The Tapestries Are Nice, but the True Stars of "Spectacular Rubens" Are the Paintings

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An exhibition with the formidable title "Spectacular Rubens: The Triumph of the Eucharist" opened this week at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The show comes to us from the Prado Museum in Madrid by way of the Getty in Los Angeles. It consists of four huge 17th-century tapestries along with the small (very small by comparison) paintings by Rubens that served as their designs, plus assorted other things that I'll mention later. Houston is the last stop before everything is shipped back to the owners, mostly in Madrid, perhaps never to travel again, almost certainly not all together.

The tapestries, only four of a full series that numbers 20, are from Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales (Convent of the Barefoot Royals) in Madrid, and they are indeed spectacular, as the title says -- large enough to cover walls many people high, woven by some of the finest tapestry factories of their day and of a quality seldom equaled.

The Rubens paintings themselves -- oil on panel and somewhere in the 25"x25" range -- though small, aren't just spectacular (such a Barnum & Bailey-sounding word), they're magnificent. Look at the tapestries, of course, but go to the show to see the paintings. They're the stars, though at first glance you might not think so from the presentation. And pick an uncrowded time if you can so that you'll have them almost to yourself.

Until lately -- until this show was announced, in fact -- I'd formed my image of Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), Famous Flemish Artist, mostly from pictures in books and a couple of jet-lagged tourist strolls down the main gallery of the Prado Museum, which has the largest collection of his work anywhere. In these parts we don't get to see much Rubens in person. I had him pegged as a painter of BIG plump pink allegorical ladies showing a bit too much, and BIGGER equestrian portraits of grandiose grandees riding even more grandiose horses. For me, after a long, close look at the masterpieces in this show, the meaning of "rubenesque" has changed forever.

A little history first. In addition to being the foremost painter of his day in Europe (disputable, of course, but not insupportable), Rubens was also a master diplomat. He devoted both these talents to the success of the Roman Catholic religion and the Spanish Hapsburg monarchy. The Hapsburgs ruled his native Flanders at the time, in the person of the Infanta Isabel Clara Eugenia, daughter of that "Most Catholic King," Philip II of Spain, and granddaughter of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. (And the Bushes and the Clintons think they have dynasties going.)

Isabel you may recognize from her portrait as a young woman by Alonso Sánchez Coello that begins this show, as it did the show of paintings on loan to us from the Prado a couple of years ago.

Rubens was Isabel's court painter as well as her chief diplomat, and it was Isabel who commissioned him to create designs for a monumental tapestry series that she would pay for and present to the Descalzas Reales in Madrid. She hoped to retire there in her widowhood, though she never did, being far too valuable as governor of war-torn Flanders.

It was the time of the Counter-Reformation, and for reasons that are much too complex to go into here (and much too sketchy in my non-Catholic, American history-focused education anyway), the subject Rubens and Isabel hit on was the triumph of the Eucharist over heresy. You can find out more about all that at your leisure if you're interested. Just know that triumphing in those days involved a lot of crushing and destruction, but all for a good cause, and in ways that, as depicted by Rubens, look fabulous.

Even though Isabel never got back to Madrid, her tapestries still adorn the convent, taking their places as admittedly large and showy pieces of an art collection that enriches the spiritual lives of 32 cloistered (though sometimes rather cold, if my visit to the place on a January day is any indication) nuns. A collection that also includes paintings by Titian, Breugel and Sebastiano del Piombo in addition to more by Rubens and baroque extravaganzas by artists whose names aren't even known. This was from the start a convent for the unmarried daughters and widows of royals, after all.

But why, you may be wondering, should you take time out of your busy modern life to go see this old stuff when it isn't even French or Italian? Well, there are the highfalutin reasons: famous artist seldom seen in Houston; connection to a classical vision and a religious conviction that's long lost for most of us; concepts of power and piety of an earlier era made manifest. Yada yada yada.

The real reason to go is that they're so damn gorgeous. The paintings, that is, not so much the tapestries, which are somewhat age-faded and definitely out of fashion.

Walk up to any of the paintings and just gaze. Look at the fluidity of the brush strokes and the lushness of the colors. If you're into such things, pay attention to the complexities of composition and the marvels of foreshortening. Even on these small surfaces, there's so much going on that they're almost over the top of over the top. Rubens thought he knew how to do it all and wanted us to know it. Almost over the top, but not quite, because he really could do it all so well that it all works.

Pick out any one of the paintings and study the details -- or better yet, take time to study the details of them all. By the time they leave Houston, I plan to have them memorized. Yes, that really is a cockatoo in the place where you might expect to see the dove of the Holy Spirit. Yes, that horse in the midst of turmoil really is biting his own leg (to scratch an itch?). Look at that amazing celestial chorus line of angels and horses. Isn't that the Infanta herself, dressed in nun's habit, carrying the monstrance that contains the Host? Doesn't that dark, contorted, bug-eyed head being crushed beneath a chariot wheel look like a sketch for one of Goya's black paintings?

Goya, as keeper of the Royal Collection, would certainly have seen these paintings many times, and one thing that artists have done ever since is to look at Rubens in detail. Even the anguished horse in Picasso's Guernica might be a visual legacy of Rubens's defeated dragon at the feet of truth (to my eye, anyway, but maybe only because I saw them both in the same week).

As a special treat only for those of us seeing the show here in Houston, four tiny first-idea oil sketches are on loan from the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. There are also informative displays about the tapestry-making process, the placement of these tapestries in situ at Descalzas Reales and the recent restoration of the Rubens panel paintings, which inspired this exhibition. Look at all this on your second or third visit. Don't take time away from the paintings the first time -- just in case you don't get back.

And now for a few words on that all-important aspect of putting on a show: How well is it put on? The architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe dealt curators a difficult hand with the two mid-20th-century expansions he designed for MFAH, Cullinan Hall of 1958 and the Brown Pavillion of 1974. Those curators have probably been cursing him ever since: Great spaces to be in; not so great for showing art in. (Let's hope the architects of the newest new MFAH expansion keep in mind that the buildings are primarily for showing art, not showing off, as Rafael Moneo so brilliantly did with his Beck Building of 2000, one of the best places for viewing art I've ever been in.)

This show mostly works in Cullinan Hall. The walls in the vast space, easily big enough for even these large tapestries, have been painted a dark, enveloping blue -- the first time they've ever been dark, so I'm told. Since the gallery is up steps, it's almost as though the tapestries are the backdrops of a play about to take place on a cavernous theater stage. Not a bad way to present them, since among other things, they're about show and artifice -- the illusion of tapestries within tapestries unfurled in architecture within architecture.

Unfortunately, the stars of this play, the Rubens paintings themselves, are almost lost. They beg for a grotto in which to sparkle close together, not the Cullinan Hall cavern. But on the plus side, the space is so big that you probably won't feel crowded, and you'll get lots of exercise walking back and forth across the hall to see them. Also, the tapestries may distract those who are mostly into size, leaving the potent little paintings just for you. They won't let you down.

"Spectacular Rubens: The Triumph of the Eucharist" Through May 10. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300, mfah.org.

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