In my Midlands primary school I was often in a state of excruciating embarrassment. Children of course mature emotionally and intellectually un-evenly at different times, most girls faster than most boys.
I always liked art of all kinds and it irritated me that most children in my class fell about laughing at the sight of a nude Venus or a Grecian frieze. I despised them and longed to be an adult. But as I grew up I realised that the English, at least the ones I knew in Staffordshire, were extremely almost proudly philistine, and later I discovered that ordinary English people were more crudely art hating than any other nation in Europe. Anyone who decides to become an aesthete in the environs of Wolverhampton soon discovers that there is a whole mass of people who have no interest in high culture, in fact they detest it or ignore it as something only for other people, and never go to the theatre or visit a gallery.
Because of those people, from an early age I was desperate to get away to London where I believed the world of culture and cultured people lay. Aged twenty three I got there and found that I was not wrong. Looking at the Royal Academy publicity for their Rubens exhibition which starts on January 24th, I am pitched back to my early days north of Watford, my days in infant school surrounded by nasty children from the local council estate, rolling on the floor and blowing raspberries at a photo of the Venus deMilo.
The publicity for this show has been appalling. It started with a BBC TV documentary on January 3rd by Waldemar Januszczak. This was entitled: ‘Rubens: An Extra Large Story’ Get it? In it, the BBC publicity said, he, ‘sets out to correct the misconceptions that have arisen about Rubens. His vast and grandiose canvases seem too much for modern sensibilities.’
That was news to me. My sensibilities have never found his canvases bringing on fainting fits. It went on: ‘These days, nobody takes Rubens seriously. His vast and grandiose canvases, stuffed with wobbly mounds of female flesh, have little appeal for the modern gym-subscriber. And it’s not just the bulging nudity we don’t like. The entire tone of Rubens’s art offends us. Everything in it is too big – the epic dramas full of tragedy, the fantastical celestial scenery, the immense canvases and murals adorning the walls and ceilings of Europe’s grandest palaces.
All of it seems too much for modern sensibilities but Waldemar Januszczak begs to differ. In Waldemar’s eyes, Rubens has been traduced by modern tastes, and a huge misunderstanding of him has taken place. By looking in detail at Rubens’s fascinating life, by understanding his art in more enlightened ways, Waldemar sets out to correct the extra-large misconceptions that have arisen about Rubens.’
So we were offered Waldemar ‘reassessing Rubens,’ whether you needed him to or not. I never had such a ‘misunderstanding’ and knowing what I do of the English, most of the other people sitting down to watch an hour of art history on TV probably didn’t have it either. I doubt if football fans were pouring home from the pub desperate to put right their previous prejudice against the great man. But art lovers were obviously not the target audience, this was about inclusiveness.
Today the RA sent me an email, written by Professor Mary Beard, she of the Rubinesque proportions and sweeping fair hair, both of which the dangerous old man would have very much approved. She takes it on herself to break the news to us that we are probably going to find the Flemish Master very unpalatable, either on grounds of taste as the women he paints are rounded rather than looking like Kate Moss or Kylie, or because of politics. Feminists do not approve of male artists painting nude women at all, fat or thin, any more than they approve of page three in the Sun. Prof. Beard advises us that we may find the paintings, ‘unsettling.’
‘Do come and rediscover Rubens at the RA this January,’ she coaxes us, in what I imagine is the same voice teachers use for recalcitrant primary school children. Have a look but keep in mind that wicked old Rubens may be dangerous to your sensibilities. We are being warned off him rather in the way the BBC issues warnings and guidance before it broadcasts any plays or writing written generations ago which might include, ‘racist’ language.
‘Whether you’ve already been knocked out by the bravura of his colour, awed by the sheer scale of his ceilings at the Banqueting House, or slightly put off by all those fleshy nudes,’ she reassures us, ‘make sure you come and take another look.’
‘The exhibition has certainly made me look at him again,’ she says. ‘The paintings of women can be unsettling and they can certainly challenge the sexual politics of the 21st century. But they’re always turning the big questions back on us. What do we think the painted human form is all about? What’s the pleasure in looking at it? How should the body – female or male – appear in art?’
Educationalists like Prof. Beard and her high minded colleagues at the Royal Academy reveal a highly unsettling aspect of our culture, as they seem to be saying, look you plebs won’t know anything about this man and his work, but do go and have a look. You probably won’t like him but he belongs to the past, a bit like Shakespeare and Dickens, so you better try it. Come on, you are English, just grit your teeth. You will probably have a horrible time but a quick hour in the gallery will do you good, and you can soon get back to your normal lives happily sitting in front of ‘Strictly’ and ‘XFactor,’ with a bowl of oven chips and a ready meal on your knee.