http://northernrenaissance.org | ISSN: 1759-3085

Creative Commons License

Published under an Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported Creative Commons License.

You are free to share, copy and transmit this work under the following conditions:

Aneta Georgievska-Shine. Rubens and the Archaeology of Myth, 1610-1620. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2009. ISBN: 978-0754-66771-1. 242 pp. Hbk. £65.

Reviewed by Jeremy Wood

[1]  Rubens’s mythologies form a very large proportion of his output, and have, of course, received a great deal of critical attention in the past, yet their literature is surprisingly fragmented, and, though there are some outstanding individual studies, it is hard to find a coherent overview that goes beyond the generalities of standard iconography, style criticism, and biography, essential as all those things undoubtedly are. Aneta Georgievska-Shine’s recent book departs from this approach in terms of its sophistication of method. But, disappointingly, she follows precedent in deciding to focus on a small group of works within a narrow time frame. The period selected falls between the years 1611 to 1618, and, as a result, it is not clear from this focus whether her arguments apply to Rubens’s other mythologies of the same decade, or, indeed, to the works painted before and after during his long career. The book is essentially a quartet of linked essays on four of Rubens’s works: the Prometheus Bound in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich, the Juno and Argus in the Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne, and the Finding of Erichthonius in the Liechtenstein Museum, Vienna. Essays by Georgievska-Shine on the Erichthonius and a related work that is also mentioned in passing, the Ixion tricked by Juno in the Museé du Louvre, Paris, have already been published, so, although the material has been much expanded for the present book, the methodological approach, if not the detail, will already be familiar to many of her readers.

[2]  If there is one work that laid the foundation for Georgievska-Shine’s approach it is an essay by Svetlana Alpers, ‘Manner and Meaning in Some Rubens Mythologies’, that was published in the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes in 1967. Alpers examined some of Rubens’s mythologies from the 1610s, including several of the works to which Georgievska-Shine now returns, and in this essay – to reduce a subtle argument to a blunt one – Alpers interpreted these paintings less in terms of their narrative or drama than as allegories in which the true meanings were abstracted and veiled. Although Alpers’s essay has been much admired, up to now scholars have been cautious in adopting its conclusions wholeheartedly.

[3]  Georgievska-Shine follows Alpers but goes further. For her, the myths are the subject of complex exegesis by Rubens, and his versions are not just single allegories but multiple ones (8). It follows that they are not demonstrations of the myths themselves but interpretations that respond to the nature of the poetic fictions (10); the myths are therefore no more than the ‘nominal’ subjects of the pictures (93), and Rubens’s visualisations contain a network of iconographic parallels that can be accommodated within an Aristotelian scheme of argumentation (92). Overall, Georgievska-Shine is concerned with what she calls the ‘tension between the mimetic and the symbolic value of pictorial signs’ (112). Paintings are therefore viewed as intertextual in the sense that their meanings are not constrained by the image itself, or what the artist may have meant, but are formed by the spectator who not only responds to the work of art in question but to all those texts and mythological commentaries from the period that may be invoked by this viewing process. Rubens is reinvented as Post-structuralist.

[4]  It is therefore no surprise that Georgievska-Shine does not set out to recover Rubens’s original intentions, an aim that she rightly says has little credibility nowadays, returning to this issue in her conclusion (190). She firmly sides with those modern literary theorists who hold that patterns of allusion are not simple evidence of an author’s intent. So far so good, but her approach is not quite so straightforwardly of its own time. She brushes aside current methodologies dominated by social and political history, not to mention psychology. Her own approach returns to the Warburgian scholarship of the Post-War period but with a new twist, and perhaps more than a touch of Hegelianism if I read correctly a slightly throwaway remark that Rubens’s visual language was ‘a faithful mirror of his age’ (ix), an opinion which would be much disliked by that most sceptical Warburgian, E.H. Gombrich. In short, Georgievska-Shine’s method is unexpectedly close to the work of older scholars like Frits Saxl and Edgar Wind, while being very much of its own time in its emphasis on intertextuality. There is not much else like it in the current writing on Rubens.

[5]  Georgievska-Shine directs her energies to finding associative meanings in her chosen group of works by Rubens, but, nonetheless, vestiges of ‘intention’ remain. Accordingly, she claims that Rubens, on returning from Italy to Flanders in 1609, was determined to impress the art lovers of Antwerp with his erudition (9). A great deal of emphasis is placed on the famous letter from Rubens to Justus Sustermans of 1637 which contains a reference to the ‘experienced eye’ of the latter (17, 20). But, to my mind, this does not mean that Sustermans could identify texts from authors such as Virgil and Lucretius unaided in the work then under discussion by the two artists, Rubens’s Horrors of War which was painted for the Florentine court (21), but rather that Sustermans, an established court artist, had no difficulty identifying standard personifications in art. Georgievska-Shine invites us to ‘imagine’ spectators who could recognize a complex range of visual and literary models (17). However, later in the book she admits it would be hard to find anyone in Rubens’s circle able to grasp the ‘circuitous interplays between mythological topoi’ (91) that she proposes. Instead, we are asked to envisage a ‘model’ reader/viewer who will justify these highly complex literary parallels, and later we hear about Rubens’s ‘ideal beholders’ for these ‘learned favole’ (189), as if they were a group consciously addressed by the painter and their erudition was widely shared and clearly defined. To me this seems very much like having ones (scholarly) cake and eating it, since, at various times in the discussion, Rubens doesn’t intend to set up these textual parallels and at other times he does, and, equally, his informed interpreters both do and don’t exist in the period.

[1]  Georgievska-Shine applies her methodology rigorously, but, at the same time, with some flexibility since each of the works of art chosen for discussion is handled in a slightly different way. The account of the Prometheus is the most persuasive. It is viewed less as a recreation of a lost painting from antiquity by Euanthes, as widely accepted, than as the symbolic re-enactment of the ‘original creative act’, the theft of fire by Prometheus from the Gods (56). Georgievska-Shine elucidates Rubens’s pursuit of the past to provide a ‘historicised perspective on the meaning of this myth’ (35). In part this is achieved by looking at the models that Rubens took from earlier art, so that representations of Tityus by Titian and Michelangelo, as well as the ancient statue of the Laocoön, are adapted in a different narrative (Prometheus) not purely for visual effect but as amplifications of meaning that bring associations and cross-references to bear on the new subject. When Georgievska-Shine turns to the Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus she does something similar. She argues that Rubens, playing with convention, moves from depicting one specific incident to creating a ‘meta-narrative’ concerning abduction (71). The figure seen from the back and identified as Hillaria in this composition is presented here as a new version of Michelangelo’s Leda and Titian’s Danae. ‘As a quotation’, Georgievska-Shine writes ‘she [Hillaria] elevates the depicted incident to a level of abstraction and enables it to assume a metaphorical role as an exemplum of the abduction of the beautiful form, ultimately leading to Helen’ (97), this is because Helen – like Castor and Pollux who abduct the daughters of Leucippus – was a child of Leda, and Helen, of course, was also famously abducted. The idea that a visual debt may retain traces of its previous meaning is well taken.

[7]  The discussions of Juno and Argus and the Finding of Erichthonius are different because they are more concerned with multiple literary parallels which are presented as an extended meditation on their subjects by Rubens’s audience, or, as implied at other points in the discussion, by Rubens himself. In Juno and Argus, for example, Rubens is not just presented as exploring Aguilonius’s diagram of colour theory, a familiar idea, but as choosing a subject that can be transformed into an allegory of human perception (117) where touch – as shown by the hands removing Argus’s many eyes from his decapitated head – is transformed into a mediation between blindness and sight (134). Similarly, Rubens’s Ixion tricked by Juno in the Louvre, a work mentioned in a digression, becomes a ‘sophisticated visual inquiry into the nature of cognition’ (139), and, in a comparable manner, the Erichthonius is a ‘complex pictorial apologia of the marvellous’ (157) according to Georgievska-Shine. It is here that the idea – developed from Alpers – that these narrative subjects are truly allegories is elaborated most fully, but also perhaps most elusively for the reader who struggles to follow Georgievska-Shine’s inventive, intricate, but also dense and elliptical arguments.

[8]  To sum up, Georgievska-Shine’s book offers an antidote to more conventional readings of Rubens’s mythologies. I find it interesting that the forthcoming volumes on this aspect of the artist’s output in the Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard, the multi-volume project to catalogue all of his work, are being prepared by a team of scholars, and I wonder whether they will be able to agree on a consistent approach to both method and meaning that will give a much-needed coherence to this part of the series. Georgievska-Shine’s recent contribution is more than just a book on Rubens, however, and anyone working on late renaissance and early modern interpretations of the stories of Prometheus, the children of Leda, not to mention Juno, Io and Argus, and Erichthonius, should read her immensely rich exploration of the early mythological commentaries, with the warning that the author’s learning is by no means worn lightly. Nonetheless, it seems to me that she has created a slightly different book from the one that she planned, one more about the way that mythology was interpreted in the late renaissance than about Rubens’s work as such. So, as a result, it is not perhaps quite the breakthrough in Rubens scholarship that might be hoped and its lasting importance may be more as a reflection on method.

   University of Nottingham, September 2011