The art of excess

    And you’d be right to imagine all this glistening pink porkiness. It cannot be denied that Rubens had a taste for the extra-large treat. As a fatty myself, I have always felt immensely grateful that he existed and that, almost single-handedly, he managed to popularise fatness as a suitable subject for old masters. Without Rubens, we big ‘uns might well have remained unrecorded and neglected on the shelf.

    It doesn’t fall to many people to donate a useful new adjective to the English language. But because of Rubens we are able to describe the larger lady — the lady who lunches too much — as “Rubensian” without trampling on her feelings. “Rubensian” is such a friendly adjective. It makes the size-16 girl feel like nothing more unsightly than a roomy size 14.

    But this new show isn’t having any of that. Its ambition is to consider in detail the early years of Peter Paul Rubens and to reveal, in the process, a much darker side to his psychology. Rubens wasn’t simply an admirer of innocent feminine plumpness. Like a lot of men with a taste for the failed weight-watcher, he had a thick streak of cruelty running through him. His feelings about women were edgy and confused. In Rubens, particularly in his early years, the taste for the multi-pound nude disguises some very unsettling hungers for sex and violence.

    Some people, of course, have never missed this. Looking through the yard upon yard of Rubens literature on my shelf, it’s striking how divided opinion has been about him, and how many notable detractors have thrown sharp things at his coconut. Byron, a dyed-in-the-wool woman-hater, had the cheek to claim that “I never was so disgusted in my life as with Rubens and his eternal wives”. While William Blake — and this is an even clearer case of a pot accusing a kettle — was moved to notice a loony primitivism in Rubens, and to discern something unpleasantly regressive in his relationship with his women. “His shadows are of a filthy brown,” growled Blake, “somewhat the colour of excrement.” Blake wrote an angry poem once, addressed specifically to all of England’s connoisseurs, to which he appended an anti-Rubens verse dismissing the great man’s entire output as “slobbering”.

    My own view is that Rubens was a slobberer ahead of his time. His taste for brutally implied sex and the naked humiliation of women speaks to the modern world on subjects for which there is now a huge audience. Look properly at Rubens, and you’re looking at a pretty scary guy. The misogynistic streak he tries so little to hide provided him with the rocket fuel to launch some very extreme art into the world. He was the Quentin Tarantino of the 17th century not just because he enjoyed such ample lashings of sex and violence in his cinematic art, but also because this violence was depicted with such consummate style. It isn’t real violence: it’s a ballet of death, choreographed beautifully, with such acrobatic scratching, gouging, slashing, thrusting and biting.

    See, for instance, what’s really going on in The Massacre of the Innocents, the big Rubens masterpiece that cost the Canadian media baron David Thomson a world-record price for a painting when he bought it at Sotheby’s for £50m in 2002. Go on. Get closer and have a really good look. Lost for three centuries because its troubled Dutch owners were too nervous to show it to anyone, it was suddenly rediscovered in 2002 and unleashed on the art world like a smash in the jaw from an 18-stone bouncer. Christ, what a violent painting.

    It’s not a subject in which violence is easy to avoid, that’s true. Herod has sent out his executioners to murder every male infant in the land because one of them is believed to be the new messiah, and Herod can’t stand the competition. Rubens shows the executioners going about their infanticide with such nasty enthusiasm. The one on the right has picked up a baby by the waist and is about to crack open its head on a marble pedestal, like a man beating a carpet. The woman in the middle, the blonde with her back to you — the one whose breasts have popped out so inconveniently, and so sexily — has dug her nails into an executioner’s face as she protects her baby, and drags them down his cheek, while her mother, who’s joined in, has another executioner’s hand in her mouth, and is biting it vigorously.

    Do you know a more vicious old master? I don’t. It’s not just the amount of violence in the picture that is so striking but the type of violence too. Scratching, biting, pulling hair — it has an unmistakably sexual edge to it. Supposedly concerned with cruelty against children, this actually has the air of a rape scene. If I sound a tad too enthusiastic about it myself, I can only admit that I have rarely been as viscerally affected by a painting as I was by this one when — out of the blue — it appeared at the National Gallery.

    Also interesting is that Rubens ought not to have been as gory or as dirty as he was. He had an enormously proper life. The son of a lawyer, born in Germany in 1577 of Flemish stock, he was groomed to be a gentleman from day one, and enjoyed what must surely have been the most fruitful and successful career in the history of art. Where most artists are recognised as loose cannons, Rubens was thought to be level-headed and sensible, so much so that various kings and princes made use of his diplomatic skills and employed him as their ambassador.

    When England and Spain were on the point of war in the reign of Charles I, it was Rubens who was sent from the Netherlands to Britain to placate the English. Charles gave him a knighthood, which makes Sir Peter Paul Rubens one of the very few decent artists ever to be gonged in Britain. While here, he painted the ceiling of the Banqueting House in Whitehall. It’s used mainly as a posh catering venue these days. I’ve been to a number of receptions there where I seemed to be the only person in the room thrilled to be chewing my sausage rolls under the world’s only surviving Rubens ceiling.

    The one event in his early life that can possibly be construed as a trigger for the fleshy loucheness to come was being sent, when he was 13, to work as a page for the Comtesse de Lailaing. Perhaps it was here he acquired the aristocratic pretensions that are so obvious later on, and his taste for the posher woman. There’s something Mick Jaggerish about his relationship to nobility: the hunger for knighthoods, the fawning to princes, the move from rebelliousness to Establishment favouritism.

    So prolific and successful was he that he had to employ an army of studio assistants and speciality painters to churn out the endless commissions that came his way. There are a huge number of feeble half-Rubenses out there. “All Rubens’s pictures are painted by journeymen,” moaned Blake, “and so far from being all of a piece, are the most wretched bungles.”

    One reason why The Massacre of the Innocents created such a stir when it suddenly turned up was that it was obviously from the master’s hand, and only the master’s hand. All the pictures that are coming to London, because they are from the early part of his career, are mercifully free of other people’s contributions. What you see is the true Rubens.

    The earliest picture in the show features that excellent excuse to show naked women writhing with muscular men: The Battle of the Amazons. The Amazons were a mythical tribe of fierce warrior women whom the Greeks were unusually fond of encountering in battle. The only use the Amazons had for men was for the purpose of procreation; otherwise they did without them. So the 17th century found them fascinating and titillating for the same sorts of reasons, and in the same sorts of ways, that lesbians would later become interesting for the generation of Gauguin and Toulouse-Lautrec.

    Rubens painted various depictions of the Greeks confronting the Amazons, and in all of them the dynamics of the action are the dynamics of a gang rape. The version that opens the London show has Hercules in the middle clutching a naked Amazon under each arm. The girls are angry. They struggle like salmon on a line. But Hercules won’t let go. He’s muscular enough to take what he wants. The bottom of the picture is heaped with dead Amazons whose clothes have fallen off. Everybody seems to be screaming and gasping. It’s like something Caligula might have ordered.

    While much of the raping in early Rubens is thinly veiled and symbolic, there are plenty of explicit illustrations of the theme. The Rape of the Sabines is one favourite. The antics of Zeus are another. Zeus, the king of the gods, had a taste for mortals of both sexes and was famous for coming down to Earth in an array of cunning disguises to have his way with the objects of his lust. Sometimes the victim did not even know he or she had been penetrated. To seduce Leda, Zeus turned himself into a swan, and the phallic symbolism of the long neck of the bird rearing up between the legs of the naked Leda is utterly unmissable. Copied from an idea by Michelangelo, Rubens’s Leda and the Swan is a painting of unimpeachable smuttiness. Much more violently, when Zeus took a liking to the pretty boy Ganymede, he came to Earth as an eagle endowed with sharp talons that drew blood from the young man’s naked body. The Marquis de Sade would have enjoyed this tense flurry of feathers, talons, naked flesh and skin wounds. The hint of anal sex is, as it were, a paid extra.

    But the painting that beats least about the bush on the subject of Rubens’s sexual appetites is his extraordinarily sleazy Samson and Delilah. Having been the world’s strongest man, Samson has allowed Delilah to tire him out in bed. And as he droops across her in a deep postcoital slump, a gang of servants loom up out of the gloom to cut off his hair and unman him. It’s a castration story, disguised so very lightly. Anyone glancing at it would know immediately that a loud masculine alarm is being sounded here about the seductive dangers of Delilahs.

    But Rubens brings so much more to the table than is actually asked of him by the subject. Samson didn’t have to look so heavy, so drained, so spent. Nor does he have to display all that muscular naked back. Delilah — the same plump and somewhat battered blonde who fights the executioners in The Massacre of the Innocents — is once again having difficulty keeping her bits unpopped. This time the strap of her girdle has been pulled like a rope across her chest, disfiguring her breasts. You could hardly ask for a more explicit flash of S&M proclivities.

    Samson and Delilah was painted to hang above a roaring fire in a respectable Antwerp living room. And you can just see the owner of this living room sneaking back at night, as the fire roared, for a another look. And another.