TThe scene: a chain of dancers in a clearing, Roman robes billowing under a sky torn between sunlight and fierce darkness. A man jumps, two women spin, a third opens her arms in an elegant arabesque. There’s ballet and a raucous Scottish wobble. It is almost impossible to see whose hand is attached to whom, or to whom each of the magnificently painted feet belongs: getting up, falling, tiptoeing, pointing, landing hard on ancient land.
You follow the hands as signs, from one figure to another. Count the feet through your rhythmic tattoo. The image choreographs the eye, moving it around and around and eventually sideways towards the crowd of Israelites on the right, faithlessly worshiping a solid gold calf. Except that Poussin paints a bull on a large scale, raising a menacing helmet on the pedestal. Even the statue participates in their violent dance.
Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) is not generally known as a painter of movement as much as his opposite: a serene and frozen stasis. His reputation as one of the most disciplined and intellectual artists of all artists was already established when he made The adoration of the golden calf for a pattern in Rome, around 1634, and has never changed since.
Poussin had long since left his native France, despising French painters as strapazzoni, simplistic tricks that “make a game of taking a picture in 24 hours”, as he wrote. Pictorial truth can only be distilled from intense and prolonged reflection. Compositions had to be tested, rehearsed over and over with wax figures in toy theaters. Even the most hasty action is marked by stillness and meditation, each figure is given a pristine uniqueness. His art requires you to stop and think, too: watch, learn, and slowly absorb his strange dramas.
Then Poussin and the dance it’s counterintuitive, at least, for the first retrospective here in nearly 30 years. Cheerful, naughty and surprisingly funny – that’s the optimistic line of the National Gallery. We should think of Poussin as sultry and sensual, all wine and exaggerated women and movements, a kind of seductive precursor to Renoir and his balls. at the Moulin de la Galette.
Look at all those spinning tambourines and robes, those trembling nymphs with their hair down, all those off-the-shoulder dresses and naked musicians and drunken pas de deux. It is Montmartre in Rome. Monsieur Poussin is a riot.
This is nonsense, of course. Certainly the show focuses on paintings involving dance: classical scenes of gods and their followers, specifically Bacchus and his entourage of hairy centaurs and pig-eared satyrs, naked nymphs, and the fat old Silenus, with one leg hanging from his neck. of a leopard like grape leaves. the musicians play the pan flutes. Given the emphasis, you soon begin to notice individual dancers: the girl swaying to the rhythm of the trance music, as it seems, with her arms above her head; the couple in a Charleston sidewalk; the resemblance to Isadora Duncan, striking an arms-extended pose. But it would be an exaggeration to describe all of this as surprisingly funny.
Nobody looks A bacchanal delight before a period and think what a happy occasion. One cherub is face down in a stone basin, another falling drunk. The nymph on the right has completely collapsed, succumbing to a rapacious red satyr. The term is a hideous statue: armless, horned, and with the kind of open mouth you see in a fountain, its smile as wise as its empty eyes. When the music stops, we all fall.
What is striking about this image is not an abandonment to madness, but Poussin’s extraordinarily precise conceptual engineering. The linked figures twist and turn throughout the composition like elements of a great machine. A machine that connects everything that will happen with the nymph fallen in time, with her counterpart at the other end, squeezing grapes into the bowl of a cherub. And so it begins …
Poussin – big foot man – it establishes the feet so solidly that you feel its supporting force on the ground. Pointed, extended, raised, stumbling, shown behind and below, below arch and above toes. Once the curators have abandoned the pretext of joy, they delve into Poussin’s imagination and method. Its wax dolls, flexible when heated, have been recreated on a turntable, so you can see how you could observe your feet from all angles and throughout the day, as well as twisting, lifting, and shading.
In Rome, Poussin stayed with a stonemason and peered at newly discovered classical fragments, specifically a frieze of Cardinal Borghese, from which he draws a young dancer with a Grace Kelly nose, and a gigantic marble vase with figures in Keatsian persecution. . It’s right here, in all its tonnage; You surround him like he did.
So these fountains are sculptural, just like the wax figures he made. Poussin’s radical solution to the ancient enigma of painting, how to represent the three-dimensional world in two dimensions, is to introduce an intermediate stage, animating these little models. The figures in his paintings are technically in motion (the jeté, the arabesque, the revolving circle) and yet fascinatingly immobile. His frozen ballet is the greatest in art.
And it has such a poetic purpose. What appears to be the classic Bacchic festival of prancing and revelry takes on a darker force when its constituent parts are isolated and immobilized. The dance becomes an orgy, a rape, a rape. The movement turns to stillness, the cacophony to sudden silence. It is the paradox of Poussin’s painting and his gift.
This slow and deliberate arrangement of anatomies, details, buildings and objects against Poussin’s almost abstract landscapes is so painstakingly calculated that you look and look again, expecting a misstep or extra foot, shall we say, that never appears. In the close-ups, there are always important still lifes: the empty wine urn with the cunning features of Bacchus in bas-relief; the tray containing the red wine bloody feces; the masks that have slid to the ground, like lost faces. Everything takes on emotional force. One of Poussin’s open mouths was an inspiration for Francis Bacon’s silent screams.
The show itself is beautifully choreographed, from crowded galleries to smaller spaces, and a pause before the final reveal: the masterpiece hanging alone in the last room.
There, in some kind of bloody wasteland, four dancers form a ring with their backs to each other, upside down, so to speak. His dance is unnatural. The movement is not so much graceful as it is disturbing, like a merry-go-round beginning to slow down. This is Poussin’s deep lament, A dance to the music of time.
One of the dancers looks at us with one eye like pearls, but another is faltering in anguish. His hand has come loose from the chain. An afflicted cherub makes bubbles that never stop exploding into nothingness. In the sky above there is a sudden rush: the chariot of dawn; but it also happens.
Time is a winged harpist, his expression sardonic as he watches the dance that must soon come to an end. And on a patch of brown dirt next to him, a cherub stares in fascination at the hourglass in his infant hand. For him it is a captivating toy, the sand increases and decreases at the same time. For us, as for the artist, it is a waiting game. The dance ends and we die.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism