The paintings of the Flemish Baroque genius Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) are not what one would expect to see at Villa Getty in Pacific Palisades. This is where the museum’s extensive collections of Greek, Roman and Etruscan art are located.
Still, it’s a perfect place to see Rubens’ work. Like many of his compatriots, the painter was fond of ancient art – especially sculpture from late Imperial Rome – and the Villa’s unexpected context for his work fascinates.
‘Rubens: Picturing Antiquity’, the exhibition which opened last month and runs through January 24, is a concise look at how the artist exploited the classical past. Its objective: to defend the aggressive Catholic counter-reform which shook Europe in the 17th century.
Almost two dozen paintings and oil sketches by Rubens, as well as a selection of chalk and pen and ink drawings, have been assembled. Loans came from the Louvre, the Prado, the Uffizi, the Princely Collections from Liechtenstein to Vienna, the British Museum and elsewhere. They join three major paintings and a muscle anatomical study in brown ink from the Getty’s own collections.
In fact, “Rubens: Picturing Antiquity” is a good example of the fruits of the labor of museums that generally go under the public’s radar. Co-organized by Davide Gasparotto and Anne Woollett, painting curators,
and Jeffrey Spier, senior curator of antiques, he represents extensive research in various Getty collections. (This is the museum’s third exhibition dedicated to Rubens.) Baroque paintings and ancient sculptures are further interwoven with books and engravings, many of which come from the extensive collections of the Getty Research Institute.
There is also considerable material that is not often highlighted but has a remarkable influence: sculpted gems, cameos and bronze coins contain visual information on a modest scale as surely as a marble figure. larger than life of Venus – and sometimes more, given their practical portability.
Two years ago, the Getty discreetly acquired a tiny ancient amethyst, less than an inch high, masterfully engraved with a bust of the bearded Athenian statesman Demosthenes, with a furrowed forehead and staring eyes. Widely regarded as the most important Greek object of its kind to survive the past two millennia, it is the rarest of the few – an ancient sculpture signed by artist Dioskourides, an artist in the court of Emperor Augustus and the most famous gem. sculptor of the age. Rubens would have marveled at this during a visit to the collection of Lelio Pasqualini, a Bolognese antique dealer living in Rome.
Rubens is also believed to have owned an oversized gem on display – a foot wide plaque from the 4th century, framed in 1628 with semi-precious stones. It shows in bas-relief the Emperor Constantine riding his chariot and trampling his enemies, while being crowned with a laurel wreath by a winged victory plunging above his head.
The elaborate gold frame adorned with jewels indicates the degree of reverence accorded to the ancient object. Its subject hints at one of the reasons Rubens was so obsessed with classical history: Constantine was the first Roman emperor to throw polytheistic paganism overboard in favor of Christian monotheism.
Thus began the slow but steady transformation of Rome from the seat of the old imperial power to the modern seat of the Catholic Church. While Rubens worked, the tumultuous struggle of the Counter-Reformation against Protestantism caused rivers of blood to flow across Europe. The painter puts the authority of history at the service of contemporary politics.
For an art of political theater, an enlightened knowledge of classical antiquity has greatly helped. It was not for nothing that the brilliantly skilled painter was also revered as a masterful international diplomat.
An affectionate portrait of his friend John Gaspar Gevartius juxtaposes a bust of Marcus Aurelius, the former Stoic philosopher-king, with the humanist scholar, his pen resting on a thick wad of paper. The sculpture doesn’t just sit idly by on the writer’s desk, but rather looks fervently, almost pleadingly, into Gevartius’ eyes, as if imploring him to absorb Pax’s lessons. Romana, a time of relative peace and stability for the Roman Empire during which Aurelius ruled.
Rubens was born in the predominantly Protestant town of Siegen, east of Cologne, Germany, one of the many children of Maria Pypelinckx and Jan Rubens, a city official. He converted to Catholicism after his father’s death – an irony of considerable proportions, given Jan’s deeply felt Calvinist commitments. These included condemnation of the type of etched imagery his son would later master for the Church of Rome and its royal cohorts in the Habsburgs in Spain.
Talk about rebellion against your parents.
Rubens traveled to Italy in 1600, when he was 23 years old. He remained for eight years – in Venice, Mantua, Florence and especially Rome – aspiring the artistic achievements of everyone from Titian and Leonardo da Vinci to Raphael and Caravaggio, welding them to his own talents of bravery. The blue-gray skin of his sensational painting of the frozen corpse of a crucified Jesus, a personal favorite in the Getty’s permanent collection, sends the ruddy protagonist of Caravaggio’s âThe Entombmentâ in a deep freeze.
However, as the exhibition shows – apparently for the first time in a museum exhibition – art and literature from ancient Rome was a decisive focus.
This large carved gem from Emperor Constantine’s triumphal procession is installed near five of Rubens’ oil sketches for incredibly inventive decorations during an elaborate festival he designed in Antwerp to salute the Cardinal Infant Ferdinand of Austria, military victor of the Protestant forces. The gem’s plunging winged victory is a recurring feature.
The exceptional Getty Rubens panel painting “The Calydonian Boar Hunt” is associated with a famous 3rd century Roman sarcophagus that the artist had seen. The high relief frieze of the sarcophagus is an idealized vision of Greek heroes slaughtering the terrorizing monster in a mythical tale. Rubens, raising the temperature of the stage, amplifies the idealization by transforming the almost majestic frieze into a successful drama of good supplanting evil.
The incredible composition looks like something from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Meleager, whose spear delivers the killing blow, has been moved from the left side of the marble composition to a central position in the painting. With an expressive brush, the dynamic thrust of the muscular superman, amplified by the serpentine whirlwind of his crimson cape, is combined with the flying fur on the snarling head of the formidable boar.
A lesser artist would stop there. But not Rubens. Watch closely: the furious point of contact between man and beast is crowned by a lush, supernaturally calm Arcadian landscape – you practically expect to hear the chirping of bluebirds – all surrounded by the vivid counterpoint of snarling dogs, horses neighing and a panting victim trampled under sharp hooves.
A serene eye is placed in the center of the visual storm. When the monster is defeated, the promised harmony glimpsed in the pastoral distance will prevail.
The strangest work in the exhibition is undoubtedly a monumental canvas from a pagan myth of Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” – “The Finding of the Child Erichthonius”, a future ruler of Athens, depicted as a baby with snake tails for the feet. Sequestered in a small woven basket opened by a fleshy cluster of women, young and voluptuous or old and aged, the pagan child is a veritable Moses torn from the rushes.
Here, the scene is presided over by a fountain-statue of Diana of Ephesus, cult goddess with multiple breasts. This feminine image of fertility is matched across the 10-foot expanse of the painting by a menacing Hermes of Pan – the god of the fields, a symbol of fertility and, according to Plutarch, the only Greek deity who dies – peering through the bushes.
In an essay from the exhibition’s excellent catalog, Getty’s curator of paintings Anne Woollett cleverly compares the composition of adorable figures clustered around a beaming child to traditional images of the worship of the shepherds at the nativity of the Christ. I would add a question: for the superimposed allusions to the discovery of Moses and the birth of Jesus, did Rubens hide the mortal god Pan as a sign of Christian prophecy?
“Barbarism defeated” could be seen as the dominant political theme that led Rubens to pay attention to the intricacies of Greco-Roman antiquity. Classicism doesn’t generate much excitement these days, even if there is a lot of barbarism, but Getty’s concise and revealing show digs deep.
‘Rubens: Representation of Antiquity’
Until January 24. Closed on Tuesdays.
Getty Villa, 17985 Pacific Coast Hwy., Pacific Palisades.
(310) 440-7300; getty.edu