ART / Musing on Poussin

The artist Bridget Riley on the case of the missing Poussin
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The Independent Culture
Sadly, because it is too fragile to travel, The Inspiration of the Poet by Poussin could not be included in the exhibition of the artist's work at the Royal Academy in London. It seems a pity, however, to have to do without it altogether, especial ly as it is unique in Poussin's oeuvre. The painting is an early work, but marks in a grand and yet intimate way a turning point in Poussin's aspirations and approach.

In 1624 he arrived in Rome. After some initial setbacks he began to work in the prevailing style of his time; the ecstatic rhetorical manner of Baroque far presto (fast) painting. Eventually he succeeded, with canvases such as The Martyrdom of St Erasmus(1628), in drawing attention to his work. But about the time The Inspiration of the Poet was painted he seems to have undergone a crisis, the outcome of which was a radical change of direction. From around 1630 on, Poussin gradually emerges as the primeexample of the modern concept of the artist, that of a solitary figure ploughing his own furrow.

The painting is a credo: Poussin's statement about the making of a work of art - and maybe he felt a need to make such a declaration. The Inspiration of the Poet is, of course, the inspiration of all real artists. The mysterious figure in the centre of the composition is Apollo, so wrapped in shadow that one can barely distinguish details in his shape; only the light catching the lyre and falling across his cheek, forearm and leg allows one to form an idea of his monumental presence. But the young poet does not seem to even see him. His pose is that of someone searching for a word; someone with the alert, absent-minded look of a listener. And with charming irony Poussin shows a putto waving not one but two laurel wreaths, with yet another in reserve. The triumph of inspiration will be infinitely rewarding. But the question for the poet is: which way to go? Although the field in which inspiration works is boundless, it is always in itself singular and offers only one course; this is the dile mma.

Behind Apollo stands a distinguished Muse - perhaps that of epic poetry, as the three books at the god's feet seem to suggest. Although her glance shows her empathy with the poet, the Muse does not intervene or help because she is simply there, with her grace and beauty, to make him do his work. The real significance of the painting, however, is concentrated in Apollo himself. The movement of his whole body turns in an arc towards the young artist and, gazing steadily down at the open book, he points with an authoritative but gentle finger at the work to be done. Like the Muse, Apollo does not speak. He only indicates that art is a task to be carried out and that he who would be an artist must accept direction. But it is not the role of Apollo to revea l what that direction might be beyond it being somehow objective in character, rather than introspective. Matisse put it very beautifully and clearly when he said: "A talented artist cannot do just as he likes . . . We are not masters of what we produce.

It is imposed on us."

n At the RA, London W1 to 9 Apr