Peter Paul Rubens’ Unconditional Love and Utter Gruesomeness

'Early Rubens,' at the Legion of Honor, shows a 12-year period in the Dutch master’s life that burst with bloody depravity.

Even by the standards of the modern internet, which lets billions of people watch videos of calculated killings and bloodshed, Peter Paul Rubens’ 17th-century painting The Massacre of the Innocents is a tour de force. As soon as you set eyes on it, there’s no place to avoid the brutality and depravity that Rubens depicts in such physical and emotional detail. It’s not just the cruelty of muscle-bound men throwing and knifing toddlers to death; it’s the fear we see on the faces of mothers who can’t stop the genocide.

Rubens painted that fear — and the blue, rotting flesh of young boys — like Cezanne painted pears. (Never mind that The Massacre of the Innocents is based on an apocryphal Biblical narrative that recalls Herod’s directive to kill all boys in Bethlehem younger than two.) Rubens painted allegories that were stand-ins for reality. And when he made The Massacre of the Innocents around 1610, the Eighty Years’ War — which pitted Dutch and other provinces against the Spanish Crown — had freshly (if temporarily) receded from Rubens’ native Antwerp.The artist was in his early 30s when he painted The Massacre of the Innocents but he’d already seen a lifetime of political tumult and disarray.

Rubens’ life was anything but tumultuous. In the early 1600s, he was becoming Antwerp’s most celebrated painter, invited by monarchs around Europe to paint their portraits in ornate settings that reeked of big money. That’s Rubens’ legacy: epic scenes of flesh and fantasy that appealed to wealthy benefactors and to anyone who favored scenes drenched in religious narrative — the Catholic Church was one of his main patrons — or drenched in other dramatic narratives. Rubens imbued simple portraits with drama through a command of shape and color that he honed while living for eight years in Italy, studying great masters like Titian.

His command of the canvas is noticeable throughout the Legion of Honor’s new exhibit, “Early Rubens,” which the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco says is the first show dedicated to highlighting his work from 1609 to 1621. For lovers of Rubens’ art, it’s an event of almost orgiastic proportions — as big a deal to them as a tour by Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr would be for Beatles fans. Some of the exhibit’s 30 paintings and 20 works on paper are being displayed for the first time on the West Coast or in the United States.

“In many respects, he was the first truly international artist,” Thomas P. Campbell, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s Director and CEO, said as he led a press tour before the exhibit opened.

“It’s the first painting show in my lifetime that only brings Rubens’ works together and works from his studio,” said Alexandra Suda, Curator of European Art at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, the exhibit’s co-partner, which lent The Massacre of the Innocents and other art. “It turns the lens from Rubens as a sponge to what he learned in Italy to Rubens as a generator of a whole new style and of making baroque his own.”

We see this metamorphosis in the jump that Rubens makes from a small, 1604 work like Study after Correggio’s Madonna of St. George (essentially a colorless copy of a straightforward religious scene) to The Lamentation, a 1612 painting that depicts Christ’s death as a complex state of tenderness, unconditional love, and utter gruesomeness. The Lamentation depicts Christ’s face as muddy and beaten up, with the whites of his barely-open eyes milky and ghostly. Rubens has Mary caressing those eyes, and the blood on his head — surrounded by a phalanx of other mourners, each of them in their own state of disbelief or belief. It’s not one scene but many scenes rolled into one, what many people, including Campbell, call “cinematic.” Lots of famous painters before Rubens depicted that same moment of Christian mourning, but nothing like how Rubens did.

Rubens influenced a who’s-who of painters, among them Rembrandt and Delacroix. He’ll always be contemporary. He’ll always find new audiences, and new ways to appeal. SFMOMA’s major 2017 exhibit on Robert Rauschenberg, “Erasing the Rules,” featured a piece, Persimmon, that incorporated Rubens’ 1613 Venus in Front of the Mirror, which has the fleshly goddess looking into a mirror whose reflection stares right at the viewer. We see Venus from behind (and see her behind) at the same time she sees us. It’s voyeurism through the lens of classical portraiture — but it breaks all sorts of rules about the gaze, and who’s watching whom.

Venus in Front of the Mirror isn’t at the Legion of Honor, but so many other great Rubens works are that play with perspective and tradition, including The Tribute Money. The Fine Arts Museums owns this early-17th-century painting, which is usually on the Legion of Honor’s main floor, so it will be in San Francisco long after “Early Rubens” leaves for Toronto on Sept. 8.

For years, I’ve gone to the Legion of Honor just to stare at The Tribute Money. Standing there, scanning the large-ish canvas — it’s four by six feet — it’s wonderful to revisit the panoply of faces and re-admire the light and the symmetry that Rubens achieved through textures, colors, and positioning. On the right, Christ is the central figure, which Rubens accentuates with a red garment that hangs like a carpet over his shoulder. But Christ doesn’t occupy the painting’s center. That prime spot belongs to an almost-crazed-looking man who’s asking Jesus — trapping him, really — about how the Pharisees should reconcile paying taxes to Caesar. “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s,” Christ is reported to have said. But not everyone in Rubens’ depiction is listening. One person is looking in the opposite direction, ignoring Christ’s words. And one person is looking right at the viewer — just like Venus does in Venus in Front of the Mirror. Through his stare, we’re there in the scene with Jesus and the Pharisees. We’re paying tribute to The Tribute Money. And we’re paying tribute to Rubens for imagining the moment in a way that brings it to life.

Rubens took risks not just in his painting style but in his choice of subjects, as in Lot and His Daughters, a painting done between 1612 and 1614 that animates the biblical story of incest and lineage. (“Fearlessness,” is one word that Suda uses for Rubens.) “Early Rubens” reminds art-goers that Rubens wasn’t just a painter. He was an entrepreneur who ran a workshop that distributed his art beyond the Church and beyond private collections. He later became a diplomat who tried to mediate among warring countries and tried to prevent the kind of violence he depicted in The Massacre of the Innocents. The Eighty Years’ War eventually resumed, leading to millions of deaths. But in the years between 1609 and 1621, there was relative peace around Antwerp and beyond, which let Rubens become the painter he wanted to become. Antwerp was rebuilding itself into a nexus of European commerce. Money poured back in. Art was highly valued again. So Rubens was the right person in the right place at the very right time.

“Early Rubens,” through Sept. 8 at the Legion of Honor, 100 34th Ave. (Lincoln Park). $13-$28, 415-750-3600, legionofhonor.famsf.org.

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