Peter Paul Rubens
A path bordered by trees
Flemish, 17th century
The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
... AS SEEN BY JOHN HUBBARD
‘In art, the term ancient and modern have no place.’ I’m sure most artists would acknowledge the truth of this aphorism and the fact that it was written over 1,500 years ago (by the Chinese master Hsieh Ho) underlines its durability. Today, we perhaps tend to overemphasise ‘originality’, often forgetting that we may have failed to recognise its source. Over and over again, artists refresh themselves with visual material from any number of sources: other cultures, nature, science and the new technologies. Equally, an iconic image such as the Virgin’s face can be depicted over and over again without becoming trite, provided that each variation possesses a truly individual perception.
Let me quote from what I wrote in 1989 about my eight variations on Rubens’s drawing A path bordered with trees: ‘I find myself returning time and again to this ink and wash drawing. It has several interesting features: it is in excellent condition; its means are simple but its effect is rich; spatially it divides into four roughly equal vertical sections which are given an odd twist by the abrupt conclusion of the wash ground on the right. Initially, it was this curious sense of space that intrigued me, as well as the receding path, a motif I have always found appealing.’
I became so infatuated with this image as well as finding increasing rapport with it that, after completing the eight drawings, I continued to make further improvisation in charcoal and watercolour of his small painting Landscape with moon and stars in the Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery in London, several of the engravings after Rubens by the Bolswert brothers and his drawings of a small bridge in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Although Rubens has been my boon companion, I’ve also made drawings after Palmer, Corot and Cezanne; and, most recently, a largish group after Leonardo’s Deluge Series in the Royal Collection. Working repeatedly in an artist’s wake is like having a conversation with him, perhaps one-sided but deeply intense. In a recent letter, a friend wrote: ‘I did not realise how much of oneself becomes involved with the works we draw from. How a drawing from Poussin or Goya becomes another kind of self-portrait.’
I feel the key to this concept of a self-portrait is that there must be some degree of mutual affinity. One can admire another artist’s work but any attempt at paraphrasing it or producing a homage falls flat if there is no true affinity. If there is sufficient common ground (across time), the act of ‘drawing from’ feeds back into one’s own mind, and therefore one’s work, increasing depth and making one more sensitive in the study of natural subject-matter. It enlarges both mind and means. I certainly found that to be true with my Rubens variations and, more recently, with Leonardo’s Deluges. There is another, more romantic, aspect to this: the sense of almost being ‘in league’ with a heroic figure from another age can create a true synthesis of ancient and modern.
John Hubbard (b. 1931)
Born in Connecticut in 1931, John Hubbard was educated at Harvard University. He then completed three years of military service, based in Japan. Following his return to the USA in 1956, Hubbard studied at the Art Students League of New York and with the Abstract Expressionist painter Hans Hoffman. He then moved to Rome, painted in Italy and travelled across Europe. In 1961, Hubbard married and settled near Bridport in Dorset.
A visiting teacher at Camberwell School of Art in London from 1963 to 1965, Hubbard started to design and paint for various ballet companies in the late 1960s. Amongst the most noteworthy of his stage designs are the costumes and décor for Le Baiser de la Fee for the Dutch National Ballet in Amsterdam in 1968, the costumes and décor for Midsummer for the Royal Ballet in London in 1983, and the back-cloth for Sylvia for the Royal Ballet in London in 1985. A guest artist at the National Gallery of Malaysia in 1990, he also designed a series of batik hangings, still on display in Kuala Lumpur. At the same time, Hubbard also increasingly showed in group and solo exhibitions in Britain and abroad. In 1985, he showed in a major solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford and, in 1986, in another major solo exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut. Awarded the Jerwood Prize in 1996, Hubbard was invited to exhibit Eight Variations on a Drawing by Rubens at the Fitzwilliam Museum in 1998. His work can be seen in prominent public collections such as the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Fitzwilliam Museum, the National Gallery of Malaysia, the National Gallery of Victoria, the Philadelphia Museum of Fine Arts, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, the Tate Gallery and the Yale Centre of British Art.
John Hubbard lives and works in Dorset.