...Boreas unfurled his wings, by whose beating the whole world is stirred, and made the wide ocean tremble...
I recall dark schoolboy days spent translating passages of Ovid's Metamorphoses. Of course, we were not doing Ovid, we were doing
Latin grammar, and so Ovid died a thousand times between the ablative case and the dread plusquamperfectum. It was a barren exercise cast upon so fecund a poet.
The 16th and 17th centuries had a strong romance with Ovid and his Transformations. Most literature of the day is seeded with his material. But he may also be the poet most quoted by visual artists. It's not hard to explain, his work is simply full of great stuff, or as they say in Latin: materia. Materia, as any good livestock breeder knows, is the other half of the conjugation. We are all stuff, it's what makes the whole thing go. Stuff is the earth that receives the seed–Yeats’ Rag & Bone Shop is a grubby place full of left over stuff. Ovid left a lot of stuff for posterity, and Rubens proved as fertile a rummager as Shakespeare, when it came to spotting a particularly good bit of stuff.
That the verse of Ovid should be the seed of so many
great works is not mere poetic justice for the censored poet, but a case of judicial poetics. Deep within his work is the poetics of the fecund. The ancient poet of lovers is the poet of begetter and begotten, and mother & child. And as the poet of metamorphoses, his is a poetics of the trans-formative. His Boreas Abducting Oreithyia (above) comes from a life long series of abduction paintings. Rubens, mildly stoic and somewhat sober minded, was not a devotee of rape, pillage and kidnap. However, we do tend today to see such themed works about acts of violence against women as actual acts of violence themselves or, at best, proselytizing misogyny with some gratuitous sex and violence thrown in. For me, as an artist, such controversy adds interest to the works–the interpretation is held in the present, as is my own, though mine is not primarily a socio-historic assessment. My sense is that we must attempt to see the thing itself (philosophical controversy right there!). Ovid & Rubens, or Shakespeare & Rembrandt, are access to this attempt. They come from a rough time, a forming and hard time. The Terror Twins Ding & Sich (left) and De Columbis Et Materia (above) do not deny the cataclysmic nature of generative destruction. They, by their process, are an attempt to meditate on the nature of things and on these things in the particular. Of course, there is always a
falling off in any attempt to see the thing in itself. Rubens employs a strange stasis (Venetian in influence perhaps). How does an artist of his era observe what he knows to be a fast, furious and kinetic event? To comprehend the event continuum he must apprehend a moment. Yet his presented moment is full of moment, not unlike our modern day matrix moment/special effect. His achieved stasis is not ironic (for us, perhaps it is, considering the biological subject matter), it is a necessity in observation and depiction.
The later, more refined 18th century, populated with works of sensibility, wealth and splendor, was a version of a post-modern time, not unlike our own. It was also the time of world colonization and conquest, an age of global slavery, and an age of great rationalization. Its best art was tinged with irony. Pope's Rape Of The Lock, with its mock heroic stance, is, in the end, a mechanism of grand denial. More insidious is that the grand ironic mode seems insightful, to be the knowing master of events, while it has all the insight of a sniggering schoolyard clique. It is premised on the fundamental fallacy that art can be subversive, a profound and dangerous misapprehension that survives and thrives to this day. It is no coincidence that those twin daughters of the great persuader, commercial advertising and sentimentality, were the giddy débutantes of the period.
But like Mr. Shandy, I have digressed! The nature of the study within a
series of works is to digress with the subject. My studies of Boreas / De Columbis et Materia (above) or of the Abduction / Ding & Sich (left) are based on Rubens' own method of sketching and exploration,which for him, or someone in his studio, would have led to a pounce or cartoon. Mine, as discussed elsewhere, lead to a process of refinement or adulteration, and on, through to production. Drawing, or the graphic art, is a form of argument, it has a forensic imperative. For Rubens it was in part a way to locate the stasis. His studies are often broad sketches of propositional shapes and forms, explorations of scale & position. The closer one gets to an agreeable state, the closer the study begins to look like a dress rehearsal or blocking on a film set.
For me, the study, if it is truly an argument, should not only be informed but must participate in the formulation of the process. One argument seeks resolution to be the seed of the next proposition. In the four studies (left), the argument goes from the 3D to the 2D. It also goes from real word to virtual, from painted to digital. And it goes from conjecture to projection. Often, the question is:where does one halt the process, where does one locate the stasis? Rubens was a master of his choices; he was also a scholar of high order. As an active intellectual Catholic, he would have been well versed in Aquinas. This, combined with a contemporary European version of applied stoicism, means that Rubens would know the why of his choices.
Rubens painted life–fertile and heady, a quickened biology–but his is a poetics of moment. It is even possible to refer to such a thing as the Rubenesque Moment. His stillness is a pictorial device to achieve movement beyond the passage of bodies through space. Jumping forward in time, a Muybridge would have certainly interested him...but the high definition, slow motion cinematography of the nature film would have captivated him.