Adolescent angst

We are getting more and more to like Van Dyck. Since 1990, major exhibitions of his work have been mounted in Washington, Antwerp, Genoa and (twice) London, and now it is the turn of the Prado, with the present large-scale exploration of The Young Van Dyck. In the same period, shows of his master, Rubens, have come around a good deal less often.

Although the oeuvre of Van Dyck is big enough – he died at only 41 but was a compulsive worker – only circumstantial evidence remains of his personal life and opinions. He wrote nothing, little was written about him in his time, and his appearances in archives are fragmentary. As the discipline of art history developed, this comparative obscurity allowed him to be dismissed, particularly by influential but heavy-handed Germanic moralists, as a watery reflection of Rubens – neurotic, indecisive and not quite serious. But an artist’s neurosis and indecision are no longer regarded as tokens of frivolity: on the contrary, they strike us as important, because they speak of a struggle towards truth and understanding.

Van Dyck’s personality, as far as we can tell, was indeed elusive and mercurial, traits that are complemented – or betrayed – by the rapidity and fluency of his art, and its startling directness of expression. All these qualities are on display at the Prado, for Antoon Van Dyck (before he became Antonio in Italy and Sir Anthony in England) was a wunderkind, the brightest young spark in a city seething with artists. That is why it was inevitable that he would be drawn into Rubens’ orbit.

Rubens did not crush the prodigy’s talent but he made an enormous impression on it. The curators in Madrid, Alejandro Vergara of the Prado and Friso Lammertse of the B-B Museum in Rotterdam, have said that their honest intention with the exhibition was to liberate the teenage Van Dyck from Rubens. But they have had to admit defeat for, at every turn in the boy’s early career, Rubens was there as exemplar, teacher, adviser, employer, patron and, finally, rival.

Rubens was already famous when Van Dyck went to work for him aged (at the most) 15. The Rubens workshop was receiving multiple orders for large altarpieces and for the decoration of churches and palaces. Rubens also produced portraits of VIPs, and prints after his work. He therefore needed assistants who could replicate his style, and he found in Van Dyck a very skilful one. But there is palpable tension in the youth’s work during his time with Rubens – he was learning to be a Rubens replicant, but also working out ways of escaping into his own style. That effort is the narrative thread of this excellent show.

‘Jude (Judas Thaddeus)’ (c1618-1620)

In the way of prodigies, the young Van Dyck’s temperament was instinctive and immediate. The extraordinary self-portrait he did at 14 or 15, the head turned as if in a sudden movement, has the eyes of a boy who looks and sees with rare intensity. Sometimes that look was positively febrile. Most of the works in the Prado show – 90 paintings and drawings – are of religious subjects, and in their vivid colours and rapid, occasionally slashing, strokes of pen and brush, they reveal a passionate identification with the subject, the suffering Christ, and the agonies of the gospel story.

Such emotional commitment adds much force to the work but there is another commitment that pulls in a quite different direction. Whenever he approached a large subject, such as “Christ Crowned with Thorns” or “Christ Falling under the Cross”, Van Dyck would first work with his pen through possible compositional ideas – the arrangement of figures, the delineation of light and form – until he arrived at a scheme that satisfied him. This is not feverish indecision but careful study – and it was a habit he surely acquired from Rubens.

This tension between religious fervour and studied design is dramatised in the artist’s obsession with the subject of St Jerome. The legend of this saint centred on a worldly man, highly educated, but also anguished by the command of God to suppress the temptations of the intellect and the flesh and embrace the knowledge of sin. Jerome was the subject of at least nine paintings by the young Van Dyck – four are here – and all show the old man as a half-naked, desert-dwelling hermit, tormented by his rejection of the world even as he submits to God’s will. Somewhere in here is the thought of Rubens, worldly and urbane, fluent in classicism, revelling in fleshy nudes and violent boar hunts, under the critical eye of a young pupil seized by the fervour of counter-reformation Catholicism.

‘Self-Portrait’ (c1615)

There is another way in which the young Van Dyck resisted the universalism of Rubens. He is determinedly local, an Antwerp boy painting Antwerp subjects. In his “Adoration of the Shepherds” we see a cast of characters queuing up to view the newborn Jesus, awed and submissive. The faces are those of the real men and women of the southern Netherlands – the sketched studies of the head of one of them is shown here alongside the final canvas.

This is also true of the crowd around “Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem”, of “Christ Falling under the Cross” and of his portraits of the apostles: people Van Dyck knew in his daily life. The “Adoration” also has a telling detail, casting back to the tradition of Bruegel the Elder. Van Dyck paints in the foreground a chicken in a wicker cage, stretching its neck to peck at an ear of corn: a small, quite ordinary action performed in perfect oblivion to the event of cosmic significance happening a few feet away.

Shows of juvenilia by a famous artist serve mostly to prefigure greatness to come. Not in this case. In his teens Van Dyck was already the real deal, as anyone confronting his painting of “The Betrayal of Christ” will agree. More than 11 feet high, it is a monumental night vision of a lynch mob lighting its way with fiery torches towards its victim. The tumult of emotion around Judas’s fateful kiss is caught with astonishing vividness, and the painting is in its way as great as anything Van Dyck ever produced. Rubens owned this masterpiece, hanging it above the mantel in the largest room in his house, and keeping it for the rest of his life. Van Dyck had made him a present of it just before his final break, at the age of 21, when he left for Italy to begin life as an indisputably independent artist.

‘The Young Van Dyck’, The Prado Museum, Madrid, until March 3 2013

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