A Painting for Dancers
Choreographing Crowd Scenes:
Rubens' "The Road to Calvary"
by Paul Parish
Some composers, like Bach and Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky, really speak to dancers—and so do some painters and sculptors. One of these for me is Rubens—he uses bodies and orchestrates movement like a choreographer (Lavrovsky, Fokine, probably Noverre). I've come to this conclusion after going back over and over to visit a painting of his; not an important Rubens, just an oil sketch, a preparatory study for a larger work, not even in color, really, just black and white and sepia, bought in the 1960's for less than $100,000 -- but still, it's the most appealing painting in the Bay Area to me. For a sketch, it's brought up to a high level of finish. The physicality of the brush-work is as hot as any action-painter's, and more delicate - check out the white threads in the horse's manes, on the satin skirt as it molds to Veronica's thigh, on the Roman soldier's helmet, in that exultant hunting-horn. The painting itself is about as broad as my shoulders, nearly two feet high, and wears a frame of dark wood about as wide as my hand. It's hung too low: the top of it is level with my hairline (about 5'7") *
A painting is of course not a moving picture, but it can contain or suggest motion, much as a building can; a wall can undulate, Baroque columns often spiral. Indeed, the function of religious architecture, painting and sculpture in the Baroque period was to break down the barrier between the ordinary world and the eternal, using optical illusions to surround you with a sense of the miraculous, to make the mythic seem present.