Mind over manner: Exhibition

Poussin is much more than an artist of convention. A new show at the Royal Academy reveals him to be one of the great philosophers of art

Tim Hilton
Sunday 22 January 1995 00:02

RICHARD VERDI, the admirable Director of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts at the University of Birmingham, is the man who has decided to bring a fresh view of Nicolas Poussin to the late 20th century. Three years ago he organised "Cezanne and Po ussin: the Classical Vision of Landscape" at the Scottish National Gallery. The show emphasised a connection that's often made, but never before with so many actual paintings by these masters hanging side by side. And now it's Verdi's catalogue of the gr eat Poussin exhibition at the Royal Academy that encourages us to look at the painter in a modern way.

His text replaces the numerous essays in the French catalogue when the show was at the Louvre. The RA exhibition is smaller than its French version, for none of Poussin's drawings are shown. The result is none the less compelling: never before have we been given such an account of this traditional artist's individuality. Verdi sometimes talks of Poussin as though he were a phenomenon of 20th-century art - one of those painters driven by personal needs and problems. Look, he says, how interesting that a quarter of Poussin's total output of 200 paintings contain water: the theme must have to do with the flowing nature of life and a wish to be cleansed from the venereal infection that he suffered around 1630. This is unconvincing. Practically all the paintings by Poussin's contemporary, Claude, shown at the National Gallery last year had water in them, so what does that prove?

Mainly that Claude was an artist of convention and habit. So also was Poussin, to a much lesser extent. In his case, love of disciplined conventions led to a severe and noble introspection without parallel in 17th-century Roman and French art. One feels

the growth of this introspective attitude while walking through the Royal Academy galleries, which rather unusually are arranged in an anti-clockwise sequence. First, Poussin is the youngish (aged 30) painter who arrived in Rome in 1624 to find an array of influences, some contradictory, in the emerging Baroque style. Then, after about 1633, he fashions his own version of classical art and begins to think of landscape as a vehicle for his austere ruminations on nature. Then follow

galleries devoted to the two sets of paintings on the subject of the Seven Sacraments. These were his principal occupation between the mid-1630s and the late 1640s. In a further room are four awesome paintings that illustrate the life of Christ. Finally , in the Academy's huge central gallery, are Poussin's last landscapes.

Here the artist went beyond introspection. One is tempted to call the landscapes other-worldly, except that they are about human destiny in the world that we believe we know. They are the work of a tragedian. Claude's landscapes are by contrast merely enchanting. Even without knowing the subject matter of the paintings, the purely visual power of this exhibition would convince us that we are in the company of one of the philosophers of art. And besides Verdi's texts we can study the conclusions of the art historian most convinced by Poussin's thought, Anthony Blunt. His Nicolas Poussin, first published in 1967 and long unavailable, is now reissued (Pallas Athene, £24.95). Here we find Blunt's belief that Poussin's brush was obedient, as it were, to hisintellect. This view is challenged nowadays. People say that Blunt undervalued Poussin's passions and his artistic expressiveness. Maybe; but my first impression from this retrospective is that Poussin's mind forced him to become a better artist.

Hand and eye were subject to his relentless thought. Poussin never had the temperament that allowed painterly effects to flow from his imagination. Even when his pictures are fullest, in his earlier years, Poussin added to his canvases without being moregenerous to the spectator. For a decade and more his pictures suffered because he put too many figures in them. Sometimes this abundance is controlled, as in Bacchanal before a Herm of 1634. But the Triumph of Pan of the following year is overloaded. Bacchanal subjects were in general not suited to Poussin's inherent taste. Pleased though one is to see The Kingdom of Flora, borrowed from Dresden, the painting's general aspect is ludicrous. It represents all the characters in Ovid's Metamorphoses who were transformed into flowers. No doubt this is significant, but classical learning cannot guarantee the aesthetic success of a painting.

More impressive is the 1631 Tancred and Borenius, one of a group of paintings that have come from Russia and have not been seen in western Europe since the 18th century. This picture (and its successor with the same title of a few years later) has taken

a grip of its emotional tone. This was not so of Poussin's large decorative schemes in his initial period. He lacked not only sensuality but the grace that accompanies creative improvisation. The lightsome side of pastoral was beyond him. Furthermore, p u blic and grandiose works like The Rape of the Sabines and The Capture of Jerusalem by Titus are damaged by over-stiff bearing and excessive complexity. Titian, Raphael, the Carracci and numerous others lie behind Poussin's art. Certainly he is the painte r of tradition. None the less he is most commanding when he begins to be self-enclosed. This was personal and emotional, part of the dark mood of the paintings. It's also a matter of genre. In his two series of The Seven Sacraments Poussin began to paint interiors. Obviously he was suited to paintings that bore down on grave, indoor subjects. I regret that he did not paint more of them. I also regret that we do not have more self-portraits: interiors of the personality. Poussin recorded his own features only twice. He scarcely looked at all at anyone else's personal characteristics. The nature of his art could scarcely abide the unpredictability of other people. Men and women creep into his painting in something like normal guise in the marvellous Eliezer and Rebecca of 1648. Otherwise they are only tokens of his metaphysic.

He profoundly distrusted naturalism. For an understanding of Poussin's beliefs one must still turn to Blunt's book. However, the final landscapes are sometimes so weird that they are beyond explanation. This is particularly so of the Landscape with Orionand the depictions of The Four Seasons. Blunt says that they show a "fundamental conception of the sun as the source of all life and energy, and of nature as the supreme force, in comparison with which man is a miserable and puny being. In this belief Poussin would have seen a modern adaptation of the doctrines of his beloved Stoic philosophers." Verdi is not cowed by this pronouncement. Instead he quotes Hazlitt on the Orion painting, thus bringing it within the realm of poetry as well as philosophy.

! Royal Academy, W1 (071-439 7438) until 9 April.

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