Chewing the Fat

On the trail of Rubens.


in Archive


I’ve been living in Antwerp for the last six months with my wife, the incorrigible Shuffy. One of the things to do if you’re in Antwerp is think about Peter Paul Rubens, the great 17th-century painter who spent much of his life in this city.


Antwerpenaars (people from Antwerp) aren’t always so enthusiastic about Rubens. But what city doesn’t have mixed emotions about its most famous sons and daughters, about the clichés, about the touristical kitsch that surrounds and suffocates the great ones? More than twice I’ve enthusiastically related my interest in Rubens to an Antwerpenaar, only to be met with a rolling of the eyes, followed by an audible sigh. The message is clear: Only an asshole would come to Antwerp to expend time and energy on the most obvious of subjects, the most boring of all possible figures, Rubens.

Bravely, I persist. I trudge dutifully through the rain and the mist to the house that Rubens built near the center of Antwerp in the early 17th century. Some fragment of him must still inhabit the place, no? There must be a clue in that house, though, to be honest, I’m not even sure what of the riddle to which I am seeking clues. Maybe it is simply the answer to the question of why we care at all.

On my most recent trip to the house, I fell into a conversation with one of the museum guards, who likes to be called Toulouse and advised me never to speak Flemish. I took this as disgust with his own language combined with outrage with what I’d done to it. Anyway, he wanted to speak English and, like most people from Flanders, speaks it better than I do. When I told him of my interest in Rubens he became physically agitated. He pulled at his long goatee and squinched his eyes. It seemed that something distressing was happening in his bowels. This house isn’t even real, he blurted out. Just before World War II, he told me, the city of Antwerp purchased the wreck of a property and then began “restoring” it through hasty guesswork and a few sketches dashed off by some clown who had visited the house a hundred years after Rubens died.

The twinkle in his eye was that of a man who knows the truth even as he watches all the dupes stumble through the lie with their guides and their audio tours and their utterly laughable credulity. It made me feel sad; sad about Flanders, sad about Rubens, sad about anybody who ever tries anything.

But, bravely, I persist. I keep moving from one museum to the next, one church to another, all the places where Rubens can be found in Antwerp, where his paintings hang, where there are still glimmers of the life he once lived here.

Antwerp is a gray city. The Nordsee will not let it have too much sun. The fog rolls in with the dawn and then rolls away in the afternoon just to reveal the clouds. Antwerp is a quiet city. It holds itself at a particular size, just under half a million people, such that the streets can always contain the populace; the streets never strain. Often, you take a walk and only pass one or two people on any given street. A young girl rides by on a large bicycle, her green skirt swaying in the movement of the pedals.

I own a cheap print of one of Rubens’ self-portraits that I’ve leaned up against the window in my little apartment in Antwerp. Rubens stares at me with his head cocked to the side every time I stagger into the kitchen to make morning coffee or fumble around with the lights late at night to get a drink of water, some sparkling water on my tongue before I try to get back to sleep again. I used to think there was an owl in the courtyard outside the window. I would hear a deep-throated hooting noise late in the morning. I called him the owl of the courtyard. “Hoo hoo,” said the owl of the courtyard. It is raining again, hoo hoo. Now I think maybe it is just a pigeon. Somebody told me that owls don’t make noise like that in the late morning. Whoever told me that destroyed my morning owl. They took him away and replaced him with a pigeon. That’s what I get for being a city boy — I can’t even tell the difference between a pigeon and an owl. I have no idea what the different flavors of bird sound like, what they look like. I can’t tell you anything useful about plants, though I like to care for them. I like to water them and see them thrive, like the little rose bush that struggles week-to-week right next to the Rubens print. That rose bush is barely making it. I water it too much or too little. I don’t know. Why is it so finicky? What chance does that bush have when I can’t even tell an owl apart from a pigeon?

Rubens galls me in that self-portrait sometimes. He is the human face of the pigeon owl looking at me with reproach. Reproachfully. Is his left eyebrow cocked? What’s that, he’s saying. You think you heard an owl? Are you sure? Maybe you don’t know what an owl sounds like? Maybe I don’t. Still, I could throw this print right out the window for the birds to crap on, whatever kind it is. I could walk over to his statue in the Groenplaats that no one pays any attention to and laugh in his face. Rubens. Who cares? There is graffiti on the pedestal. It’s a terrible statue. Pompous, forgettable.

Rubens was an important man by his middle age. His paintings were bought and sold all over the continent. The greatest churches wanted him to illuminate the sacred. The greatest kings and diplomats wanted him to illuminate them. Perhaps the scenes of mute nature that he also illuminated were silently pining for his brush as well. Everybody and everything wanted to be a Rubens. The great man obliged, keeping up a side-career as an international diplomat between painting gigs.

It is tempting to think that Rubens engaged in all this worldliness with a sense of irony. The bemused little smile he painted on himself in that self-portrait, the one that mocks me, is the smile of a man who gets it. Alas, it is easy to read too much into such things. It is easy for me to know Rubens when, in fact, I know nothing at all. Rubens’ voluminous correspondences are well preserved and are as empty, as barren as the surface of the moon. There is no man there, only the cold details of the daily affairs of a life that has been lost to us in time. The “himness” of Rubens exists, if at all, in the pigments on the canvases left to us over the centuries. And these are difficult signs to read.

My Rubens, the one that I think I know a little bit, painted a painting we now refer to as “The Drunken Silenus” sometime around 1618. Silenus is a character from Greek mythology. He was a tutor and companion to Dionysus and is usually portrayed in some manner of drunken orgy, surrounded by satyrs and other wild members of the Dionysian retinue. Sometimes he rides an ass, being helped in his inebriation from one location to another. Rubens chose to portray Silenus in an upright posture, though just barely. He is stumbling forward with that look of confused determination that only a profoundly drunk person can have.

I don’t know if you’ve ever been that drunk before. I have. You jump up suddenly because you’ve got to get somewhere. Maybe you just want to go home, you need to get home. But you don’t really know where you are. More troubling, you aren’t even sure who you are. But a thought, a need has taken hold of you and it is the only thing with any stability. It is a sharp pang of reality in a world that has otherwise lost its bearings. You stumble forward in that specific oblivion. There is a clarity in that oblivion, but it is the clarity of oblivion.

In the painting, one of the members of the Dionysian retinue stands behind Silenus and pinches a chunk of skin just beneath his left butt cheek. He is pinching the skin quite hard. But Silenus doesn’t even seem to notice. His brain, awash in alcohol, can only focus on one thing, and barely that. He has to get home, or wherever. He has to move forward.

Why was Rubens so interested in this fat, drunken man? We don’t know much about Silenus, but for one crucial story. It was a story that fascinated Nietzsche 200 years after Rubens. As the story goes a king — King Midas, actually — wanted to know a piece of real wisdom. He wanted to know what was the best thing for man. He was after the highest knowledge. And he had heard, somewhere, that Silenus was a man of great wisdom, for all his drunken lumbering. Through some trick or other, King Midas managed to capture Silenus and demanded that Silenus reveal his greatest wisdom and reveal what is best for man. You don’t want to hear it, Silenus said. But since you persist, the greatest thing for man, the absolute best thing would be never to have been born at all. The next best thing would be to die quickly. And then Silenus left the king to his thoughts.

Silenus is a large man, the way Rubens imagines him. He is fat, of course. His youth is behind him, though not so far behind that his bushy beard has lost its color. He is wearing some sort of pathetic, half-considered wreath. Probably one of the nasty satyrs nearby stuck it on his head as a joke. He’s balding under that decrepit wreath and his side locks are going gray, although he is one of those mid-category, half-human, potentially immortal sorts of beings. Born of the Earth, born of a goddess, born of something not entirely human. That’s part of his character, too. Maybe he is caught in late middle age forever. Maybe that is his immortal state. It was a nice touch, anyway, for Rubens to leave his beard in its full brown color but to show the gray peeking out from behind the leaves of Silenus’ worldly wreath as he trudges along.

He does trudge, heavy as the earth. Massive haunches and big knees. Just look at the knees of Silenus! Big knotty things connecting two trunks of leg. His calves are meaty and straining under his uncertain gait. But the knees, with all their strange little bones and tendons and ligaments…. Knees are difficult to understand and almost impossible to love. Rubens pays a lot of attention to the knees of Silenus. He wants to show us all of the parts of the knee, all the sinewy chaos that must be going on underneath the skin during this drunken forward lurching. Every time I get angry at Rubens, every time I get resentful at his little smile in that self-portrait, his coyness, his pompous and boring statue in the middle of the Groenplaats, I think about those knees. The knobby knees of Silenus as Rubens paints them make Silenus all the more tragic as a character. You can see the actual weight of the knowledge that Silenus carries in those knees. Silenus stumbles forward with the knowledge that life has no meaning, nothing it points to beyond its bare existence. It’s all there in the knees.

It took Silenus to tell the truth to King Midas and it took Rubens to tell the truth of Silenus. It is one measure of Rubens’ brilliance: taking the troubling and destabilizing story of Silenus and focusing on the knobby massive flesh of his knees. The knees of Silenus are a more convincing testimonial to the real weight of his horrible knowledge about the absolute emptiness of the universe than any argument could ever be. That this realness comes to us in the trickery of paint on canvas only adds to the mystery of it all. Maybe that is what Rubens is smiling about in the self-portrait, staring at me from across the room, watching me from afar as I wander around his city, searching for his greatness amidst the tired indifference. He’s smiling about that, and the pigeon. • 19 October 2010