Between 17 October 2017 and 21 January 2018, the Art History Museum in Vienna (the Kunsthistorisches, henceforth KH) is running an exhibition on the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640).
The title of the show, The Power of Transformation, refers to the main aim of the exhibition, which is to trace some of Rubens’s creative transformations of motifs deriving from ancient and modern artists. In other words, we are invited to view Rubens as a student of others, whose originality lies in his imaginative interpretations of his predecessors and contemporaries.
Some of the works on show are from the KH’s own substantial collection of Rubens paintings, while others are on loan from the Prado, the Louvre, the Hermitage, etc. They comprise paintings, oil sketches, drawings, as well as plaster casts of Antique sculptures that had had a formative influence on Rubens.
Thus, we can see a copy of the celebrated Gaddi Torso alongside Rubens’s strikingly beautiful painting of Christ resurrected and triumphant. The original of the Gaddi Torso, which is at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, is Hellenistic and dates back to the 2nd c. B.C. The carefully rendered anatomical detail and twisting posture of the muscular male body became a huge inspiration for artists during the Renaissance, when the work was discovered. Rubens himself used the motif in several contexts, as in the depiction of Christ’s body in his present painting.
During the eight years that he spent in Italy, Rubens was exposed not just to classical sculpture, but also to the works of Italian Renaissance masters. The Venetian School had an enormous influence on his artistic evolution and probably no one more so than Titian, whom Rubens studied thoroughly both in Italy and during his sojourn in Madrid. The exhibition shows a number of drawings and sketches that Rubens did after Titian alongside Titian’s own paintings. Some of the Venetian artist’s works are from the KH collection itself, which is the second largest in the world. We can see, for example, Rubens’s intimate portrait of his second wife alongside Titian’s Girl in a Fur, on which it is clearly modelled. Both paintings make also a visual reference to the Antique iconography of Venus Pudica.
Finally, it seems to me that the value of this exhibition lies exactly in showcasing Rubens as the student of other artists, whose works he appropriated and transformed in a highly imaginative and original manner.