Sunday, 5 June 2016

Ghosts of old Antwerp

It's a pure coincidence that Britain's oldest public art gallery is a short walk from where I live. I can stroll past the, suddenly popular, brutalist tower blocks of Dawson Heights, grab a Maltesers ice cream, wander leisurely through Dulwich Park, and be there in just over half-an-hour. On a day as sunny as the one I chose to pop down to see their Rubens' Ghost exhibition it was something of a small delight.

John Soane's 1817 edifice houses not only a gallery but a cafe, educational areas, and occasionally shows films. I saw Woody Allen's Manhattan there some years back. They had cheese from a local cheesemonger on hand. It's got a splendid little garden surrounding it too.

The gallery founders, Noel Desenfans and Sir Francis Bourgeois, put together quite a collection of old masters. There's really nothing modern there at all. We'll ignore, for today, the likes of Velazquez, Murillo, Reni, Veronese, and many other notables to concentrate on their renowned library of Dutch and Flemish masters.

Their Major Discoveries season has already focused on Van Dyck and has both Dou and Rembrandt to come. For now, however, Rubens takes centre stage. The curators have used historical and technical research to reveal new findings.

The centrepiece is an x-ray (ghosts, geddit?, not sure I do) of his Venus, Mars and Cupid. A work that stands in the gallery anyway. The painting shows Venus feeding her son Cupid, giving him a right ol' spray to be fair, while Mars, the father, looks on.

The x-ray reveals that the position of Cupid's head was changed at some point. As were the dimensions of the background red curtain. Whoop-di-fucking-doo! This is hardly fascinating stuff and certainly not worth the gallery's £7 entrance fee. The gallery is rather steep, anyway, as when attending temporary exhibitions you have to pay full entrance fee.

Fortunately they've fleshed out their meagre discoveries with another nine Rubens originals so it wasn't a complete mistake to leave the ice creams and sunshine of the park behind.

Hagar in the Desert, from the 1630s, shows a servant of Abraham. The servant with whom he had his son Ishmael. It seems odd that shagging your servants would set you up as the patriarch of three major religions. So it goes. The model for Hagar is rumoured to be Rubens' beloved second wife Helene Fourment. He painted her often. I imagine she was grateful that, on most occasions, he chose to do so more flatteringly than this.

There's further biblical balderdash with Saint Barbara Fleeing from her Father, below. It's a preparatory sketch for an Antwerp ceiling decoration. Telling the story of Barbara who was imprisoned in a tower to deter potential suitors. On her escape her father killed her! I suppose at least she was the one sanctified.

The Miracle of the Blessed Ignatius of Loyola is another preparatory sketch. This time for an altarpiece for a Genoese Jesuit church. It was created as part of a campaign to accelerate his (Ignatius's, not Rubens') canonisation. If you'd like to see St Francis Xavier evicted from the Society of Jesus call us at the end of this programme.

Hey, Venus again! In Venus Lamenting Adonis the latter lies slain by a boar, having ignored Venus's warning not to join the hunt. Never really had much sympathy for huntsmen myself. It is, yet again, a preparatory sketch. For a much larger work in Jerusalem's Israel Museum. It looks back to the pieta and, to these amateur eyes, forward to the work of Cezanne.

The Three Graces were Venus's handmaidens. Seen as personifications of beauty and certainly giving a good idea of the etymology of the adjective Rubenesque. I'm not sure what level of appreciation Sir Mix-A-Lot had for seventeenth century baroque altarpieces but I think it's safe to say he would approve. We all know he can not lie.

Elsewhere we witness Katherine Manners (no, me neither) in her slashed 'virago' sleeves, Romulus (legendary founder of Rome) celebrating his victory over King Acron, and modelli (oil sketches) demonstrating the Italian influence on Rubens work.

It's probably fair to say it's all a bit old and dry. But then so am I. It's an interesting gallery if you like 'real' art but for those of you wanting something a bit more taxing you may come away disappointed.

Staving off, a little, my sense of let down was another coincidence. I arrived the day they were hosting a free architectural historical tour of the building. I'd been in the crypt before but it was interesting to learn it was intentionally free of any Christian symbolism. I didn't know the temporary exhibition space used to be alms houses. I did know that Sir Giles Gilbert Scott based the design of his classic red telephone box on John Soane's grave in St Pancras. But I didn't know they'd also been influenced by the shape of the funerary decoration atop the mausoleum.

It was an interesting tour and it was an okay exhibition. But there'll be better ones.

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