a woman able to subvert power relations between the sexes. Rather than affirm Judith’s agency in controlled deployment of her sexuality and physical strength, Segher transforms her into an object of the male gaze and so neutralises her. Our attention is directed far more to her breast than to the gruesomely severed head of the Assyrian general.

Some lacunae surprise more. Despite its title, the exhibition offers no systematic comparison of its eponymous artists. Only three rooms in (and 161 pages through its catalogue) is Van Dyck’s apprenticeship to the elder artist even mentioned. And, although one might infer otherwise from the exhibition’s title, works by Rubens and Van Dyck are only a minority of those on show.

The viewer can happily be distracted by contemplating the immensely engaging comic scenes in the last section. Many Flemish painters of this genre migrated to Protestant Northern Europe to escape Counter-Reformation moral earnestness in the South — a detail that undermines lazy stereotypes of “joyless” Dutch puritanism.

Adrian Bouwer’s Fighting Peasants (1625-26) is a delightfully bawdy evocation of rural Flanders. Playing-cards spill from a table as a fight erupts between players, and animals scrap to our right. Brouwer’s biographer Arnold Houbraken noted how Brouwer here depicted a man defecating “in a way so natural and funny . . . one could not look at it without laughing”. The catalogue notes wryly that “a visit to the church in the background was clearly not a priority for these sinful rustics.” Maybe the Counter-Reformation had some limits after all.

“Rubens, Van Dyck and the Splendour of Flemish Painting” is at the Museum of Fine Arts, Dózsa György út 41, Budapest, until 16 February. www.mfab.hu

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