Saturday, December 02, 2006

Art Review : Rubens & Brueghel - A Working Friendship (Mauritshuis, The Hague 25/10/06)

The Mauritshuis in The Hague is a gem. The former town house of Count Johan-Morits of Nassau-Siegen, he had it built by Jacob van Campen whilst Governor of Brazil from 1636-44. It is one of the finest examples of Dutch Classicism. In the 18th Century, the Dutch Statholder, William V of Orange-Nassau, started to host his personal collection there, and in 1815 this was given to the Dutch State, forming the basis of the collection we see in the Mauritshuis today.

It is not a big collection, based almost entirely around representatives from the Dutch Golden Age, but its quality is extraordinary. Vermeer must take pride of place. Potboiler novels and dodgy film adaptations cannot detract from the beauty of the Girl with a Pearl Earring, whilst the View of Delft just shimmers. The Anatomy Lesson of Doctor Tulp is one of Rembrandt's most recognisable compositions, but The Mauritshuis does small paintings better - Jan Stein kitchens, the winter scenes of Avercamp, the landscapes of the Ruisdaels.

It is much more intimate than the Rijksmuseum, and space constraints dictate that its exhibitions are small, specialised and tightly-focused. "Rubens & Brueghel - A Working Friendship" meets these criteria perfectly. It focuses on the process of collaboration between these two friends between 1598 and 1625, during which they jointly executed two dozen works. It then contrasts other collaborative ventures that each artist participated in - Rubens with Frans Snyders and Brueghel with Hans Rotterhammer, Hendrick de Clerck and Hendrick van Balen.

Perhaps surprisingly, the thesis is made that Brueghel was more often the dominant partner. The reputation of Rubens and his workshop, and the facility with which they produced masterpieces on demand, would naturally make one assume that the opposite was the case. Yet Brueghel was originally the older, more established artist, and evidence shows that in the majority of cases he set out the original framework for collaboration.

Only 29 paintings are presented, of varying quality. To my taste, the most successful compositions are those where Rubens dynamic compositional form predominates. His vision invests characters with a movement and dynamism which is lacking from the more constrained but detailed cabinet pieces constructed by Brueghel. "Mars Disarmed by Venus" and "Pan and Syrinx" are dominated by Rubensian architectonics, whereas Brueghel is the master of exquisitely-painted small-scale intimate detail.

The collaboration was born out of artistic rather than practical or commercial imperatives. Rubens' smooth brushwork contrasts sharply with the precise detailed strokes of the "Velvet" Brueghel, and so by combining both styles an effective and appealing contrast is made. Detailed inspection of the works through x-ray and infrared spectrogram has uncovered a large part of the process of collaboration - from the initial outlining of themes to the respective roles each artist took, in which order different parts were painted, how reserves were left for figures and the details, such as leaves of grass over figures, which were painted at the end of the process in order to integrate the composition.

The result is a fascinating insight into the working methods of artists in the 17th Century - of interest beyond that of simply the paintings themselves, but as an insight into life in a Flemish city in this period. The exhibition is meticulously catalogued, and if you visit the Mauritshuis simply to look at the paintings themselves then you are missing an important dimension. The way in which technology has been used to put together such a detailed picture of collaboration of individuals who lived 400 years ago is as fascinating as the paintings themselves are beautiful.

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