Thursday, 3 December 2009

100days of Art:Day Three - Shock and Horror!

Peter Paul Rubens - The Massacre of the Innocents (c.1611-12)

Shock horror! It’s a painting. A painting of people. Painted to look like people rather than collections of squares.

The first two days of this blog might have given you the impression that realistic paintings and sculptures were not my thing, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. I get as excited and animated about Duccio, Mantegna and Manet as I do about Mondrian, Duchamp and Emin. I’m an equal opportunities art geek.

But like most geeks I specialise. When you’ve got 32,000 odd years of art history to play with (arbitrarily calling the Chauvet cave paintings 'the beginning'), you've got to be a bit selective otherwise your head would explode - the bits of my brain that deal with where my keys are or what day it is are already compromised by being filled with odd facts about Cubism. As a consequence there are great big holes in my knowledge of art history, defined in part by the curricula I studied but probably more by my own personal tastes and enthusiasms.

One of these gaping chasms is labelled 17th Century Flemish Painting, and this is largely a result of personal prejudice. With a few exceptions I’ve never found it easy on the eye; the figures have always seemed inelegant to me – doughy lumpy great hunks of flesh arranged in twisted, tortuous poses staring watery-eyed from gloomy brown rooms, a million miles away from the gracefully arranged waifish and androgynous soldiers, saints and satyrs that populate the Italian Gothic and Renaissance paintings that make me go weak at the knees.

So when Nick suggested that I write a blog about Peter Paul Rubens’s The Massacre of the Innocents, he really couldn’t have chosen a weaker spot if he tried. But if this Hundred Days project is about self improvement then he’s done me a favour by forcing me kicking and screaming out of my comfort zone. In the past twenty four hours my knowledge of Rubens has increased from, well, bugger all, to quite a bit more than bugger-all. Result.

So now, having already spent nearly three hundred words avoiding writing about the painting, where do I start?

Well, ‘horrific’ is as good as place as any I suppose. Giotto or Breughel’s paintings of the Biblical story of Herod’s paranoid slaughter of the children of Bethlehem are the type of imagery that Pope Gregory had in mind when he defended the making of religious paintings as “The Bible for the illiterate”, they act as visual shorthand, merely illustrating the key points of the story. Rubens on the other hand goes all out to provoke a emotional response from the viewer, to involve us in the atrocity in front of us. He does this by forcing us on a journey through the painting..(and here you’ll have to excuse me as I deviate from my usual approach of anecdotes and whimsy into the slightly more dry and dusty area of formal analysis).

Take a look at the composition – where does your eye settle when you first look at the painting?

Mine heads straight to the great red splodge of drapery in the centre, then up to the top right hand corner, to the baby being violently swiped through the air by the inexplicably nude Roman soldier. Everything in the painting directs our attention to that point – the great mass of limbs that make up the confusing group of figures in the foreground tangle around a diagonal line that cuts through the painting. The leg of the armoured Roman soldier at the back and the arms of the woman in the red skirt form two sides of a triangle sitting on this diagonal like a great bloody arrowhead directing our eye upwards. The fact that the Roman soldier on the left is the only figure not jumbled up in the rest of the chaotic blur of flesh also pulls our eyes to that side of the canvas as does the sharp contrast of the figure against the dark patch of background that occupies the right side of the painting – a formal technique known as chiaroscuro that Rubens learnt from the works of Caravaggio while studying in Italy.

Even if we didn’t know the title of the painting and the story which it shows, we already know that something is desperately wrong here, but in case we’re in any doubt, Rubens pulls another formal trick out of the bag to make sure we grasp the full horror. Now our eye is led downwards along the blue sash that curls around the soldier’s torso, sketching the trajectory of the child’s body through the air, past the outstretched hands of the woman to the right, ending in a shattering collision with a stone plinth where a smear of blood leads us to a pile of already greying corpses of previous victims.

Now our eye recoils to the left and for the first time we notice the arms and legs of other dead children poking out from underneath the skirts of their mothers in the main group of figures and then back to that great big lake of crimson drapery now standing in for a vast pool of blood whose depiction would have been a step too far even for the 17th century commissioners of religious painting for whom the visceral was meat and drink.

I've only scratched the surface of course. There's a lot else I could talk about, like the fact that many of the figures were based on the sketches Rubens made of Classical and Rennaisance sculptures during his Italian journeys, that until 2001 the painting was thought to be by Jan van der Hoeke, one of Rubens's workshop apprentices, or that after its reattributation it was one of the most expensive Old Master paintings sold at auction (a whopping 45.9 million quid), but this is a blog, not an academic paper. Hopefully my little guided tour of the painting is enough to show that it’s a technically brilliant, grimly effective and troubling piece of Baroque, as grotesque and shocking as anything that the Chapman Brothers have produced and a long way from the popular view of Rubens as a painter of rosy cheeked, statuesque and jolly nudes. It’s certainly changed my view of an artist about whom I knew very little and as an exercise it stirred a few grey cells that have lain dormant since the last time I sat an exam and it's inspired me to want to find out more about the artist and the painting.

So thanks Nick for forcing me out of my comfort zone, (and thanks to my fellow Hundred-Dayers Daniel and Erika for their tweets of support today).

(Tomorrow I’m going to retreat well and truly back to my comfort zone and away from all this blood and guts to an Italian painting that never fails to make me chuckle.)

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