The triumph of painting

Forget video installations and performance art: the oldest medium is still the best, argues Richard

During the 1970s, restless young artists thrived on challenging the long-hallowed supremacy of painting. The heady avenues they opened up are still being explored today, but the allure of pigment, canvas and brush, suggests "Passion for Paint", the National Gallery's summer show, will never go away.

"Passion" is an apt name for this exploration of painting techniques across four centuries. Nothing could be more visceral than Rubens's panor amic tour de force Minerva Protects Pax from Mars (1629-30), which opens the show. A leading diplomat as well as an artist courted by monarchs across Europe, Rubens presented this colossal canvas to Charles I intending it as a crucial tool in the negotiations to secure a peace treaty between England and Spain.

Charles, an unusually discerning royal collector, must have been overwhelmed by the sensuous painting, in which Pax, an abundantly well-endowed female nude, proffers her milk-heavy breast to an eager infant. Nearby, a bearded satyr grins as he lets a cornucopia of fruit spill over cupids and children dressed in opulent, shimmering clothes. A tiger lolls beneath them, stretching out his claws to play with a heap of grapes. But the entire festive group seems oblivious of the turbulence beyond, where wise Minerva pushes away Mars, the god of war.

Extremes of sensuality and violence clash with each other in this painting, where Rubens's brush deals eloquently with joy and despair. He makes his pupil Anthony Van Dyck seem limited by comparison. Charles I may have doted on Van Dyck's ability to portray the English court in the most flattering light, yet the 1637 painting of Lady Elizabeth Thimbelby and her sister Dorothy is a bland affair. Dorothy, Viscountess Andover, receives a basket of roses from a simpering cupid in celebration of her marriage. But both sisters seem indifferent, as if blinded by a smug awareness of their own wealth and status. Van Dyck focuses all his technical skill on creating a skilful tribute to aristocratic glamour. His prowess is beyond dispute, yet I prefer the bracing vitality of Frans Hals.

Working around at the same time as Van Dyck, Hals attacks his canvas with astonishing verve. The unknown Dutchman who posed in 1633 swings his face towards us. Flushed cheeks add to the sense of excitement, and Hals clearly revels in conveying the exuberance of his sitter's frothing white ruff.

Almost 30 years later, Rembrandt's portrait of Margaretha de Geer boasts a white ruff of even more flamboyant proportions. He paints it with greater care and precision than Hals, yet the face above is handled in an astonishingly bold and broken manner. Margaretha, the matriarch of a wealthy Netherlands family, is approaching the end of her long life. Her haggard, wizened features seem about to dissolve in the surrounding darkness. Only the firmness of the ruff prevents her from disintegrating, and its robust bulk contrasts movingly with Margaretha's frailty.

The rule-breaking intensity of late Rembrandt still fascinates artists today. Frank Auerbach has been engaged throughout his career in a fruitful dialogue with Rembrandt's portraits, and Glenn Brown takes on both of them in his small, disconcerting painting called A Little Death (2000). It is as if Margaretha de Geer has re-emerged here as a ghost. Brown's brush strokes slide down the woman's face, neck and chest with eerie looseness. His thin lines of colour stream like liquid, while the airy blueness above invades her hair with sudden, unexpected brutality. Mouth parted, she seems beleaguered and startled. Although Brown's title is taken from the term for orgasm, she looks aghast.

The landscapes in this show are equally powerful. Visiting Weymouth Bay in 1816, Constable made a vigorous oil sketch on a piece of millboard. No hint of picturesque seaside clichés can be detected here. Constable vents his energy on the sky, where the clouds' dynamism is almost as disturbing as in Rubens's warning of war. A few years earlier, 200 people had perished off the shore in a catastrophic shipwreck. Constable admitted that a memory of this tragedy affected him while working on the Weymouth picture.

In a canvas by Turner, possibly painted near Margate around 1840, a solitary boat appears to be buffeted by the sea. One of his most abstract-seeming images, it places us deep among the waves. Breaking spray fills the painting with windswept swirlings. And the sky is charged with the same sense of elemental menace.

Just over a century later, in north Devon, the boldness of both Constable and Turner lies behind David Bomberg's impassioned response to a sunset spreading across Bideford Bay (1946). The Second World War has come to an end at last, and Bomberg rejoices in his ability to make a painting trip to the West Country.

The painter's elation can be felt in the streaks of orange pigment slipping and spreading across the smooth blue water. But Bomberg reserves the most overwhelming colours for the earth and sky, where he bounces deep emerald green off burgundy, indigo and violet. Very soon, the entire panorama will be enveloped by nightfall. Just in time, however, he has caught Bideford Bay in all its complexity. A brilliant Bomberg retrospective at Abbot Hall in Kendal reinforces the message of "Passion for Paint": artists show no sign of losing their fascination with this inexhaustible medium any time soon.

"Passion for Paint" is at the National Gallery, London WC2 until 17 September. For more details visit www.nationalgallery.org.uk. "David Bomberg: spirit in the mass" is at the Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal, Cumbria until 28 October. Details: 01539 722 464 or www.abbothall.org.uk

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