Jenny Saville’s Curatorial Response to Rubens Signals A Larger Trend

Ben Eastham
Feb 13, 2015 5:00AM

Among the most enlightening of curatorial trends to have emerged over recent years is the intergenerational presentation, in which Old Masters are juxtaposed with modern or contemporary artists over whom they are considered to have exerted a tangible influence. The U.K. has seen a recent spate of such pairings, from Francis Bacon and Rembrandt at Ordovas to Andy Warhol and William Morris at Modern Art Oxford and Cy Twombly and Nicolas Poussin at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. We might even ascribe Damien Hirst’s spectacularly hubristic decision to exhibit his own paintings in the Wallace Collection to the fashion. Its clearest expression is, however, Frieze Masters, inaugurated in 2012 to offer what the fair’s organizers describe as a “contemporary lens on historical art.”


The trend is illuminating not primarily for the new light it sheds on the artists’ practices, but rather for what it reveals to us of attitudes towards art old and new among galleries and museums. The implication seems to be that even the Old Masters might be in need of a little jazzing up, rather in the manner of flanking a vintage car with scantily clad young models. Or, to take the opposite perspective, that the contemporary artists whose work sells for stratospheric sums at auction might borrow a little gravitas from the greats. There is a tradeoff here between financial and critical capital, unequally distributed across the ages.

Proof that this curatorial principle has now been clutched to the bosom of the establishment is provided by the decision of the Royal Academy to add a contemporary codicil to its latest blockbuster, “Rubens and His Legacy.” Curated by Royal Academician Jenny Saville, the single-room exhibition presents works by artists including Willem de Kooning, Lucian Freud, Sarah Lucas, and Warhol. Entitled “La Peregrina” after the famous pearl that Rubens painted around the neck of the Queen of Spain, Saville’s postscript opens with a Janus-faced female portrait by Picasso looking, we might speculate, at once backwards and forwards in time. It’s both a neat commentary upon the impulse to commingle past, present, and future in a single exhibition and a means of introducing the prevailing theme of the show, namely the representation of women in art.

Visitors enter “La Peregrina” from a room of Rubens’s paintings gathered together under the rubric “Lust.” The cloying pinks and coy lasciviousness of the Old Master’s teasing nudes are immediately thrown into sharp relief by the mottled, pockmarked flesh of Lucian Freud’s Naked Portrait II (1980–81). Across the entrance is Francis Bacon’s Sleeping Figure (1959), its subject sprawled across a couch in a pose familiar from Rubens but to remarkably different effect. The change in atmosphere is palpable; as much as we can admire Rubens’s extraordinary virtuosity and vision, it is hard not to be repelled by the invitations to rape that are several of his nudes (The Hermit and the Sleeping Angelica, ca. 1626–28, being an obvious example). That reduction of the female subject to an object of sexual desire is in “La Peregrina” parodied by Sarah Lucas’s enduringly magnificent Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab (1992), a trick repeated to lesser effect by Rebecca Warren.

Saville herself is best known for large, fleshy nudes that owe a clear debt to Rubens. The new work that she has created for the express purpose of the show, however, takes a different tack. A vast charcoal drawing entitled Voice of the Shuttle (Philomela) (2014–15), in which two severed heads are mounted upon a violent tangle of bodies, it draws upon the Ovidian tale of rape, murder, and metamorphosis that had been treated (in markedly different fashion) by Rubens himself. This strikes me as not so much a response to Rubens’s portrayal of women as a rebuttal of it.

There are several great works of art in this exhibition—chief among them a magnificent de Kooning and a great Twombly—but their relevance to Rubens is somewhat tenuous. The exhibition’s overly broad parameters for inclusion render it rather unfocused, and, with relatively few works by Rubens himself, it devotes a majority of its space to his titular “legacy.” It is hardly a mystery that artists learn from, and are inspired by, the work of other artists, particularly when that artist is among the most influential painters of all time. Indeed, it is virtually impossible to think of any two significant figures in the history of art between whom some connection could not be drawn. The combination of canonical greats with contemporary pretenders can draw attention to a specific aspect of an artist’s work that might otherwise have escaped attention. Here, for all of the excellence of the works on show, it is merely window-dressing.

Rubens and His Legacy: From Van Dyck to Cézanne” and “La Peregrina” are on view at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, Jan 24–April 10, 2015. 

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Ben Eastham