Peter Paul Rubens: The Return from War (detail), Getty Museum, Los Ángeles (2017). (This work of art is in the public domain)
The painting above by Rubens depicts two mythological Roman gods: Mars and Venus, also known as Aphrodite and Ares, in the Greek mythology. The candid, casual viewer will likely find that this image -so carefully crafted- is strong and powerful . On one hand, Mars, coming back from battle, still wearing his armor and his dusty sandals. On the other hand, Venus, pristine and sensual, helping him to unwind after a difficult day. Mars is indeed disarmed by Venus, not only in a literal sense but also in an allegorical manner. The contrast between the two characters is striking and yet complementary. This work of art has been studied by scholars and much have been written on it. Yet, I am here after the reaction that this painting -and many others- creates on the unprepared museum visitor.
Paintings have the power of blowing up people’s minds. Paintings may -and often do- stir emotions, sensations and feelings in those who spend time contemplating the art. It is hard to pinpoint what is it in the painting that is causing all this upheaval. It is difficult to put your finger on what generates an interest, much less determine why it is happening. I can almost bet that the magic of a good painting works at a subconscious level. The casual spectator may know nothing about the painting, its author or even the story being depicted or the story behind the creation of the work of art. All of that isn’t that important. What is important is that visual arts have this enormous power to make an impression on random people, if only those people open up to the experience.
Yes, knowledge enhances the visual arts experience. It makes it more enjoyable. It is great to know about Mars and Venus and the opponent forces of war and Eros. It is great to know about Rubens, his little tricks and techniques. But knowledge is not essential when it comes to art. We may even leave all that knowledge to the scholars. And let ourselves be disarmed by the power of sensual shapes, outrageous characters and mysterious colors *