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Early Rubens exhibition at AGO highlights 'anti-war art that changed the world'

The voluptuous female nudes painted by Peter Paul Rubens are so famous that the word Rubenesque is used to describe curvy figures to this day. Now a new exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario shows the darker side of the Flemish baroque master's early work.

Exhibition includes important paintings by the baroque master that have never travelled before

Samson and Delilah, c. 1609, by Peter Paul Rubens. Early Rubens exhibition co-curator Sasha Suda notes that this painting attains its dramatic power by letting the viewer know what Samson doesn't, with his docile, unsuspecting pose, as well as Delilah's knowing glance toward him. (Cincinnati Art Museum)

The voluptuous female nudes painted by Peter Paul Rubens are so famous that the word Rubenesque is used to describe curvy figures to this day.

Now a new exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto shows a darker side of the Flemish baroque master's early work.

Early Rubens features over 30 large-scale paintings, as well as 20 prints and drawings the artist created between 1609 and 1621, in his hometown of Antwerp, Belgium, during a short period of peace in the previously war-torn city.

"These paintings are among the most expensive in the world," said AGO director and CEO Stephan Jost.

Most have been borrowed from cathedrals, collections and national museums from around the world and have never travelled before, he said, adding they're unlikely to be seen again in North America.

Stephan Jost is the director and CEO of the Art Gallery of Ontario. (Alice Hopton/CBC)

"What I love most about Rubens is the fleshiness, the pinkness of the cheek, the very human qualities," said Sasha Suda, the AGO's curator of European Art and CEO and director of the National Gallery of Canada.

Suda, who is also co-curator of the exhibition, points out that Rubens's rounded, well-nourished, even obese female figures represented affluence and well-being — the ideal of feminine beauty at the time.

While these works challenge us to think about our own present-day ideals of unattainable beauty, Suda says it's actually Ruben's more challenging work that inspired this exhibition.

The Annunciation, c. 1609, by Peter Paul Rubens. 'Exquisite brushstrokes are a pleasing exploration of anatomy, movement and drama in all of Rubens's work,' says Suda. (Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna)

"Many of the works are very much anti-war paintings, as much as they are celebrations of art," Suda said. "It's important to remember that when Rubens was painting, especially in these early years of his career, it was against a backdrop of unbelievable religious warfare.

"He was a radical. He was incredibly risk-taking in the way he presented his stories. And he was somebody who pushed, and believed, and had a conviction that art could change the world."

Take a quick video tour of the Early Rubens exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario:

Take a quick video tour of the Early Rubens exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario, running Oct. 12, 2019 to Jan. 5, 2020 1:29

The exhibition features work that Rubens created after he returned from studying in Italy, where he was influenced by the Renaissance masters, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Tintoretto, as well as the ancient sculptures of Italy.

When he returned to Antwerp in 1608, he was soon appointed court painter to the archduke of Austria, and became a central figure in efforts to restore the city to its former glory after the Eighty Years' War.

The Catholic Church had most of its paintings and stained glass destroyed during the war, so they were especially eager for new work.

Sasha Suda is the co-curator of the Early Rubens exhibition, now on display at the AGO. She says the extremes and the violence of the baroque painter make it feel very contemporary to her. (Alice Hopton/CBC)

Rubens then established his studio, allowing him to quickly produce a large amount of work of the highest quality.

"This gave him the opportunity to refashion how art looked, and also how the Catholic Church presented itself to the people," said Suda.

"Rubens was able to thrive in Antwerp because they were able to establish peace after years of war," said Jost. "And I want to make sure that people realize that peace and prosperity and creative blossoming all go together."

Daniel in the Lions' Den, c. 1614 - 1616, by Peter Paul Rubens. 'You feel sheer terror for this figure who's surrounded by these life-sized lions,' says Suda. 'Are they about to devour him? You know what's going to happen, but you still want to close your eyes. That happens often in front of a Rubens painting.' (National Gallery of Art, Washington)

The inspiration for the exhibition, as well as its centrepiece, is Rubens's important masterpiece: The Massacre of the Innocents, gifted to the AGO by Canadian collector Kenneth Thomson.

When first working with the painting, Suda wondered whether the dark and violent piece was an anomaly, or whether it fit with the rest of Rubens's early work and an exhibition could be built around it.

"While not all the early work is violent, it is all tough," said Suda. "The way he told a story really challenged the viewer to think twice — about their own mortality, or their own conscience. So he really puts a twist on the narrative that confronts the viewer in a way that we're not used to."

The Massacre of the Innocents, c. 1610, by Peter Paul Rubens. Suda says that when she stands in front of this painting, she feels 'humbled by the pure skill and virtuoso of the artist.... I also feel challenged by the story that it tells.' (The Thomson Collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario)

Rubens's flamboyant, dramatic work represents the pinnacle of the baroque tradition in Europe, said Suda. His great contributions to the history of painting are marked by his brushwork, his sense of movement, storytelling and drama, as well as his approach to colour.

Head of Medusa, c. 1614, by Peter Paul Rubens. This painting, from the Czech Republic, is actually the original, according to Suda. The one in Vienna is now considered to be the duplicate. Suda points out 'how the eye is masterfully drawn to the maggots pouring out of Medusa's neck, which, along with other touches, shows Rubens's fearlessness about mortality.' (Moravian Gallery, Brno, Czech Republic)

"These incredibly saturated reds and blues, purples and oranges. It really wakes you up, to walk into a room with those colours, contrasting with the darkness of the sky and the darkness of night in many of his works," she said.

"He completely revitalizes artistic practice in Northern Europe. He turns convention on its ear. He transforms storytelling. He takes each story to its utter end and it's tough. A lot of the stories are hard to think about or hard to look at, as they happen in front of you."

The Tribute Money, c. 1612, by Peter Paul Rubens. (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

Rubens's paintings make sense even today, says Jost, "in terms of discussions about the force of war in our world, but can also be discussed for the brilliance of the work itself."

"These are not easy works often … they're complicated," he said. "They deal with death and beauty and incest and massacres. It's like Game of Thrones material, really."

To accompany Early Rubens, the AGO commissioned Canadian musician Owen Pallett to create Rubens-inspired music that will be performed on harpsichord at the gallery.

The exhibition opens on Saturday, Oct. 12 and runs to Jan. 5, 2020 in the Sam & Ayala Zacks Pavilion.

The Flight of Lot and his Family from Sodom, c. 1613 - 1615, by Peter Paul Rubens. (Florida State University)

About the Author

Alice Hopton

National entertainment producer

Alice Hopton is a national arts and entertainment producer for CBC News.

With files from Jelena Adzic

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