‘Too naked, too violent:’ The Art Gallery of Ontario’s troubling $100M masterpiece hits the road

Propped on a four-wheeled cart and wrapped in clear cellophane, you’d think Peter Paul Rubens’ The Massacre of the Innocents, a visceral masterpiece of epic brutality, might see its impact softened, or at least a little.

Think again. “It’s hard to look at, I know,” sighed Sasha Suda, the Art Gallery of Ontario’s curator of European art. On a recent morning in the museum’s conservation department, Suda helped remove the plastic sheeting, revealing the work in all its terrible glory: A burly, naked warrior poised to dash a chubby infant onto the hard stone ground; a mother clawing at another assailant’s face as her own child teetered in her free arm.

Even here, in the bright fluorescent glare of the conservation lab’s antiseptic environment, the painting resonated with unrelenting horror. “I’ve always felt like if you poked it the wrong way, it would just explode,” Suda said, pointing towards a knot of fabric and muscle at the painting’s heart. “We’re constantly trying to mitigate the risk of encounter with this work, because it’s so hard for a lot of people.”

The painting, removed from both its frame and its long-time place of honour in the museum’s public galleries, was here in the cautious hands of the museum’s conservators to prepare for a very different kind of encounter. On Sept. 26, the Rubens House in Antwerp will be at the centre of “Antwerp Baroque,” a cultural festival honouring the painter as its favourite native son. When it opens, The Massacre of the Innocents, a lost masterpiece made in 1610 and misattributed to a Rubens apprentice for centuries, will finally receive its proper homecoming, some 300 years since it left the country.

Here, its absence will be profoundly felt, if not universally lamented. Rubens’ depiction of the biblical tale of King Herod, who ordered the murder of all boys under the age of 2 lest they grow up to usurp his throne, the piece has served dutifully, if uncomfortably, as the museum’s signature piece since 2008. That was surely the idea when Ken Thomson, the gallery’s billionaire angel benefactor, bought it at a London auction in 2002 for the jaw-dropping sum of 49 million pounds (at the time, $ 115 million Canadian).

The Rubens, though, would carry the load as the dark avatar of his largesse: When the gallery reopened in 2008, The Massacre of the Innocents was installed on a blood-red wall in a low-lit chamber deep in the museum’s Thomson collection, all on its own. There, it emanated a menacing glow; the only light in the space was trained directly on it.

For nearly a decade it sat like that, its seething presence demanding an uncomfortable reverence. Its presentation blared significance — an expectation of looking long and hard, while your every human instinct was squirming to turn quickly away. Last fall, Suda had it moved to the AGO’s European galleries, where it wasn’t so singled-out.

“We wanted to make it a little more inviting, to give people a little room to breathe,” Suda said. “Higher ceilings and more light really helped,” but there’s only so much you can do.

After everything it’s been through, Massacre’s triumphant homecoming makes for a lovely tale: The painting left Antwerp in 1700, when it was acquired for the art collection of the prudish royal family of Lichtenstein, and promptly found itself stored in the cellar (“too naked, too violent,” Suda said). It spent more than 200 years there, and, along the way, was stripped of its Rubens attribution; a curator at the collection had deemed it too monstrous for the master to have ever made.

So when an Austrian family acquired it in 1920, it might have been similarly leery; it promptly loaned the painting to a remote monastery, where it sat for almost 80 years before Sotheby’s came calling and identified it for what it was: Rubens’ lost masterpiece, an early explosion of his painterly ambition at its most visceral and raw.

Rubens packs the picture with enough raw energy that, masterwork or not, it can be hard to take. When the painting moved last fall, I had no idea; I had been avoiding its dark chamber for a year or more, having seen enough. It had become duty, a punishing experience in a contextual void. Its departure now from the AGO, a tidy decade after its arrival, could be the pause that refreshes; that’s surely the hope as the gallery will use the time in between to assemble an exhibition of Rubens’ early career, slotted for next fall, with Massacre at its heart. And Suda, for one, sees an opportunity in its absence.

“I think a little distance will let us see how much richer the story is,” she said. “This idea that you should just recognize it for its greatness and want to sit in front of it is kind of antiquated. We need to invite people into the conversation.”

Indeed, more than mastery abounds within its terrors, and that tension was one Rubens surely intended. Massacre, as you might guess, was a statement piece about technique and content both: Rubens had recently returned to Antwerp from an eight-year stint in Italy, where he had studied with such icons as Caravaggio. Before he left home, he had been “a mediocre painter,” Suda said. “Very average — a normal guy from a normal, middle-class family with no artistic lineage. But he comes back and he has this energy. Scholars will say it was his very aggressive way of showing off all he had learned: ‘I’m going to take everything I’ve learned in Italy and I’m going to put it right into the painting.’ ”

He had absorbed the dynamics of late-Renaissance figure painting, and the classical sculpture he encountered there, with bodies sinewy and fleshy both, are also a clear guide to the painting’s aesthetic. But Rubens had in mind more than a showy display of his newfound painterly skill. He had left Antwerp as the Eighty Years’ War had raged at home; the 17 provinces of the Netherlands, Calvinists all, were brutalized under the ruling Catholic regime of King Phillip II of Spain. Rubens came home to a rare peaceful interlude — a truce was struck in 1609, prompting his return — but the ravages of the war were all around.

Massacre may have depicted Herod’s murderous edict, but Rubens was thinking as much of the blood that had run in the streets of his hometown and countless others under Spanish rule as he was thinking biblically. Calvinists had been slaughtered by the ruling Catholic regime right there at home for decades, a fate he knew well; the painting was aimed as much at a very urgent reality as it was a biblical parable.

When he came back, Rubens was a strange beast: A court painter, in service to the Habsburgs, Spain’s Catholic emissaries to the provinces, but with an activist’s bent. Painters of his stature relied on the rich to glorify their place in an ugly world, but Rubens was determined to change the role painting played in society.

“He was trying to impassion people with means to think about those things that are hard to think about,” Suda said. “He challenged them: ‘I can paint you a beautiful virgin and child and you can escape what’s happening just outside your doors — but it’s still happening.’ His work was in changing social norms.”

Suda crouched low to the ground to examine one of the picture’s many simultaneous atrocities: A woman nearly buried below a tangle of struggling bodies, one hand clawing at her ragged hair, the other cradling a murdered infant, its skin a deathly blue. “The height you hang it can really impact the way kids engage with it,” Suda said, almost apologetically. “It can give them nightmares.”

If Rubens was drawing a line from biblical horror to the reality of his moment, is it really so hard to see Massacre as a painting, sadly, that never gets old? Across centuries of wars and sectarian violence, colonialism, world wars, the endless, violent chaos of the Middle East, years of forced migration in Syria, and religious extremism that has claimed tens of thousands in just the last decade, Massacre is a perpetually urgent masterwork whose urgency can only wane if inhumanity itself ceases to be.

There seems little danger of that, which means the work should be revered less, and grappled with more — something Suda has in mind for its return next fall.

“If Ken had bought a pretty Rembrandt instead, we wouldn’t be having these conversations,” she said. “Rubens’ goal here is to make you uncomfortable — it has to be. There really is no respite, except for the sky,” she said, her eye retreating to a ripple of clouds against the blue. “But I also find that sort of sobering. Horrible things happen on beautiful days.” And are, somewhere, right now.

TORONTO STAR

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