Nicolas Poussin defines himself as “I who make a profession of silent things”. He painted the most famous gravestone in art – the one inscribed “Et in Arcadia ego” – and its figures can be as stony as the ancient statuary that inspired them. How to give life to this mysterious painter of the most refined, of austere beauty?
The exhibition of the first works of the National Gallery, Chick and dancing, is a little wonder – a rarity and a revelation. He tells how, newly arrived in Rome after two unsuccessful attempts to get there, and moved by the luminosity, the scenography and the sources of the city, the 30-year-old Frenchman painted the movement, in flesh and blood, the ephemeral pleasure , with exuberance, free manipulation. and a poetic impulse that broke into Italian mannerism and set the agenda for a renewed classicism. The exhibition invites us to see Poussin in the manner of Eugène Delacroix: as “one of the greatest innovators”.
A monumental Greek vase engraved with singing relief figures of Hermes, nymphs, satyrs and maenads is breathtaking as you enter the exhibition; visiting London from the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, he evokes the thrill Poussin experienced upon encountering antiquity firsthand in the 1620s.
Two ecstatic responses flank this sparkling marble. In Prado’s “Bacchus and Ariadne” (1625-1626), the god of wine lifts the besieged princess in his chariot, pulled by lions, followed by a procession of whirling women and mischievous fauns. It’s loud, delusional, lustful – William Hazlitt considered Poussin’s devious satyrs “more secretly depraved” than those of voluptuous Rubens – but backed by a tight structure: controlled chaos.
Hanging opposite, “The Realm of Flora” (1630-31), by Dresden, is so delicately performed that it is shocking to realize that it is a waltz of death. The goddess, in her pergola-enclosed garden, dances recklessly, sprinkling color in glittery drops, while Ajax falls on his sword to turn into a hyacinth, Narcissus perishes admiring his reflection in a vase and Clytie, lover of the god sun Apollo, pine trees far away in a sunflower. The theme is mutability, with mortals metamorphosing into flowers; the pathos is in the clarity and grace of the characters’ movement, their unfathomable, almost proper expressions, something like polite surprise mingled with grief, as they meet death. An ethereal golden atmosphere bathes everything in a calm, even glow, seeming to defy the tale of ephemeral and decadence.
Time, with its ambiguities and our struggle to understand it, is still Poussin’s subject. In “A Bacchanalian Revel Before a Term” (1632), the statue of the horned fertility god Priapus smiles at lustful revelers as if coming to life, abandoning his stone silence. The effect is strange – like Don Giovanni‘s marbled commendatore suddenly pronouncing in the cemetery. Poussin also holds life and death in balance in “Revel”. Around the statue, the bound arms of the dancers reflect the overlapping tree trunks behind them – these are forces of nature and sex, the red satyr contrasting brightly against the porcelain complexion of the girls.
These confident and complex compositions have brought Poussin prestigious patrons. In 1636, Cardinal Richelieu commissioned three sumptuously detailed comedies, the paintings “Triumph” recounting the victories of the player Pan, of old Silenus – naked, bald, drunk, slumped to put his foot on a tiger – and the exotic Bacchus. , celebrating the conquest of India in a noisy parade watched over by a river god basking on the banks of the Indus. The National Gallery owns the first two and has borrowed the third: a trio of worldly paintings of harmonized delusional energy.
They stand alongside the antiques, on loan from the Louvre, which fascinated the Poussin generation: “The Borghese Vase”, adorned with a Dionysian procession, and the Roman relief known as “The Borghese Dancers”. The juxtapositions allow to see how Poussin animated the Greco-Roman frieze, exploring the expressive potential of moving bodies in different mediums: in fluid ink drawings – the leaping energy of “A Dance Before a Herm of Pan” , the comic “Satyrs Dancing on a Wine Skin” – and also in tiny wax models exploring pose and gesture, then composing movement in chains of twisted painted figures as in “Triumphs”.
The triumph is also that of the profane classicism of Poussin, of old regime frivolity contained by ordinance, of the state power of Richelieu. Richelieu brings Poussin back to France, with a lasting impact on the history of art: the construction line of Jacques-Louis David, Jean Auguste-Dominique Ingres and Paul Cézanne (who wanted to “make Poussin from nature”) and the lyrical charge dear to romantic modernizers from Delacroix to Cy Twombly, who said: “I would have liked to be Poussin”.
Another cardinal, Giulio Rospigliosi, poet, librettist for the Barberini theater and later Pope Clement IX, commissioned “A dance on the music of time” (1634-1636), and dictated his iconography of dance as a metaphor for the circle of life. In the 1800s, the image was in France and titled “La Danse des Saisons, or the Image of Human Life”. Framed by Father Time with his lyre, and putti blowing bubbles and holding an hourglass, the tenderly erotic dancers are characterized by Poverty (a nostalgic gaze), Work (resolutely determined, in red), Wealth (haughty / serene, in gold) and Pleasure (a red and complicit gaze), and together represent the progression of human life.
This rhythmic masterpiece, on loan for the first time by the Wallace Collection in London, is the highlight of the exhibition, suspended splendidly and alone in the final gallery. It forms a threshold between the precocious and mature Chick: in the lightness of the touch, the elegant design, the contemplative aspect, the chromatic modulations and the emerging light of dawn, “Dance” brings to its peak the style he has developed in Rome, while a certain composure, restraint and fatalism portends its subsequent manner. The dance spins, a continuum of joy against the inevitability of the passing hours, days and seasons, and takes on its own momentum – the dancers, controlled by the melody rather than controlling it, form a motif and a spectacle at- beyond their own desires.
As he grew older, Poussin distilled and calmed his vivid orchestrations of movement into stoic, mysterious and cerebral paintings. Art historian Anthony Blunt (and one of Cambridge’s Five Spies) argued that for the older Chick, “the pure rhythm of the dance was not rational enough.” Yet the play of animation and frozen moments as mastered in dance footage informed everything to come.
The stopped / alive postures of the shepherds stunned by the concept of death in “Et in Arcadia Ego” by the Louvre (1637-38), also commissioned by Rospigliosi, follow “A dance on the music of time”. And a coda of this exhibition is “Landscape with a man killed by a snake” (1648), exhibited in the permanent collection of the National Gallery (room 29), where the zigzag of small figures – man fleeing ballet, washerwoman making a gesture alarm, in turn arousing astonished fishermen – transforms an idyllic pastoral into one of art’s defining images of terror. In the choreography of the movement, Poussin delineated the emotion and the very texture of thought – sober, truthful and eloquent.
As of January 2, 2022, national gallery.co.uk
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