Great Works: Landscape with the Ashes of Phocion (1648), Nicolas Poussin

Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

The city plays many roles. It is hell. It is a fairground. It is a madhouse. It is a celestial palace. It is a great machine. That's the role it's given in Walter Ruttmann's 1927 silent film, Berlin: Symphony of a Great City. Though the metaphor is supposedly musical, the visual effect is more mechanical. A day in the life of the city is translated, not into a symphonic structure, but into a series of routines and reiterations.

Doors opening; vehicles moving; crowds passing; humans walking, working, eating, dancing; wheels turning; gadgets shuttling: all these behaviours, living or not, are repetitive, and in their repetition they all become equal and one, a single driving incessant operation. Even when individuals briefly emerge, the effect is only to stress the pattern. Through sheer accumulation, automatism becomes is a kind of grandeur. We're enlarged by the whole into which we're all incorporated.

Or take another city vision, this time a still image. Nicolas Poussin's Landscape with the Ashes of Phocion, though it's called a landscape, is obviously a townscape. It's an imaginary view, created by an artist living in 17th-century Rome, of an ancient Greek city-state. This city is Megara, and the ashes... but the story can wait. Most of the painting's "story" is in Poussin's construction of a civilisation. And Poussin is famous for his order.

A picture makes order with spatial devices: symmetry, centring, verticals, horizontals, parallels. Poussin's city uses them vigorously. A row of massive oaks, heavy with foliage, runs straight across the foreground. It's a high natural city wall planted alongside the actual low wall, a great shady barricade. But it has an opening. These guardian trees frame the city like a pair of curtains or wings. A road runs between them, coming from outside. Bracketed by the dark trees, the luminous city appears beyond, a composition of arches, pillars, squares, rectangles, diagonals – buildings that suggest a set of toy bricks.

But it's clear at once that Poussin's order is unlike Ruttman's. Berlin has a uniform repetitiveness. It's a process with no climax. Megara has a structure. It's ruled by a centre and a hierarchy. The façade of the classical temple looks straight out at us, pretty well from the middle. It is the face of the city, the focal point of the whole scene. But this temple isn't the culmination. Standing behind it, higher, there's a great wooded rock, its two jagged molar stumps emerging from the vegetation covering its base.

The city was founded here, presumably, because of this wild and sacred natural formation. And the rock is not simply the city's heart. It is the peak of a pyramidal form that rises up gradually on each side from the ground, and which shelters the town, and seems to touch the sky. Above it there's a third element, a solid and graceful crown of cloud. Temple, rock, cloud: they stand like a mysterious symbol, the vertical alignment that sustains the civilisation.

Having noticed this organisation, though, notice also that it's complicated. It's wrong to overstress it. The scene has clear regularities, so it is tempting – for the sake of drama – to call it strictly regimented. You can say: the temple is dead centre, the city rises as a symmetrical pyramid, the wings of trees make a symmetrical frame, the temple-rock-cloud stands like a perfect vertical column.

But not quite. While the picture is on the verge of these geometries, it carefully avoids them. Its potential centring, symmetry, verticals, are shifted a step to the left. The design of Poussin's Megara may be more hierarchic that Ruttmann's Berlin. It's much less rigid too.

Within this structure, the life of the city freely flourishes. If you let your eye move among the specks of humanity that inhabit the flat ground and the heights, you pick up constant activity: walking, talking, reading, music, shooting at a target, swimming... and there's always another, smaller speck to notice. It's meant to be a little hard to take in. That is the measure of its freedom.

It's not a world where every inhabitant is being arranged into a visible pattern. Its life is going on regardless, going on without you. You, as you look at this scene, are an outsider, remote from the bright city and its happy pursuits, beyond the wall, in the deep shadow of the oaks.

In other words, it's a picture about exile. And this is where the story comes in. Phocion, an Athenian general, was falsely condemned and executed, and his unburied corpse banished, and taken to the outskirts of Megara, where it was burnt. At the very front, his faithful widow gathers his ashes. Her servant keeps lookout. The outcasts are directly below the mighty nucleus of temple-rock-cloud.

But nothing in the scene indicates that the civilisation from which they're excluded is itself evil or oppressive, that they're well out of it. No, their exile from the good life is sheer tragedy. This city is a symphony, and it continues behind them undiminished.

About the artist

Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) is known as the most cerebral of painters. When the sculptor Bernini looked at his work, he remarked: "Mr Poussin is a painter who works from up here", tapping his forehead. Poussin, born in France, operated mostly from Rome. His painted "high" subjects – from the Bible, classical legend, ancient history, epic poetry. He constructed his scenes using model theatres, paying great attention to their visual and symbolic plotting. These were images for private study, for an intellectual elite, not public works for church or state. But their patient deliberation can accumulate into to a massive force, and they're capable of articulating the most violent emotions. A mouth in a Poussin painting was a crucial inspiration to Francis Bacon's screams. His work was much collected in Britain, and is well represented in the National Galleries of London and Edinburgh.

Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

Arts and Entertainment
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform