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The picture of collaboration

A Getty Museum exhibition illustrates how Rubens and Brueghel's work together blossomed.

July 12, 2006|David Pagel | Special to The Times

Masterpieces can be intimidating. And museums often fortify art's off-putting authority by suggesting that creative geniuses have nothing in common with ordinary folks who visit exhibitions.

At the J. Paul Getty Museum, "Rubens and Brueghel: A Working Friendship" flies in the face of such snobbery. Neither intimidating nor short on genius, the user-friendly exhibition features 13 of the approximately two-dozen paintings Peter Paul Rubens and Jan Brueghel the Elder made together in Antwerp, Belgium, from 1598 until Brueghel's death in 1625.

If you have ever worked with anyone or have experienced the sacrifices and synergies of enduring friendship, you will feel an immediate bond with Rubens and Brueghel, each of whom went out of his way to accommodate the strengths and idiosyncrasies of the other. It's a great feeling and one of the best things about the first major exhibition dedicated to the collaborative works of the legendary painters.

Organized by the Getty and the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis in The Hague, the smart, focused show combines groundbreaking scholarship with crowd-pleasing accessibility -- unlike blockbusters, which trade intellectual integrity for a big gate and can be seen quickly, like other highlights-only sightseeing.

In contrast, "Rubens and Brueghel" requires a couple of hours of intense looking, despite being made up of only 27 paintings. Its story -- of artistic give-and-take maturing into vibrant reciprocity -- unfolds before your eyes, once they have adjusted to the particularities of each artist's touch.

Excellent wall labels provide just the right amount of guidance, making it easy for viewers to teach themselves how to look at the paintings. Brought together from 13 museums and one private collection across the U.S. and Europe, the lively, inventive, often cinematic pictures offer myriad details to discover. And the collaboration between Rubens (1577-1640) and Brueghel (1568-1625) transforms everyone's understanding of early 17th century Northern European art.

It all starts with "The Battle of the Amazons" (1598-1600), the earliest known collaboration between Rubens and Brueghel. The approximately 3-foot-by-4-foot oil on panel divides neatly in half. It looks like two paintings in one: a writhing swarm of half-naked Greek and Amazon warriors stabbing, slicing, skewering and otherwise dispatching one another amid galloping horses, blaring trumpets and bright yellow flags in the bottom half and, in the top, an atmospheric landscape of towering trees, distant mountains and smoky sky.

The figures, painted by Rubens and aglow with dazzling highlights, overshadow the landscape by Brueghel, which has the presence of a movie backdrop. Although each artist adapted to facilitate the collaboration -- Brueghel lowering his typically high viewpoint and Rubens using a smaller scale -- the result is oddly static.

This shortcoming suggests not simple failure but that something out of the ordinary was taking place between two of Antwerp's most revered painters. At the time, the rising middle class had a voracious appetite for first-rate pictures. To keep up with demand, many painters acted as subcontractors, hiring other, less renowned painters to do the detail or background work of lucrative, time-consuming commissions.

In such pragmatic collaborations, one artist often dominated and the other played a supporting role, or both subordinated their individuality to the demands of a unified composition. The latter is the case with Brueghel's four fine collaborations with Hendrick van Balen, two with Hans Rottenhammer and one with Hendrick de Clerck. In each of these small, beautifully resolved paintings, Brueghel handled the landscape and secondary figures and the other artist painted the main figure groupings.

The three paintings Rubens made with Frans Snyders flaunt Rubens' command of the human body, not to mention a viewer's emotions. Snyders plays a subsidiary role in "Prometheus Bound," (1611-12) "Diana Returning From the Hunt" (1616) and "The Head of Medusa" (1617-18), adding the eagle, basket of fruit, hunting dogs and writhing snakes to Rubens' tour de force depictions of the flesh's pains and pleasures.

"The Battle of the Amazons," by Rubens and Brueghel, stands out because of the preeminence of both painters, and because of its attempt to make vivid the equality of the partnership.

The same is true of "The Return From War: Mars Disarmed by Venus," a significantly larger picture Rubens and Brueghel painted from 1610 to 1612. It's an aggressively disheveled composition, with loads of armor, weaponry and tools scattered throughout a cavernous forge where the god of war is seduced by the goddess of love, with the assistance of four dutiful Cupids.

Again, the figures belong to Rubens and the setting to Brueghel. This time, however, the complex interior, jampacked with bronze cannons, leather harnesses and elaborate metal implements, comes closer to holding its own alongside the couple.

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