In 1718, a terrible fire broke out in Antwerp’s former Jesuit Church, the present-day St. Charles Borromeo Church. The 39 ceiling paintings, which Peter Paul Rubens had completed just 100 years earlier, were irretrievably lost, provoking a violent commotion in the city. The monumental (4.2 x 3 m) paintings were affixed to the ceilings of the side aisles on the ground floor and the first floor. They depicted various themes and saints from the Old and New Testament. Rubens and his workshop, which was supervised by the young Anthony van Dyck, completed the commission for this baroque gem in just one year in 1620. The exhibition ‘Rubens Re-Viewed’ brings these paintings back to life with an installation with contemporary interpretations by the artist Rudy De Graef.
De Graef produced 18 prints which refer to the baroque ceiling paintings on the first floor. These will only be shown in the gallery on the first floor of the church, which will exceptionally be open to the public on this occasion.
The main part of the exhibition will continue on the ground floor of the church. De Graef has installed 18 columns around the church, allowing you to see a smaller version of De Graef’s work as well as a projection of the work that Rubens created for the ground floor of the church at a glance.
Visitors to the church are drawn into the compelling biblical stories, which weave a narrative of redemption, faith, power and love, in the magnificent and unique setting of St. Charles Borromeo Church. Rubens’s dramatic, baroque renditions and De Graef’s pared down, graphic interpretations engage in a dialogue, adding a contemporary twist to these centuries-old stories.
With this installation De Graef wishes to help improve access to the church’s (disappeared) art treasures. He also wants to pave the way for a debate on whether the installation or large replicas or, better yet, interpretations by contemporary artists on the ceilings, would make the interior more dynamic, bringing it to life, as was originally intended.
More on the contemporary etchings
These contemporary etchings were mainly inspired by Rubens’s modelli or oil sketches. They also refer to the grisailles he created of this cycle of thirty-nine ceiling paintings, perhaps in preparation of the actual paintings. Grisailles are executed entirely in shades of grey to study the effects of light and shade in a painting, or its tonal values. De Graef chose etching as this art form highlights a relatively unknown side of Rubens, i.e., the painter as a copyist of his own work. Rubens routinely hired printmakers who produced prints of his work. By multiplying and widely distributing this graphic work, the master enhanced his fame as an influential painter.
De Graef has reprised this process with his etchings, in an homage to this great Antwerp baroque artist. He created eighteen line drawings, which are loosely inspired by the works of Rubens, which he etched in a zinc plate. He then digitally processed his reproductions of the modelli, to obtain abstract geometric compositions. Using the aquatint technique he then applied this second image over the line etching, after which he printed the resulting etched plate on an old gravure press in his studio.
De Graef’s work always focuses on drawing and elements such as reproductivity, positive-negative, chance and experimentation. In line with these ideas, he has created a new cycle, using an old etching technique that Rubens would have also been familiar with, combining zinc as a temporary metal medium with a specific type of printing paper as the final medium.