A conversation with Rubens: Tim Marlow interviews Jenny Saville RA

Published 20 March 2015

Rubens’s influence on painting extends right up to today, as a room curated by Jenny Saville RA for ‘Rubens and His Legacy’ reveals. Tim Marlow asks the painter about her response to the Flemish master as both artist and curator.

  • From the Spring 2015 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    Tim Marlow: When did you start to look at Rubens’s work seriously?

    Jenny Saville: In my teens. My uncle is an art historian and he encouraged me to look at paintings from history. He took me to Venice for the summers, so Titian was the first artist that I started to look at closely. Then I went to Amsterdam to see Rembrandt, and Rembrandt then led me to Rubens. I also started looking at Picasso, and I realised that there were things in Picasso which refer to Rubens, so it became something like a pinball machine, where I went from one artist to another and a dialogue started.

    There are many aspects of Rubens’s technique that, frankly, any artist would want to steal. His oil studies are absolutely amazing and his drawings are phenomenal. Studies are the things that pass through time better than anything else. With a number of Rubens’s studies, there are whole areas of washed-in canvas or washed-in panel, but then he has just made a little drawing mark, which feels like the paintings of today. Our eyes are used to that approach. It’s something that’s been reinforced for me as I’ve been looking at Rubens during this exhibition.

    One of the problems I have with Rubens is how flouncy he can be. At times there are just too many puffy sleeves and rosy cheeks and his work lacks a poetic mystery. That’s why I like the oil studies so much. There are passages of quiet, suggestive paint and then a flurry of brushwork that describes form in an almost abstract way. There can be a melancholic atmosphere to the studies that’s absent in the large canvases. His great strength in the large works is composition. He can orchestrate twisted torsos, limbs and cloth into a believable painterly mass. If you look at Massacre of the Innocents, that’s an incredible feat of painterly engineering.

  • Peter Paul Rubens, Recto. A Lion Hunt

    Peter Paul Rubens, Recto. A Lion Hunt, 1621 – 22.

    München, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen - Alte Pinakothek/Photo © Bpk | Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen.

  • TM: Like so many clichés, there’s a truth in the one about Rubens: that he is a painter’s painter. But is his painterliness the most important thing?

    JS: It’s his intellect that I like in the oil studies. In these studies there are passages of nothingness that make them feel modern. I look at abstract painting and figurative painting with the same eyes, and when I look at a more full-on Rubens painting, taking in all of its aspects, I often think it has a relationship with a very fulsome abstract painting, like the De Kooning in this room (pictured). Figurative paintings today, or from the recent past, tend not to be so fulsome. De Kooning and Rubens are alike because of the nature of their paint – the movement of their mark-making – and the nature of their vulgarity.

    But when you discuss Rubens, you’re talking about somebody who was making art before film and photography, at a time when the Church was paying artists to promote the Counter Reformation. Rubens was commissioned to put religious subjects in his paintings, but now we’ve taken all those subjects out because God doesn’t exist for many artists any more. What exists is our nature and the nature of painting, which has dominated artists’ thoughts since the 1940s or ’50s, basically since Pollock declared, ‘I am nature’. The game has changed for painters, so you’ve got to consider what Rubens’s game was at that time – it wasn’t as empty as it is now. That’s why Bacon seemed so relevant to include in this room, as he fits with our modern existential ideas.

  • TM: Within your choice of artists for this room, you have included Warhol.

    JS: His work doesn’t have a technical relationship to Rubens in the way that De Kooning’s does. Warhol’s relationship with Rubens is through their shared subject matter and their persona as artists with factory-style studios. Warhol is also connected to my title for the room, ‘La Peregrina’. La Peregrina was a pearl that was renowned in the Spanish Court. Rubens painted a portrait, around 1625, of Elisabeth of France, Queen of Spain, wearing the pearl – and it featured in many other portraits by artists of the time, including Velázquez. The pearl then travelled to France and to Napoleon, and then the English Court. Then it disappeared, until about 1968, when Richard Burton bought it for Elizabeth Taylor. That led me to Andy Warhol, because he famously painted Elizabeth Taylor. The pearl that wandered from painter to painter – La Peregrina means ‘the wanderer’ – sums up the conversation between artists and Rubens in this room.

  • Andy Warhol, Jacqueline

    Andy Warhol, Jacqueline, 1964.

    Wave: Wolverhampton Art Gallery/Image Courtesy Of Wave, Wolverhampton Art Gallery/© 2015 The Andy Warhol Foundation For The Visual Arts, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York And DACS, London.

  • TM: Would you say that Picasso is a case apart in this conversation?

    JS: Yes, Picasso famously didn’t like, or said he didn’t like, Rubens. He thought Rubens had great facility but didn’t use it well. But as an artist Picasso is heavily influenced by Rubens. Just think of his paintings of Marie-Thérèse Walter – the sumptuousness, the twisting and turning of a torso, the inventiveness. If there was ever a misshapen pearl in the history of art, it’s Marie-Thérèse. Rubens made artists paint greater works of their own, whether or not they liked his work. Rembrandt became a better artist by looking at Rubens, as did Picasso. Even if you as a viewer don’t like all of Rubens, you may like what Rubens helped other artists to do. That’s the critical issue with this show: the dialogue between artists and the conversation that the viewer has with it.

    TM: Is there a direct conversation between your own work and Rubens, or is it more mediated, say, through De Kooning and his relationship to Rubens?

    JS: The conversation moves around. When I work, there will be art-history books all open on the floor of my studio. There will be a detail of a De Kooning painting, Picasso’s Guernica, Rembrandt’s Descent from the Cross, and a book that looks at the technique of Rubens, and all those images are buzzing around me at the same time. I sit down in between periods of painting and I look at images and make connections. The historical period in which a work was created has no relevance. Whether it’s a curve of a bull’s head from the caves of Lascaux or the loop of a breast on a De Kooning woman, if I see it, I can use it. I don’t see my conversation with artworks as a sequence, moving from here to there in a conceptual way. I see the conversation as a poetic movement from eye to hand co-ordination, one which has an energy and potential for the way I work.

  • There is a vulgar truth to Rubens’s nudes, and there is the same truth in this work by Lucas. It absolutely nails what it is to have a female body.

    Jenny Saville RA

  • TM: What about your painting, Voice of the Shuttle (Philomela), (pictured) which you have made specifically for this exhibition?

    JS: It is based around the myth of Philomela. Rubens’s The Banquet of Tereus (1636–37), now in the Prado Museum in Madrid, shows a key moment of this complicated myth, told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. There are two sisters, Procne and Philomela, and Philomela is raped by Procne’s husband, King Tereus. He cuts out Philomela’s tongue when she protests against the rape and keeps her in a shack for a year, going back and continuing to rape her. Procne thinks that Philomela is dead, but Philomela weaves a tapestry on a loom and sends it to Procne – Philomela’s voice becomes what Sophocles called the ‘voice of the shuttle’ in the loom going back and forth.

    Procne and Philomela kill Itys, the son of Tereus and Procne, in revenge. They cook up the body and feed it to the husband, the rapist. They feed him his son and he doesn’t know it – he eats Itys during a Bacchanalian feast. Rubens paints the moments where Tereus says, “Bring me my son”, and they say, “Well, your son is inside you”, holding up the severed head of Itys.

    Can you imagine charging a painting with that myth now? The viewer just wouldn’t buy into it, so I have tried to find another way to work with this myth. I became interested in the shuttle going back and forth, and its idea of speechlessness, in particular the speechlessness of an artist involved in depicting violence and rape, the need to depict the layers of such a story without being sensational. I’ve never really made a narrative painting before, so the way that I’ve approached it here is by putting all the narrative in a mass of figures in the foreground, so you feel the narrative within that mass. That approach actually comes from Leonardo and the way he made drawings of black masses from the figures of the Mother and Child, although it’s a new development in my work.

  • Jenny Saville RA, Voice of the Shuttle (Philomela)

    Jenny Saville RA, Voice of the Shuttle (Philomela), 2014 – 15.

    Private Collection /© Jenny Saville. All rights reserved, DACS 2015/Photo Mike Bruce/Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.

  • TM: Rubens’s connection with De Kooning can be seen in the visceral painting process. How does Rubens link to Sarah Lucas’s Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab (1992)?

    JS: It’s the vulgarity. There is a vulgar truth to Rubens’s nudes, and there is the same truth in this work by Lucas. It absolutely nails what it is to have a female body – the fact that the image of the body is repeated in the head. When people look at the artists in history who represented nudes, then Rubens is in the top five, but this piece by Lucas should be thought of as one of the greatest nudes of our time. I thought it was a fantastic sculpture when I first saw it, and it often comes into my mind.

    TM: Why do you think it is difficult for us to consider Rubens in a contemporary context?

    JS: It comes back to the fact that Rubens existed before film and photography. Imagine the experience of seeing his altarpiece The Descent of the Cross (1612–14) without having ever seen a photograph – it would be like magic, the way it depicts a body falling from the Cross so realistically. It’s harder to understand Rubens today now that we have so many photographic images – everyone’s got a camera phone. So you have to come to Rubens in a slightly different way and that’s what this room in the show is about. It’s about the struggle of doing what Rubens was doing as an artist before photography, and the way this relates to the struggle of other great artists since.

  • Sarah Lucas, Two Fried Eggs And A Kebab

    Sarah Lucas, Two Fried Eggs And A Kebab, 1992.

    Murderme/Photo courtesy of Murderme/ © Sarah Lucas/Courtesy of Sadie Coles HQ, London.

  • TM: I’m also curious about the cultural changes during the 20th and 21st centuries that have meant that there is a difference in the way that Rubens is perceived.

    JS: Whatever date a painting is made, it has to live for us in the present. Caravaggio is hot now but he was forgotten for centuries after his death. Even Vermeer hasn’t always been loved as much as he is now. African sculpture was not always considered art. In 200 years Picasso may no longer be seen as the greatest artist of the 20th century. We shift our lens according to our time and we always have done. I think Rubens hasn’t fitted with our sensibilities for a long time, as our emphasis has been on something different – for instance the grubby humanity of Caravaggio. In 50 years we might be looking at and talking about someone like Bronzino more than Caravaggio.

    Hopefully, Rubens and his Legacy will re-engage more of us with Rubens. It shows how Rubens helped Rembrandt with his own Descent from the Cross, how Rubens helped Picasso with his own etching, the fact that Cy Twombly would have looked at Rubens’s Bacchanalian feasts before painting his own ‘Bacchus’ series. You’ll see some of those relationships.

    I remember the Cy Twombly and Poussin show at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. Those two artists have the most phenomenal relationship. I hadn’t looked at Poussin as much as I should have done, so Twombly helped me to look at Poussin again. That’s what an exhibition can do for us – it can bring an artist up to the surface again, and then another artist can use them as a platform in their studio.

    Rubens and His Legacy: Van Dyck to Cézanne is in the Main Galleries until 10 April 2015.

    Tim Marlow is the RA’s Artistic Director.

    • Jenny Saville RA, Voice of the Shuttle (Philomela) (detail)

      Jenny Saville RA, Voice of the Shuttle (Philomela) (detail), 2014 – 15.

      Pastel and charcoal on canvas. 280 x 360 cm. Private Collection/© Jenny Saville. All Rights Reserved, Dacs 2015/Photo Mike Bruce/Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.

      Limited edition print

      The Voice of the Shuttle (Philomela) is a new limited edition print produced by Jenny Saville RA exclusively for the RA’s exhibition Rubens and His Legacy. This work takes its title from Saville’s drawing on canvas of the same name shown in La Peregrina, Saville’s curated gallery within the exhibition. The print can be purchased through Art Sales at the RA.

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    Tim Marlow introduces 'La Peregrina'

    The RA’s Artistic Director introduces ‘La Peregrina’, a contemporary response to the exhibition curated by Jenny Saville RA.

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