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Learning to Speak the Language of Rubens

`IN the late twentieth century,'' writes Peter Sutton, curator of the ``Age of Rubens'' exhibition currently at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, ``Rubens and Flemish art, particularly for American audiences, is an acquired taste.''

The aim of the exhibition, and that of a sister show of Flemish drawings of the same ilk that will open at the Cleveland Museum of Art in January, is to challenge this perceived American distaste. Mr. Sutton adds his conviction that what he calls ``the generous rhetorical language'' of Flemish 17th-century Baroque painting, of which Peter Paul Rubens is the unrivaled star, ``can speak again with a universal grandeur and eloquence.'' He argues for ``making this language intelligible once more.''

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Though it is true that exhibits of the Flemish Baroque have been staged much more frequently in Europe than in the United States, it is not only Americans who find Rubens difficult. For anyone who looks to art for a quiet or restrained sincerity of statement, or for a stillness suggesting that the control of emotion rather than its indulgence is the better ideal, Rubensian exuberance and unabashed relish of the sensuous is likely to seem unappealing.

But Rubens, though a Northern European artist, schooled himself in Italian art at a time when a renewed fervor was taking hold of the Roman Catholic church and the art it commissioned, a defiant determination to face down the challenges and accusations of the Protestant Reformation. Rubens, devoutly Catholic, became one of the outstanding proponents of the Counter-Reformation art north of Italy, especially in his paintings for ecclesiastical settings.

AFTER a period as a young artist in Italy, Rubens returned to Antwerp (then in Flanders, today in Belgium) never to return to the land of Mantegna, of Raphael and Michelangelo, of Titian, and of Bernini and Caravaggio, artists whom he loved intensely. From Titian in particular, he and other Baroque artists learned that a strongly felt religious devotion might be communicated through a vigorous, jubilant enjoyment of color and rich paint and an almost musical movement between one part of a painting and another. Titian's religious paintings are passionate and heartfelt. And they are no less concerned with conveying human touch and feeling than his ``profane'' works.

Rubens carried such concepts much further. Like Titian, he clearly believed that religious paintings should be directed at the feelings of viewers, so that they might vividly experience something of the agony and ecstasy of the saints. It was images of the saints and veneration of their relics that Protestants found offensive and suspect. Counter-Reformation iconography sought to reinstate all that, no holds barred. As Sutton writes, this art was ``devout and hieratic ... and proselytizing, art at the service of organized religion and the state.''

And if it is not simply today's Protestantism that continues to find such art alien, Sutton suggests some other late 20th-century reasons for such dislike. Our age, he writes, is ``highly secularized'' and ``egalitarian,'' and instead of the gestural and public expression of shared faith and authority found in Baroque paintings, we ``treasure ... the private artistic statement, its idiosyncrasy and traces of individual emotion.''

It is true that such things are valued in art today. But Sutton, for the sake of his argument, may be overlooking the public shared character of much of today's art. An obvious aspect of this is the degree to which modern art has turned away from work that might adorn people's living rooms or studies. The museum - or the Mojave Desert - has become our temple for modern art.

On the other hand, Rubens's own artistic output, though largely for public church settings and royal palaces, also had its persistently private side: He painted and drew himself infrequently, but his wife - in particular his young second wife, Hne Fourment - appears in his late work almost obsessively.

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``The Crowning of Saint Catherine'' was painted for the Church of the Augustinians in Mechelen (formerly Malines in Flanders). It was an altarpiece. Although Rubens's apocryphal subject - St. Catherine being crowned by the child Jesus sitting on Mary's lap - is unconventional among the saintly subjects for Catholic altarpieces, the purpose of the painting is to stir ecstasy and devotion no less than other Counter-Reformation ecclesiastical works.

But there is a ``further dimension,'' referred to in the painting exhibition catalog note by Lawrence Nichols, that may be private to the artist, and even ``idiosyncratic.'' Helene Fourment was unquestionably Rubens's model not only for the kneeling figure of St. Catherine, but also for the figure of St. Margaret on the right of the picture. Rubens and his wife had married at the end of 1630. This painting was probably finished in 1631. ``It may not be too far-fetched,'' Mr. Nichols writes, ``to find a further reference [in this altarpiece] to his wife. While Rubens was engaged with this canvas, Helene was approximately the same age as St. Catherine, the patron saint of young girls, at the time of her martyrdom. So, too, St. Margaret might have had personal relevance to the couple: She was the patron saint of women in childbirth, and in January 1632 Hne gave birth to a daughter....''

CONTEMPORARIES did sometimes notice that the model for some figure in one of Rubens's paintings was his wife, and at least one of his important patrons insisted on having a Rubens self-portrait painted for his collection. Such interest in him as a person - and, incidentally, in having works by his hand - runs counter to the idea that 17th-century Flemish Counter-Reformation art was public rather than personal.

While it is true that Rubens was known for being a superb organizer of an exceptionally busy workshop, and for collaborating with other notable artists such as Anthony van Dyck and Jacob Jordaens, his work was still seen to be at its best when it was directly from his brush. Partly it was a matter of degree: Many of the projects he undertook - great ceiling decorations and tapestries, for example - were on such a scale that no one would have expected him to have painted every part of them. In the Italian Renaissance, anyway, which he was in some ways recreating in 17th-century terms, such artists as Raphael had used assistants extensively in their work. Such practices were not therefore new or exclusive to Flemish 17th-century art.

To appreciate Rubens today, it is not necessary to gain absolute sympathy either with the collaborative methodology of artists' workshops in 17th-century Flanders, or with the public-relations intent of Counter-Reformation art. Rubens can be appreciated as an artist whose individual vision informed his work, even the work that was largely carried out by his assistants and collaborators, but on which he set a definitive stamp. This stamp was often his final reworking of paintings made by assistants to his requirements. Sometimes the stamp was a question of composition, and in this Rubens excelled, conceiving large and complex movements of many figures caught in some compelling flow, with color and sinuous forms building to a symphonic visual climax.

IN their drawings, Rubens, van Dyck, and Jordaens particularly show their individual touch and personal interests. Rubens's sketches from nature have the special ring of having been made for his own pleasure.

Pleasure, in fact, in the deepest sense of a vigorous exultation in the sheer exuberance of everything that is bursting with life, instills whatever Rubens turned his prolific hands to.

The drawings of Hne, which he used for the St. Catherine altarpiece, are also connected with a painting called ``Conversatie a la Mode'' or ``The Garden of Love.'' This is an allegorical scene of courtly and elegant pleasure-taking, of sophisticated dalliance between men and women.

Both paintings, in spite of their quite different intention and theme, are the visions of an extraordinary artist who was described by a contemporary as a man ``evidently ... born to please and delight in everything he does or says.'' Or in everything he paints.

* `The Age of Rubens' will be at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston until Jan. 2, and at the Toledo Museum of Art from Feb. 2 to April 24. `Flemish Drawings in the Age of Rubens: Selected Works From American Collections,' which just closed at Wellesley College reopens at the Cleveland Museum of Art on Jan. 4 through Feb 20.

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