Of course, nobody doubts his actual successfulness. How can you? The museum world is swamped with Rubens paintings: he is everywhere, in every important collection, every significant gallery. Yet this huge build-up of wobbly bodies has a certain interchangeability to it. The feeling persists that a successful franchise is pumping it out by the yard. Having spent plenty of time lurking around many international stretches of Rubens, I have witnessed a tendency among art lovers to hurry through when they get to him. After about three paintings, a sense of fleshy sameness begins to assert itself. So, one of the many ways in which the National Gallery gets it right here is in the choice of scale. It’s quite a small show, and by limiting itself to the first decade or so of Rubens’s career — before he became so successful that his art needed to be churned out to keep pace with demand, a task that necessitated the involvement of many hands apart from his own — the display succeeds in locating some unusually pure Rubens. Rubens in unadulterated form. The real Rubens.
The earliest paintings on view, made when he was 20 or so, are surprisingly awkward. He was born in 1577, in Germany. His stock, however, was Flemish and, in 1589, his family returned to the land of pork and Catholicism. But Rubens never really conquered anatomy, even at the other end of his career, and there’s a tendency from the start to go for fleshy Flemish effects rather than biological certainties: he was always good at skin, but never at skeletons. The winning Venus in the 1597 Judgment of Paris has a size-17 neck Mike Tyson might covet.
What’s fascinating, though, is the instant flaunting of innate storytelling skills. The Judgment of Paris is a no-brainer of a subject: Paris, son of the king of Troy, has to choose which of the three goddesses, Venus, Juno or Minerva, is the most beautiful. All artists painting this subject get to present their audience with three beautiful women flashing their bits. Yet Rubens develops the story line slyly to involve the spectator in the choice. At the back, a naked river god is having his beard tickled by a nude nymph who looks us brazenly in the eye as her tickling causes the god’s jug to overflow. At the feet of the winner, Venus, a pint-sized Cupid points coyly to her pudenda. And at the front, poor Paris, barely able to restrain himself as he hands Venus the apple, throws himself at her naked chest like a fencer thrusting out his épée, and takes us with him.
What’s being shown here is a terribly precocious understanding of the real reasons for an audience’s interest in mythology. With Rubens, from the start, sex is recognised as an infallible selling point. And pretty quickly, violence joins the team. No wonder this man had the most successful artistic career there has ever been. Where the show really scores, however, is in making clear that Rubens’s interest in these matters was personal as well as professional. It isn’t only his audience’s desires that are being catered for here: it is his own.
In 1600, he left the Netherlands for Italy, where he remained for eight years, learning all sorts of clever pictorial wheezes, while never losing sight of the central attraction of sex. The show is a little difficult to follow in its opening two rooms, as it jumps back and forth between the pre- and post-Italian Rubens but the journey essentially goes from small to big as the pocket-sized early Rubens comes into contact with the Italian baroque and swells into unfeasible hugeness, in the manner of a prize marrow.
The first picture in the show to achieve this is a magnificent St George slaying the dragon, from the Prado. What a picture. The action doesn’t take place in front of you so much as above you. Your view is pretty much what the poor dragon would have seen as it stared up at a whopping great St George, balanced on a mountainous rearing horse, preparing to chop his sword down on its open jaw. There’s no hiding from a picture like this. It locates you on the other side of the room, yanks you underneath itself and then terrifies the hell out of you with enormous quantities of visceral impact. When Rubens hits the nail on the head, it stays hit.
With all this effort going into attention-grabbing, and the repeated pressing of the sex-and-violence button, the show, like Rubens himself, lacks a measure of underlying coherence. The opening compositions are muddled and overcrowded. The young Rubens, and the old, were lovers of quantity, and the cramming-in of cavorting nudes is hardly ever done with true control or a real sense of compositional security. But, frankly, who cares? When your mouth is as full of saliva as this, compositional incoherence is an easy sin to forgive. It quickly became clear to me, by the way, that one of the reasons the young Rubens is so vivid is because he painted on wood, in the Flemish manner, and this gave his work a hard and sexy finish we shouldn’t discuss too frankly. When he moves to canvas, an air of absorption and softness enters his painting, en- couraging him to become more poetic and subtle. What we get here is the hard stuff.
A fantastic series of drawings of muscular male nudes in action raises the excitement levels a notch and prepares us for this show’s prime stretch: its central gallery. I already knew Rubens was exhilarating before I walked in here. I was familiar, too, with the paintings on show, because the two most prominent ones have been for some time in the National’s display. Yet a fearsomely effective arrangement that places Samson and Delilah opposite The Massacre of the Innocents, in a thunderous, heavyweight face-off, delivers a new raft of Rubensian frissons. You will remember them if you’ve seen them, and you really must go to look for yourself if you haven’t. One’s an action scene, the other a seduction scene: one’s about violence, the other’s about sex, but neither is in the least bit purist about recognising this divide. Indeed, both pictures have chosen, you feel, to ignore it.