Some of the most rewarding events at the National Gallery are its smaller exhibitions, when the museum borrows a few works from elsewhere, sometimes just one or two, because they shed new light on those already in its permanent collection. Standing at the opposite end of the exhibition spectrum from the lumbering circus elephant that is the museum blockbuster, such shows rarely attract the attention of reviewers. This appears, so far, to have been the misfortune of the tremendous display of paintings from the early period of the career of Peter Paul Rubens currently occupying Gallery 29 at Trafalgar Square.
Subtitled “The Making of an Artist”, the display focusses on a handful of works (essentially three masterpieces, together with supporting pictures) created by the painter in his early thirties. They are among his most dramatic, bloody, sexy, muscular creations. All were forged in the white heat of his youth; but what makes the works in question all the more remarkable is the fact that two of them have been recently rediscovered after centuries of neglect, while the third has only now gained universal acceptance as a genuine Rubens. Between them, they transform the previously hazy picture that had existed of Rubens’ early maturity and make it possible to see the emergence – like that of a butterfly from a chrysalis – of his genius.
The National Gallery is an appropriate venue for this display because 20 years ago its trustees had the courage to purchase Rubens’ disputed masterpiece Samson and Delilah for the bargain basment price of £2.5 million. Questions were asked about the authorship of that painting, largely because it differed so assertively from Rubens’ few other known works of circa 1609-12, in its tenebrous light and its sculptural treatment of human anatomy. Since then the near-miraculous emergence of two other works from the same period, a previously miscatalogued Beheading of St John the Baptist, now in a private collection in New York, together with the long-lost Massacre of the Innocents, for which Lord Thomson of Fleet recently paid the highest ever recorded price for an Old Master painting of £49.5 million, has established that Rubens at his best did indeed paint in just this way during the years of his early maturity. These are the pictures that form the kernel of the National Gallery’s current display.
The immediate background to all three was a voyage of discovery. In 1600, at the age of 23, Rubens went to Italy. For eight years he studied the Venetian schools of painting, the masterpieces of Michelangelo and Raphael and the many works of antiquity in the Capitoline museum. Employed by the Duke of Mantua as a picture-dealer, he secured the purchase of Caravaggio’s Death of the Virgin, which impressed him deeply with its spotlit, claustrophic realism. Then he returned to Antwerp and set out to establish himself as heir apparent to the great traditions of art that he had encountered. The pictures in the National Gallery exhibition pulsate with that ambition.
In about 1609 Rubens painted The Beheading of St John the Baptist as a grisly but intimate scene of sexually motivated murder. He could not have known that Caravaggio had just painted his own monumental depiction of the subject, for the Oratory of St John at Valletta, in Malta, while fleeing papal justice on a charge of murder; but the ghost of Caravaggio’s influence hovers nevertheless over Rubens’s version of Salome’s grim feast. The scene is set in a dim interior lit only by flashes of irregular brilliance designed to pick out the salient, salacious details. A brutish, herculean executioner, having decapitated the Baptist, sheathes his sword and places a heavy foot on the supine body of his victim. A blonde and buxom Salome looks on as her fishwife of a mother, Herodias, holds up the glinting pewter plate that bears the Baptist’s greenish-grey head. Not content merely to display this horrid object to her daughter, Herodias plucks at the Baptist’s still-warm tongue. Participating in the unsavoury joke, Salome wags a finger reprovingly at his sightless eyes, presumably to underline the fact that he has been silenced forever for daring to criticise her mother’s marital arrangements. It is a nastily specific detail, even more vividly disconcerting than the blood spurting from the veins in the Baptist’s neck, or his rapidly bluing hands. There is perhaps a trace of Rubens’s Flemish heritage here, an echo of the robust black humour of Bosch or Bruegel.
The Beheading works its effects through a series of deliberately extreme contrasts: between the pearly skin, softly swelling bosom and throat of Salome, and the discoloured, dismembered head of her victim; between the amused, callous equanimity of her expression and the evident horror etched on the face of her lady-in-waiting; between the squalid prison floor on which the Baptist’s inert body lies, smeared with blood like that of an abbattoir, and Salome’s gorgeous orange dress, which she lifts carefully out of the gathering puddles of gore. The National Gallery’s own Samson and Delilah, probably painted a year or so later, is likewise a drama of contrasts. The marmoreally pale Delilah, whose fair and unblemished face is set against the withered features of the candle-wielding crone behind her, cradles the swarthy figure of Samson on her knee. She is adapted from Rubens’ memories of Michelangelo’s famous reclining statue of Night, while Samson’s ripplingly muscled back echoes the famous antique fragment known as the Torso Belvedere. So the painting is a kind of imaginary sculpture gallery as well as the drama of a man’s debasement through his passion for a woman. Its midnight lighting, once again, is decidely Caravaggesque, so too the way in which Rubens uses drapery – the most abstract element of Baroque narrative painting – to heighten the emotions of the story. A casually knotted swag of purple silk hangs over Samson’s body like a sword of Damocles, its colour resumed in the costume of the barber shown gingerly shearing his locks. Delilah’s crimson dress has a metallic sheen and seems as sharp as wrinkled steel. Loitering at an open door, soldiers wait. Light glints on their helmets and body armour.
For all the brilliance of the other two works, it is The Massacre of the Innocents which emerges as the culminating masterpiece of Rubens’s return from Italy. Surprise was expressed in some quarters that anyone should have paid £49.5 million for a painting of such an unpleasant subject (dead babies, and so many of them). But there are many great paintings about war, devastation and massacre – Poussin’s Rape of the Sabines, Goya’s Third of May, Picasso’s Guernica, to name a few – and Rubens’ picture deserves to be allotted a place among them.
The painting is constructed around an even more violent and extreme set of contrasts than thos e to be found in his other works of the period – this time between an implacable, impersonal gang of murderers and a mass of agonised women and children who form their helpless prey. The principal influence here, transformed once again in the act of assimilation, is antique art. The surging mass of struggling figures who form Rubens’s cresting wave of a composition evoke the entangled gods on some ancient bas-relief, while the buildings behind evoke the monuments of ancient Rome: the massy columns of the Pantheon, the graceful drum of the tomb of Cecilia Metella. In the far background, to emphasise that there shall be no escape from Herod’s murderous order, a pair of fleeing women are met at the city gates by a wall of spears.
A sense of carnivalesque excess, kermesse even, animates this painted orgy of murder and futile resistance. A soldier thrusts his sword at the belly of an old woman with his right hand, while the finger of his left, clamped over her mouth, parts her lips as if to parody the transports of desire. One withered breast has fallen out of her bodice in the course of the struggle. Her body is juxtaposed with that of the young woman, similarly bare from the waist up, against whom she is crushed. Elaborately coiffed like a Venetian aristocrat, this younger woman tears with her nails at the face of the soldier who drags her baby from her. Climactically, another soldier raises the body of a struggling infant above his head, about to dash it against the base of a blood-stained pillar. Dead and dying babies strew the ground, their bodies in shades of green and blue.
The picture might seem obscene, but that is only appropriate. Rubens’s theme is the obscene intimacy of the act of killing – and the uncomfortable proximity that exists, at moments of atrocity such as this, between the urge to create life and the desire to destroy it. Just because Rubens did not sentimentalise the violence of war he should not be taken to celebrate it. His later letters are full of regretful remarks about the epidemic violence of his own period. “Anyone can start a war”, he once remarked, “but cannot so simply end it”.
Paradoxically, all three of these great but violent paintings reaffirm Rubens’ profound and generous humanity. He enjoys depicting moments of crisis because they emphasise that which makes people seem most alive, whether it is an arm or leg with every sinew stretched, a mouth screaming, or an eye turned towards the heavens. There is a beautiful streak of tears across one of the women’s faces in the Massacre, painted – almost sketched – as a swift zig-zag of white paint. Rubens had a superabundant lust for life. It is there in the brightness of his colours, the glimmer of his chiaroscuro, the tumult of his forms.