Two weeks ago I was invited to a Social Conference at the Art History Museum. I love paintings and especially the second floor of this museum, since they have walls plastered by art. It’s like entering a different world each time I go there – the world of colour and stories. Therefore “The power of transformation” a current exhibition, where Rubens’ way of working is depicted, fascinated me.
Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) studied human passion conveyed in the poses and gestures of old masters. For this reason his paintings are like photographs. He highlighted body shapes, improved them to his liking and enhanced colouring to convey strong emotions.
Copying famous painters was a firm component of every artists training. It was intended to give the trainee confidence in capturing and representing what was seen. P. P. Rubens never stopped copying artworks he admired.
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name. – Shakespeare
During my research for this article I found that Louis Vuitton in cooperation with Jeff Koons had created a Masters Collection of bags and other leather goods in 2017. And Rubens was of course part of it all. His artwork “The Tiger Hunt”, inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s painting “The Fight of Anghiari” was turned into a bag.
Art as well as fashion deal with the topic of “being alive” is what Jeff Koons (2017) said. But what does Gerlinde Gruber, the curator of the Rubens exhibition at KHM (Art History Museum) think about Rubens and the modern adaptation of art.
INTERVIEW WITH GERLINDE GRUBER
Corinna: Rubens chose stories, painted by old masters, and shared his own take on them. He optimised figures made their breasts bigger or arched their backs to make them look more interesting. Would you say, he was one of the first “photoshoppers”? Was he trying to improve a models figure to his likings and to public beauty ideals?
Gerlinde: Although this method sounds like photoshopping, it is a bit too simple to see it like this. Because he changes and rearranged to tell a new story in a wonderful intriguing new way. He improves the model figures to his likings, yes, but he was following the old idea that you need to make stone to flesh when you study a sculpture.
C: Was it acceptable to copy a painter’s work in the past? What did other artists had to say about Rubens’ work ethic? And would you say that his method would work nowadays?
G: The traditional way to learn from old masters and heroes like Raphael, Michelangelo and the Antique was to copy! Nowadays I don’t think that this works, although there are still wonderful examples how you can work with old masters as a starting point, f.e. R.H. Quaytman’s show at the Secession.
C: What is your favourite story painted by Rubens and why?
G: The Venus Frigida, where he sort of illustrates the old sentence that without Ceres and Bacchus Venus suffers cold:
even the goddess of love needs to eat and drink and Rubens transforms a beautiful antique crouching Venus to a really suffering and hence humble Venus.
C: Was him comparing a woman’s beauty to a horse his way of admiration and praise or was it to show that a man’s role was above a woman’s standing?
G: It was a way of admiration and praise, I think.
G: The power of the composition. Rubens knows how to tell a drama.
C: Do you like the idea of taking masterpieces and remodelling them into wearable art? Is it comparable to Rubens’ way of thinking and working? How do you – as an art historian – feel about it?
G: That depends on how well it is done.
C: If you could ask Peter Paul Rubens one question that has been on your mind – which would it be?
G: I would love to have a longer discussion with him. One question would not do justice to his genius