Two current shows of drawings—“Peter Paul Rubens: The Drawings” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and “Cy Twombly: Fifty Years of Works on Paper” at the Whitney Museum of American Art—make a serendipitous pair. Each artist plays an important part in the modern imagination, Twombly because he reflects contemporary taste, Rubens because he offends it.
Rubens (1577–1640) is the old master you’re permitted to dislike, the one the modern eye typically recoils from. He’s an artist of transcendent gifts, yet his near-contemporaries from the Low Countries, Vermeer and Rembrandt, remain much more popular. There’s an explanation for this: Rubens challenges some deeply held assumptions in our period. Many people, of course, dislike the fleshy figures. (“Rubenesque” women do not fit into little black dresses.) But the unease he generates represents more than a cultural problem with fat. Rubens is what modern art isn’t. He’s a fundamentally joyful artist, a man of relish, who delights in virtuosity. He’s smooth as butter. He likes tradition. He’s not an outsider. He isn’t suffering. He isn’t guilty. He doesn’t push into the dark places. Even his images of great sadness—such as The Descent From the Cross—have a bravura gusto.
The marvelous Rubens show at the Met, organized by Michiel Plomp and Anne-Marie Logan, should help reconcile the Flemish master to the contemporary audience. As a rule, Rubens’s paintings are more difficult to appreciate than his drawings. Not only do the paintings often contain fleshpots and, sometimes, passages by lesser artists working in the master’s studio, but their florid color and rippling forms can seem impossibly rich and remote. (I myself love that too-muchness.) The drawings on view are, of course, by Rubens himself; inevitably, given the medium, they are more reserved and intimate than the paintings. The fluency that can appear flashy becomes, in the drawings, quietly miraculous.
Rubens has no knots in his sensibility, no stop-and-start: The drawings seem to flow out effortlessly, each line finding its right place. A show of Rubens drawings has about it the sweet intimation of paradise, as if there were no actual separation between the artist and the world beyond; everything’s at hand, there for the taking. At the same time, Rubens rarely succumbs to convention or lets his otherworldly fluency become mechanical. For many people, one of the revelations of this show will be just how wide-ranging—and sometimes realistic—Rubens could be. His voracious eye did not stop with portraits and exploratory studies for the extravagant paintings. He could also draw a gently sublime landscape or convey, with a Rembrandt-like empathy, the peasant congregation in a country church. Rubens created a grand style that could also reach into small corners.
In his way, Twombly is just as lush as Rubens. Both artists have a distinctive perfume, and, like Rubens, Twombly has a rich, reddish palette. Some connoisseurs prefer Twombly’s austere early imagery (especially the gray-and-white works often likened to blackboard jottings) to his later pictures, but that may be the spirit of the little black dress talking. An artist crazy-in-love with Mediterranean culture, one who for many years has been unafraid to work with the most opulent palette, Twombly has a line that particularly suits our period. It appears nervous and episodic, like the play of thought, and it seems (like consciousness itself) to mix and ferment words, images, and memories. Sometimes, his jottings come gently apart; sometimes they create storms of gathering intensity. Twombly seems to capture intense but elusive moments—epiphanies—and he takes words beyond where they usually go. The words he scrawls onto a page become part of some larger unwritten visual story, their literal definition just an echo from the world of books.
The Whitney show, curated by Julie Sylvester, contains a good selection from all periods of the artist’s work. Why not spend the morning with Rubens and the afternoon with Twombly? In Twombly, the world of Rubens unravels; the released lines search out, but never tie up, meaning. Twombly could be the end of drawing and, equally, its beginning.