Suffering saints and sultry nudes — Peter Paul Rubens has them all. The Flemish painter (1577-1640) took on a variety of subject matter, and also had a hand in pushing predominant tastes from the Renaissance’s revival of classical ideas to the more elaborate experiments of the Baroque period that followed.

A new exhibition at The National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo explores Rubens’ legacy and his relationship to the Baroque, which can be seen as both an extension of the Renaissance and a reaction to it. “Rubens and the Birth of the Baroque” includes around 70 works by the man himself, as well as artists who influenced him and those he left his mark upon.

The exhibition covers both his work in Antwerp, where he spent much of his youth, and his output in Italy, where he lived between 1600 and 1608. Until the early 17th century, the heart of the Italian Renaissance had been Florence, but Rubens gravitated toward Venice and Rome, the latter being the crucible of the Baroque — think of Caravaggio (an influence on Rubens) who worked there, and his dramatic compositions of figures in space, and brilliant light against plunging dark.

One of Rubens’ first loves was Venetian art, especially works by Titian. Included here is Rubens’ accurate copy of Titian’s “Girl in a Fur Wrap,” titled “Young Woman in a Fur Wrap.” Two portraits by Rubens are juxtaposed with one by Tintoretto, also from Venice. In his depiction of the scholar Caspar Schoppe from around 1606, it is said that Rubens adopts some of the psychological insight displayed by Tintoretto, and it is quite evident he learned from Tintoretto’s attention to the texture of fabrics.

“Rubens and the Birth of the Baroque” starts in the home, with a self-portrait and Rubens’ depictions of his own family: “Two Children Sleeping,” for example, is a painting of his own rosy-cheeked children made for the artist’s personal enjoyment. It’s images like these that show his more intimate side.

Rubens’ work is considered synonymous with fleshy female nudes, and there are several here, but he was also a busy painter of religious scenes. The exhibition dedicates considerable space to Rubens’ paintings of various saints, including “St Sebastian Healed by St Irene,” from 1622. According to legend, the saint was to be executed for his refusal to disavow Christ, but survived the arrows of the Roman soldiers. He is depicted here with skin that is smooth and ivory, blemished only by a single drop of blood. If northern European artists tended to emphasize these martyrs’ physical agony, and Italian artists focused more on their spiritual suffering, in this section Rubens would seem to be leaning more toward southern tastes.

Like many artists of the Renaissance, Rubens looked back to the artistic achievements and mythology of antiquity for inspiration, and the exhibition highlights this with original artifacts from this golden age, or copies Rubens and other artists made of them. Rubens was fascinated with depicting strong masculine figures, particularly those engaged in strenuous physical activity, and a sketch by him of the famous sculpture “Laocoon and His Sons” is included here. Rubens also made numerous sketches of the figure of Hercules, and one of his full paintings on the subject is here, featuring his quick, forceful brush strokes.

Rubens’ legacy lies in how he took what he learned from antiquity into new realms. It may be difficult for those who don’t read Japanese (as with many exhibitions in Japan, information in English is limited) to grasp the connection that the exhibition wants to make between Rubens and the Baroque. One could do worse than look carefully at his wonderful “The Fall of Phaeton” from 1604-05, on loan from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. It depicts the son of Helios, the sun god, losing control of his father’s chariot and tumbling to Earth. Whereas the classicism of the Renaissance stressed order in space, using its newly formulated principles of perspective, Rubens’ painting is all tension-enhancing diagonals, extremes of light and dark, and dramatic movement — all hallmarks of the Baroque style.

“Rubens and the Birth of the Baroque” at The National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo runs until Jan. 20; ¥1,600. For more information, visit www.nmwa.go.jp/en/exhibitions/2018rubens.html.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.