Antwerp, by Way of Russia and Canada

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 3, 2001


What greater pleasure could there be than choosing a suite of galleries in some great art museum, and spending an afternoon getting to know the stuff inside them? The French rooms at New York's Metropolitan. The Spanish at the Louvre in Paris. The Dutch in the National Gallery at home in Washington. And, of course, the Flemish in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg -- or so we've all been told, though very few art lovers have had the chance to go to see the glories on the Neva for themselves.

For the rest of the summer, however, a much shorter trip will give that opportunity. In a bid to elbow its way onto the art world map, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the eighth-largest art museum in North America but little known outside its home, has shipped in nearly 200 works from its more famous northern cousin.

The premise of the AGO show, called "Treasures From the Hermitage Museum, Russia: Rubens and His Age," is that it will tell us all about the art and culture of Antwerp in its artistic heyday in the early 17th century. But that is more excuse than raison d'etre. You'd never set out to study Antwerp's art based just on what you could find in any single institution. No, the Antwerp theme is just a convenient peg to hang a pile of pretty pictures on. Which is okay by me, I guess, when I would never get to see them otherwise. This may not be good art history, but it's a worthy public service.

Hard to complain about a chance to revel in Peter Paul Rubens's "Roman Charity," painted about 1610, early in his career. I've never been a fan of earnest allegory, setting out in good symbolic order the virtues that we should all live by. But as presented by Rubens, virtue is so tempting that it feels almost a vice to wallow in it.

The classical story that he sets out to illustrate tells of a Greek matron called Pero, who visits her father in jail and nurses the starving prisoner at her breast. "Self-effacing filial loyalty" is one reading given in the AGO catalogue. "Christian charity . . . expressed in good deeds toward the healing of both physical and spiritual wounds" is another. How about thinly veiled erotica? Rubens's silk-robed, golden-haired young woman seems to be distinctly more of the flesh than of the spirit, less of the next world than solidly rooted in this one -- the very bodily embodiment of "Rubensian" woman. Her soft white breast, a single drop of milk glistening on the pink nipple that she presents to Dad, hardly seems so self-effacing.

Speaking of old Dad . . . if a few weeks behind bars could give me half the body he has, I'd sock a cop right now. The glory of Rubens, it seems to me, is not how well he illustrates a given story, but how he sticks with his lavish effects regardless of the task at hand. (Incidentally, the same delicious model, with the same disheveled hair, in the same dress -- or lack thereof -- is featured just across the gallery in a refreshingly frank picture of "A Shepherd Embracing His Shepherdess.")

Impressed by Old Man Rubens? You ain't seen nothin' yet, says the 23-year-old Anthony van Dyck, looking out at his master's allegory from a self-portrait on a nearby wall. Portraying himself as a dashing wunderkind, as flamboyant in the flesh as in the virtuoso brush strokes that depict him, van Dyck leaves behind not a whiff of turpentine or glimpse of painter's smock. "Il Pittore Cavalieresco" ("The Painting Cavalier"), his Italian colleagues called him when he did his stint in Rome, and you get the feeling that he turned himself, in life and art, into the kind of character he had in mind for all his sitters.

The AGO shows him taking the unlikely misfits of the English aristocracy -- the aging Henry Danvers, Earl of Danby, not quite at home in satin pants; a couple of dowdy ladies-in-waiting to the Queen, looking as though they've waited overlong already -- and doing his best to make them measure up to his high standards. At least their clothes, he seems to say, will do them proud, even if there's not much hope above the neck.

The paintings of Rubens and van Dyck, along with a number of their virtuoso drawings, are the obvious bestsellers at the AGO. But the truth is, a single-collection show like this is not as good at providing masterpieces than one that gathers Greatest Hits from far and wide. The real pleasure in trawling through a permanent collection is in the unknown stuff you didn't know you'd like.

Experts on the Flemish baroque may be well versed in the dead-meat pictures of Jan Fyt, but I'd never taken note of him till now. His exquisite paintings of the products of a good day's hunt show him developing a painted language tailored to his own peculiar needs. A micro-impasto of tiny, vibrant brush strokes does perfect service rendering the hairs on an ex-hare, and the feathers on a former pheasant. For those visitors who prefer their beasties living, the AGO also has out a gorgeous drawing of a dog by Fyt that couldn't be more lively. It shows how a vibrant line can stand for life itself, and that such pictorial metaphors can do more work than the optical accuracies of lens and film.

It's easy to slight the still lifes (the French phrase natures mortes -- "dead natures" -- may be nearer to the point) that crowd their way into any collection of Flemish art, but for sheer display of what a brush and paints can do, they're hard to beat. Maybe we could take a lesson from their original collectors, who seemed to have more subtle eyes for skill than we do.

One of the singular virtues of the AGO's selection is that, rather than hewing to our modern tastes in Old Master art, curators have included the full range of baroque creation. It's only recently that "painting" has come to be an almost-synonym for "art"; before the 19th century, works of so-called minor arts could get the same attention as paint on canvas. The AGO has put together a period-style "cabinet of wonders" that includes some decorative objects worthy of the same close look that we give a Rubens. (But by using the applied-art works as props in a kind of diorama of Flemish collecting habits, rather than setting them out as independent exhibits on a par with the paintings, the AGO is perpetuating their second-class status.)

A ewer, looking like a kind of sacred gravy boat, is modeled all in gilded bronze, with a smiling cherub growing out of the foliage on its handle and a topless angel holding up its spout. Meanwhile, across every square inch of the surface of the vessel, inside as well as out, tiny tears and drops and paisleys of pink coral poke through the golden metal. Imagine the flamboyant painted surface of a Rubens translated into three dimensions, and you'll have an image of what this cup is all about: heading as far out there as any work of art can go.

Though I, for one, feel that great art can almost never go too far -- and that I've been done a favor when I don't have to go too far to get great art.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company