The Dutch masters and paintings of the Golden Age have always left me rather cold: portraits so sombre, domestic scenes so depressing, tonal landscapes so hazy, and as for the masterpiece, Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, ynaaah… Now Rubens et al are similarly Baroque era artists and you would think that I wouldn’t have been much inclined to have a look, but there you’d be wrong.
It had me at hello
I was immediately attracted to the promotional imagery (you’ll see the posters around town): naked blonde goddess draped around the neck of a young adonis – literally. And that’s the power of this show in a nutshell; it’s so much easier to make a connection with these paintings, to enjoy them. From the facial expressions on the subjects, the consistent eye contact, playful subjects and poses, together with the proliferation of flowers, animals, produce: it’s utterly charming. At the press launch I think I was the last one to make it to the sumptuous lunch, dawdling amongst the landscapes on the top floor.
Given pride of place at the start of the exhibition, The Union of Earth and Water made for a stunning beginning and its symbolism (the dependence of Antwerp on the River Scheldt) set the scene for the social and political backstory of the exhibition. I loved the casual seductiveness of the earth goddess; the meaningful look and the unembarrassed posture (reminds me of a friend of mine, I think she nabbed her future husband with a look like that in the hot tub).
There was further playfulness with Venus and Cupid, the former teasing the latter with some flowers, also notable for the inclusion of guinea pigs nestling gently at the foot of the painting – fertility symbols don’t you know?
Child portraits usually give me nightmares but de Vos captured the sweet innocence of his kids in a way that touched me, you can almost sense his fatherly pride.
Joie de Vivre
The exhibition notes refer to an evident “joie de vivre” in many of the paintings selected, the use of food, flowers, hunting and animals, and this strikes a familiar note. How many times have I heard it said that Belgians and southern Hollanders (Limburgians, Brabantians) are distinguishable from the Dutch of the North for their greater emphasis on good living, fine foods and such? The fruits and game displays so lusciously painted here do tend to back that up.
Even the religious paintings of Mary with the baby Jesus are more than once set within garlands of rich flowers, bringing to mind a kind of mexicana vibrancy.
Together with the lovely setting at the Hermitage, with green courtyard and bright and airy restaurant cafe for a cuppa afterwards, it’s something to be savoured, as the Flemish would. Nb Do look out for the brilliant grumpy dog.
Rubens, Van Dyck and Jordaens: Flemish Painters from the Hermitage
17 September 2011 – 15 June 2012