When I open any magazine these days, I look at the photos of waif-like women with perfect skin, hair and teeth, without a jot of cellulite to be seen, and it’s what I expect to see. I admit it! The world of mass media has done its work very well indeed. There is perhaps a handful of women who may be naturally blessed with the genetic make-up to look as flawless as those pictured on billboards without the help of Photoshop. And that’s just it; technology such as Photoshop gives me expectations. If I were to see an ad with the models remaining unaltered, I would be surprised. It’s human nature. To want to look better than we actually do, to make something or someone seem perfect and – with the right product or right clothing – to attract others to the same level of perfection. And then it struck me, this is not a new concept. When I look back at artists from the Renaissance and Baroque period, they do exactly the same thing. (With paintbrush and easel instead of computer and mouse.)
Take a look at some of Peter Paul Rubens’ work. Although the curvier female form was highly admired and painted as it was – childbearing hips and all – Rubens still goes on to use the power invested in him as an artist to present the world with an interpretation of the model and the setting, rather than the real thing (or so I presume, having not been present at the actual time of painting.) In the painting of Susanna Lunden, thought to be a marriage portrait, Rubens’ use of clear and stormy skies to create light and shadow is a way to illuminate the face and much of the upper torso. In other words, she is glowing! Now, if that isn’t a tactic to make someone look more presentable, I don’t know what is!
During this thought process, my brain suddenly went into overdrive, and I began seeing links with modern culture everywhere in Rubens’ paintings. One notable comparison that my oh-so-logical self came up with is the popular past-time of photobombing. You know, you take a picture and when you look back at it, you notice that there’s an unusual face or activity happening in the background? Well, I don’t know about you, but I see a big photobomb in Rubens’ Perseus and Andromeda. My suspicions that Rubens had a sense of humour in his painting were confirmed by this painting. At first glance it looks like a romantic, serious painting. Okay, now look at the shield Perseus is carrying. Look at the expression on Medusa’s face! You heard it here first, Rubens was a photobomb master! (Or should that be paintingbomb?)
If you happen to be in Germany before the end of February and would like to check out more of Rubens’ works, or simply make up your own mind whether he was a paintingbomb genius, head over to the Von der Heydt-Museum Wuppertal. The Rubens exhibition will be held between the 16th October 2012 and the 28th February2013. Alternatively, if going to Germany just isn’t possible right now, check out our book on Rubens written by Victoria Charles.