A Well-Intentioned Poussin Show Almost Gets it Right

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Nicolas Poussin presents something of an art historical anomaly; Normandy born and trained in Paris, during the height of French Baroque frippery he was instead in Rome producing studiously controlled, tonally muted history paintings drawn from the language of the innumerable classical sources around him. His figures are so uniformly impassive in expression, compositions so poised and frozen rather than playing out a narrative, that without a base knowledge of classicism and its tropes his work can often be impenetrable to the casual viewer. By choosing instead to focus on the animated, relatable element of dance in his images, Poussin and the Dance not only circumvents yet another re-tread of Poussin and classicism, but allows curator Dr. Francesca Whitlum-Cooper to claim a “first ever” exhibition showing Poussin in “a new light,” that provides a point of entry into his work. These enthusiastic claims however spill over into captioning which at best overstates his importance — right off the bat he is called “the single most important French painter before the Impressionists.” This is debatable in itself and at worst performs linguistic sleight of hands to imply seriously dubious links. Such troublesome captioning repeatedly mars an otherwise honorably meant show.

An age-old issue facing curators is how to demonstrate the “influence” of one artistic source in (an)other artist(s) work. The simplest way often used in the discipline of art history is to present examples which, side by side, exhibit clear resemblance in a specific way. Harder to demonstrate is a general pictorial language absorbed and used by the artist in focus. Two enormous antique kraters, the “Gaeta Vase” (1st Century BCE) from the National Archaeological Museum in Naples and the “Borghese Vase” (1st Century BCE) from the Louvre, Paris, are present at surely enormous trouble and expense. The slippery wording of the caption for the Gaeta vase suggests a specific pictorial connection with the surrounding examples of Poussin’s work where there is none provable: “The heady celebrations on this vase had a profound impact on Poussin’s art. He may have seen it in the cathedral of Gaeta … or studied drawings of it.”. The writer leaves deliberately unclear whether the “heady celebrations” are general ones, or those depicted on this specific vase, which we have no proof Poussin actually saw. Does that he “may” have seen it justify its being here?

The Gaeta Vase in room one of Poussin and the Dance

Elsewhere, more distractingly, we are encouraged to compare specific figures shown on the Borghese Vase directly with those seen amongst the sprawling bodies in Poussin’s work, despite their being common classical tropes: a falling satyr in his “Triumph of Pan” (1636) and a woman with tambourine which is apparently “directly quoted” in Triumph of Bacchus (1635–1636). We are encouraged to play a kind of Where’s Waldo, seeking out the figures the curator uses to support her direct link to this vase. The caption again implies an unprovable association: “This vase was famous in Poussin’s day and was among those antiquities he most admired,” according to what evidence?

Where we have a definitive source of influence present, such as the Borghese Dancers which early Poussin biographers establish that he visited repeatedly, we can clearly see both types of influence it had on his work: that of direct quotation of content and figures, and general absorption of spirit. Not only does Poussin directly quote the dancing women holding hands in a horizontal link flowing through them across the pictorial plane in his “Dance to the Music of Time,” (1634–1636) but we can also clearly see how he interpreted the rhythmic articulation of the classical frieze into a painterly format. Indeed, the dancers divide up the marble at regular intervals, simultaneously frozen in their “moving” positions, drapery billowing in patterns with a regularity that makes the composition resemble musical notation.

A relief depicting five dancers, representing the Hours, the goddesses of time in Greek Mythology, accompanied by the Graces before a Portico (the Borghese Dancers) (2nd century CE) originally found in Rome, Italy, on loan from the Louvre Museum, Paris, France

These elements characterize most strongly Poussin’s method of composition — rather than imbuing his scenes with high and low points of focal interest and a “narrative,” instead I see the paintings as a scene frozen in time, populated by regularly spaced limbs and bodies frozen in a “moving” pattern across its surface. In this way I can understand how in restraining the palette to a narrow tonal spectrum of muted ochres and earthy reds, as well as giving every character an impassive expression devoid of highlighting drama (traits which I again argue alienate the casual viewer), the figures serve to articulate this uniform, contained painting surface, so that it is like something akin to a sheet of music, representing and containing movement via symbols and pattern. In this instance, the exhibition succeeds in using dance as a way into understanding Poussin.

In another attempt to bring excitement to exploring Poussin’s working method, much is made of his use of wax maquettes in preparation for composing larger paintings. Given the lack of extant examples, contemporary artists Andrew Lacey and Sian Lewis have been commissioned to make wax figurines in the positions detailed in Poussin’s drawings. Presumably the artists’ impressions are intended to help bring to life this intermediary step between drawing and painting, yet it is irrelevant to art historical accuracy and feels — especially when an entire connecting room has a single wax figurine rotating in a glass cabinet — more here to fill the space.

A rotating wax maquette by Andrew Lacey and Sian Lewis (2021)

This exhibition is a valiant attempt to break into Poussin’s staunchly academic oeuvre and provide a relatable point of entry, highlighting the exciting elements of revelry and movement despite impenetrable and unemotional rendering. Whether this focus on dance, is a “first ever” is moot since it is by nature impossible to examine Poussin’s work without still considering classical motifs. Presenting the Borghese Dancers from the Louvre is the show’s strongest point and does well illustrating how music and rhythm are key to unlocking Poussin’s paintings. Bending the art historical rules in the captions to suit the curator’s needs throughout the rest of the show perhaps indicates how tough a task it has been making Poussin accessible.

Poussin and the Dance continues through January 2, 2022 at the National Gallery (Trafalgar Square, London, UK.). It was curated by Dr. Francesca Whitlum-Cooper.

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