Antiquity does not necessarily come to mind when speaking of Jordaens. The exhibition at the Musées Royaux wants to show the error of our ways and after reading the excellent catalogue the demonstration seems to be rather convincing, explaining the connection of each work to the antique, a subject which is also thoroughly looked at in some of the essays.
1. Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678)
Male nude leaning
on a staff, c. 1615-1616
Black Chalk, Red Chalk, White Heightenings - 39.2 x 25.5 cm
Düsseldorf, Stiftung Museum Kunstpalast
Photo : Museum Kunstpalast
2. Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678)
Meleager and Atalanta, c. 1617-1618
Oil on Canvas - 152 x 120 cm
Anvers, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten
Photo : Koninklijk Museum
However, was there any need for an exhibition in order to prove the point and did it require more than one article ? This is what we asked ourselves after a visit to the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts. There is no doubt about the quality of the presentation, as well as that of the works on view. Nevertheless, this event raises more questions than it answers. Accumulating major works is pleasing to the eye, but it is not enough to impart a sense to the exhibition. In fact, what we have here is a retrospective of Jordaens’ work, though the curator might refute it, and an incomplete one at that since the religious works are missing and, above all, without a chronology thus seriously complicating a grasp of this painter’s art.
The influence of Antiquity is twofold. The first comes from the fables which make up the subjects of his paintings. True, but this also applies to almost all historical painters.
The other is formal, and comes from the imitation of the models in Greek and Roman statuary. Jordaens, like most of his contemporaries, looked at the Borghese Hercules (ill. 1), the Borghese Centaur, the Grinder, the Boy with Thorn and many other more or less famous antique sculptures. While this aspect of his art is made clear in the catalogue, the same is not true when visiting the exhibition, as comparative elements are often missing. This connection to Antiquity is not made any more obvious when the paintings are inspired directly by Rubens or Abraham Janssens (one of the most frequent artists used for the comparisons). Thus, though we understand that Meleager and Atalanta (ill. 2) alludes to Antiquity of course due to its iconographic theme, we do not see any direct link to the Antique in the use of a formal model. For this aspect, the catalogue entry refers back to the influence of Janssens and Rubens. Why is it then included in this exhibition ? None of this is really very clear.
3. Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678)
Apollo and Marsyas, c. 1625
Oil on Canvas - 146 x 117 cm
Belfius Banque Collection
Photo : Didier Rykner
4. Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678)
Diana and Actaeon, c. 1640
Oil on Panel - 53.5 x 75.7 cm
Dresde, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister
Photo : Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister
For other paintings, the comparison with the Antique seems even more tenuous. Let us take the example of Apollo and Marsyas from the Belfius Banque collection (ill. 3) where we see Apollo, as a stocky young man, beginning to cut up Marsyas who is doubled over in a very unclassical position. The comparisons suggested with a cameo from the Museo Archeologico in Naples or an engraving by Theodoor Galle after a drawing by Jan van der Straet are not in the least convincing. We do not find much in common with these works in a canvas which, on the contrary, has a lot to do with a rather trivial Jordaens, and the almost Rabelais-like image which this exhibition is precisely supposed to combat.
In fact, in the case of many paintings the show does not offer any references to Antiquity : for instance, Antiope Sleeping (which the entry tends to assimilate with a Sleeping Venus) is clearly drawn from Correggio and Annibale Carracci, and Diana and Actaeon (ill. 4) alludes to Titian...
This rather negative review should not discourage visitors from discovering an exhibition which is replete with masterpieces, nor prevent anyone from buying the catalogue which presents much new and original information sur Jacob Jordaens. We will not follow the curator’s example however in changing the artist’s first name as done here, with the painter becoming Jacques Jordaens. He did indeed - something we did not know - sign his correspondence in this way. The use of Jacob was meant to make him more Flemish by art historians with nationalist tendencies thus wishing to place him in a tradition opposed to the Antique. This is perhaps true but nevertheless he has always been known as Jacob and this coquetry seems a bit fatuous.
An exhibition can therefore be beautiful to look at, provide a scholarly catalogue though at times with irrelevant subjects (and alas, as is often the case, devoid of any index) and still be debatable in principle. It does however render a valuable service to Jordaens : by showing some of his best paintings and drawings, it dispels any lingering doubts about his being a great painter, actually not far from the genius of his master, Rubens.
Curators : Joost Vander Auwera and Irene Schaudies.
Under the supervision of Joost Vander Auwera and Irene Schaudies, Jordaens et l’Antiquité, 2012, Fonds Mercator, 320 p., 44.95€. ISBN : 9789061536741
Visitor information : Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, 3 rue de la Régence, 1000 Brussels. Tel : +32 (0)2 508 32 11. Open every day from 10 am to 5 pm, except Monday. Admission : 9€ (reduced : 6.50€).