Art review: Rubens and his Legacy at the Royal Academy

Tiger and Lion Hunt, by Rubens

Royal Academy | ★★★☆☆

How do you celebrate an artist when you only have access to a meagre handful of his best works? You curate an exhibition dedicated to his “legacy” and fill it with the works of every great, good and terrible artist ever to have had a passing thought about said artist.
There’s more than a grain of truth to this rather harsh view of the Royal Academy’s new blockbuster Peter Paul Rubens exhibition, but there’s plenty to enjoy as well. Rubens is anything but subtle. There’s none of Rembrandt’s hallowed introspection or Turner’s tortured landscapes, twisting into abstraction. There is merit, however, in the unbridled embrace of an opulent brand of passion that saw him paint muscles and rippling flesh with exhilarating abandon.
Some attributions of influence are more convincing than others. It’s a mistake, probably, to open the exhibition with a work by Constable, a painter whose connection to the Flemish artist is a harder sell than, say, Van Dyck, who worked as his assistant. Van Dyck is one of the more instructive inclusions, the comparative drabness of his painting shedding light on what it is that makes Rubens so special. Ultimately, though, no number of pretenders can fill the void left by Chateau de Steen, The Massacre of the Innocents and Samson & Delilah – all Rubens masterpieces, all missing.

CRITICS’ CHOICE: ART

Late Turner: ★★★★★
Last chance to see Tate Britain’s blockbusting exhibition of Britain’s greatest ever painter.
Renato Guttuso: ★★★★☆
Vibrant colours and searing 20th century politics from the Sicilian painter at Estorick collection.
Post Pop: ★★★★★
Artists in the Saatchi Gallery’s east meets west show are refreshingly unafraid to make a statement

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