RUBENS AND HIS AGE at the Art Gallery of Ontario (317 Dundas West) to August 12. $15, stu/srs $12.50. 416-977-0414. Rating: NNNNN
div class="smallcaps">if you were planning to skip the
Art Gallery of Ontario's current show of 17th-century Flemish paintings on loan from the Hermitage, don't.
Not just because the AGO is the only gallery in the world to get it (the first of three shows in an exchange that's been in the works for years -- Canadian art goes to Russia in 2002), nor because some really major images by Rubens are leaving Russia for the first time since Catherine the Great bought them over 200 years ago.
Go for the audacious and awe-inspiring self-portrait Anthony van Dyck painted, probably while in Rome, when he was 23 years old.
The deceptively simple image is, in fact, a brilliant piece of self-promotion. The artist Rubens described as the best to come out of his studio, van Dyck ranks as one of the greatest portraitists ever. This piece, launching his solo career, showed off what he could do.
The watery reflections on his black silk jacket, the emotional complexity of his facial expression and the delicacy with which he has painted both hands are all there as proof that he had what it took to make a first-rate society portrait. And the rough swipes of white that make up the painter's shirt make it all very, very interesting. Van Dyck loved to play with abstraction.
An open declaration that he lived to serve, this work represents everything that was anathema to 20th-century art. Yet it remains utterly timeless.
Back before the Iron Curtain came down, this image alone would have made the trip to St. Petersburg worthwhile. Dundas is easier.