A young and light look on the French painter

“A Bacchanalian Revel Before a Term” (The National Gallery)

Drunken nymphs ride goats and fend off the attentions of amorous satyrs while a shepherd comes out with a woman with goat’s legs. Male and female centaurs wank a donkey with sticks, while a flute player gazes out from a sea of ​​twisted, sun-scorched flesh, inviting us to join this orgiastic feast in the hills outside Rome. Welcome to the first “savage” works of Nicolas Poussin, the most improbable artist of division in all of Western canon.

Born in Normandy in 1594, Poussin is certainly one of the great names in art, particularly revered in his native France, even if he had not the slightest interest in France or being French. Obsessed from an early age by the art of classical Antiquity, he moved to Rome, the capital of the Renaissance and the ancient world, as soon as possible, and remained there all his life, except for a brief stay in France. . While the practice of painting from nature was by this time well established, Poussin maintained an unconditional classical position in which the sculpture of ancient Greece and Rome represented the only valid standard of truth and beauty.

Far from being considered an anachronism, Poussin remained one of the dominant figures in Western art for two good centuries, his awe-inspiring religious and mythological scenes of steel inspiring not only generations of academic painters, but modern masters. of the order of Cézanne, Picasso and Francis Bacon. For most of us, however, Poussin’s impeccably tidy paintings have an alienation that makes them hard to like. They seem to be the sort of grand and dignified old art that we know we should be able to appreciate, but tend to pass too quickly when we visit our main galleries. There has not been a major Poussin exhibition in Britain for 20 years.

This exhibition at national gallery, however, wants to show us a younger, lighter Poussin, focusing on a period of 10 years after his arrival in Rome in 1624, at the age of 30, when he painted a series of works on this that the show calls “the dance”. Drawing on the National’s important Poussin collection – the second largest in the world after the Louvre – and enriched with select loans, the exhibition argues that before settling into a life of serious religious and mythological painting, Poussin has sown his artistic wild oats in images of bawdy bacchanal festivities, all drunken nymphs and half-cut satyrs in the Arcadian groves.

Poussin’s source for these cheerful, uninhibited studies of human movement was not, of course, actual human movement, but classical sculpture, and the exhibition does the considerable job of showing us some of the actual works he is dealing with. was inspired. Borghese dancers, a 2nd century CE marble frieze from the Louvre, embodies the ancient idea of ​​dance expressing the passage of time and the patterns of the seasons and the heavens. The five female figures seem to twist and twirl on the marble slab, their hands tied, an undulating drape that enhances the sensation of a graceful and rhythmic flow.

The figures sculpted around a colossal marble jar from Naples evoke a completely different conception of dance: to get out of it. Rendered in extraordinarily vivid detail, despite their bruised state, these followers of the wine god Bacchus represent both the violence of the natural world – a male figure sports a lion’s skin torn from the living animal – and the drunken ecstasy of the ancient pagan rites.

To the seventeenth-century mind, just about any excess was permitted in art provided it could be justified by the scholarly interpretation of mythology. Poussin’s dance paintings are therefore a kind of post-Renaissance rave art in which the artist, as well as the cardinals and princes who bought his paintings, were able to let themselves go through transgressive imagery that had been validated. safely through high culture.

'The Borghese Dancers' (RMN-Grand Palais)

‘The Borghese Dancers’ (RMN-Grand Palais)

The first paintings here are a left touch. Bacchus and Ariadne (1625-6), strongly influenced by Titian, who drew a lot from the observed reality, has an attractive and raw quality: the painting has degraded with time, so that the crowd of naked satyrs appear as a mass of raw red muscles and thighs. a stormy deep blue sky. Six years later, in The kingdom of flora, it has evolved in a more pedantic and classic direction. The figures, all taken from sculptural models, seem too obviously designed in isolation and then nested around each other, so there is little sense of human interaction; the faces wear generic and insipid expressions, as if Poussin was more interested in showing off his knowledge of mythology than in emotionally engaging the viewer.

Through A Bacchic delight before a trimester (1622-1633), however, Poussin entered his oscillating Terpsichorian stride. If trying to evoke the spontaneity of human movement from a rigid sculpture seems utterly perverse, the results here are far from triumphant. A dancer finds time to squeeze grapes into a bowl held by a chubby child, as she and her group of sun-tanned satyrs – all clearly in plaster – are caught in a merry whirlwind. The scene, like all of these dance paintings, is bathed in the evening light of the countryside, the rugged terrain around Rome, the pathos of the setting sun offset by a hint of thunderous turbulence. It is an effect that becomes intensely dramatic in The worship of the golden calf, probably the largest painting in the exhibition.

The arrangement of the dancers in the previous painting is seen here upside down, in the figures frolicking around the idol of the Golden Calf, worshiped by the unfaithful Israelites as Moses retrieves the tablets of the law from Mt. Sinai. There is a truly symphonic tension between the cheerful figures of the pagan dancers – at which the pious Poussin should in principle be dismayed – and the pointing crowd to the right, with the white-robed and highly ambivalent figure of Moses’ brother Aaron, appearing to be running events from the center.

'A dance to the music of time' (The Trustees of the Wallace Collection)

‘A Dance to the Music of Time’ (The Trustees of the Wallace Collection)

The classic arrangement of the “frieze” is taken to absurd extremes in three paintings commissioned by Cardinal Richelieu, the real model of the sinister politician of The three Musketeers, with the foreground middle of each painting crammed with a crazy melee of half-naked figures unleashed. Here, the dance is abandoned in favor of drunkenness, although the facial expressions remain strangely bland. The smiles kind of feel stuck together; a leopard-clad woman riding a towering centaur looks oddly indifferent, as if she doesn’t care whether she is there or not.

In these paintings, Poussin offers us the spectacle rather than the real drama. We watch fascinated, amused, maybe slightly horrified, but we don’t identify with the action. It is as if invoking a real human emotion was to risk breaking the mythological spell.

The final and most famous painting A dance to the music of time, on loan from the Wallace Collection, with its four characters with enigmatic smiles symbolizing the stages of life, concludes a captivating exhibition that left me much more excited by Poussin than I ever imagined possible, and eager to see much more of his work, especially his dark and mysterious late landscapes.

Despite all the National’s attempts to reinvent Poussin as a young rebellious baroque artist, he remains impenetrable. There is something unmistakably difficult and emotionally distant about Poussin’s paintings, an awkwardness on the spectrum beneath the superficial elegance, which is both off-putting and eerily compelling. It is precisely this quality that could make the Father of French academic painting an unlikely artistic hero for our troubled times.

Chick and the Dance run to the national gallery from October 9 to January 2

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