Is it possible to like Poussin?

John Phipps on Poussin and the Dance at the National Gallery

Is it possible to like Poussin?

The first thing that strikes you about the paintings of Nicolas Poussin is how ugly they are. The colours are horrible. The subjects are alien. Poussin may well be the least immediately thrilling artist in the canon, and the National Gallery’s exhibition, Poussin and the Dance, is a slender summation of everything that makes Poussin so difficult to like.

‘The dance’ is a bad start. Aerobically modular figures join hands in statuesque poses. Satyrs with paedophile grins lurch towards classical bimbos. Soap-shop flowers drift delicately through landscapes that find a thousand shades between olive brown and olive green, while draped folds of mustard and Fanta Orange prove Classicism to be the movement aesthetics forgot. It’s just so weird. All these stock figures twisting themselves towards death in an undersaturated arcadia. The day breaks, the earth groans, the dancers whirl on past someone making the sex life in ancient Rome face. It feels like the product of an academic cult of beauty, one that was fostered, you think, by a very ugly world. You shudder, slightly, to imagine those dancers going round forever in a ring of hollow laughter until the paint disintegrates or the gallery falls.

Poussin was born in 1594 and died in 1665, which in literary terms is the distance from Venus and Adonis to Paradise Lost. Considered the father of French painting, he worked most of his life in Italy, where he made inch-specific measurements of headless classical statues and caught the bad sort of clap. In late life, he had to battle a constant syphilitic tremor to produce his immaculate canvases.

The hand is a traitor, whether or not it trembles, it exposes everything. If you take a photo of your hand and draw it, the result will inevitably look different to the same thing drawn from life. On the right as you enter the exhibition is The Realm of Flora, and you don’t need the five minute educational film (two rooms on) to see that Poussin’s figures are drawn directly from little clay models, not flesh and blood ones. It’s right there in Flora’s modelled pose, the mannequin postures of Hyacinth and Narcissus. They are flattened sculptures, art about art, and they add to the sense that the work is twice-removed from reality.

As you progress through the exhibition’s five rooms, you start to pick up on a double time-scheme, in which the world is both very young and very old. Why, in A Bacchanalian Revel Before a Term, is the titular statue armless? Shouldn’t it be intact if this is a classical scene? That a ruin is defined with equal force by ideas of destruction and survival is itself a strange contradiction, one that lies close to the heart of Poussin’s Classicism. An apocryphal story has him walking in the ancient forum, scooping up a handful of shattered marble chips and saying to an inquiring tourist, ‘here is Rome’.

In the three Triumphs – of Pan, Silenus and Bacchus – the dancers’ blinded smiles seem to come from a place beyond Christian eschatology, simultaneously innocent and fallen. In The Adoration of the Golden Calf meanwhile, Moses appears in the background with the tablets that will bring the idolatrous party to an end. Beyond him the sky looks like both a new dawn and an apocalyptic portent; two trees raise their branches skyward in stripped postures of lament or celebration.

In this painting, as well as in A Bacchanalian Revel Before A Term, you notice that the formal structure of the dance is more intricately conceived than it appears. Both paintings feature chains of handholding dancers, but in each one a figure is threading back through the line, creating a fixed loop through which every dancer must turn. The chain of movement incorporates a little epicycle, like the orbit of Venus observed from earth. The curators are keen to play up the beautiful classical frieze hanging opposite and the idea that capturing movement in a fixed medium is paradoxical, but the paradox these paintings insist on is that anything eternal is best described by something motionless. We draw the progress of the planets with a closed loop. The Dance to the Music of Time doesn’t need to move precisely because it is endless.

Time is the key, I think. Time and attention, both in the sense of active watchfulness but also the buried sense of passive waiting. Things happen when you sit with Poussin that don’t happen with other painters. The parameters of his art start to replace the ones you brought with you. Look at the Golden Calf, for instance, how the deep shadow on the shoulder of a kneeling woman shimmers into life. It sends a ripple of verisimilitude onto her neck, and across the oily crumple of dark fabric beneath. Look at the calf’s front legs, their veiled implication of a human figure imprisoned in the gold. Look at the feet, which retain the equipoise of a standing clay model and evince so realistically the world’s weight and balance.

If there is a reason to like Poussin it is probably that in being balanced, conservative, classicised, academic, precise, remote, dilatory, traditional, rational, elegant, unsubversive and profoundly amoral he embodies everything that contemporary critical consensus rejects. The mind needs strange refreshment. Aesthetic exhaustion, like political failure, stems from an inability to imagine other worlds, and the best Poussin paintings stand apart from us, aesthetic monads that assert their first principles in every brushstroke. In them, their creator insists – with modafinil-twigged attention to detail – on the world he has no choice but to create. This is what a real artist does.

If you can accept his axioms of colour and line, these paintings will take you to a mesmeric place where the need for reasons ends. The show ends with the famous Dance to the Music of Time, and seeing it hung alone is the only reason you’d shell out £12 to see a group of paintings that can mostly be found in the UK already. Four people representing the successive stages of poverty and wealth join hands in an outward facing circle. while the naked figure of time strums the lyre that plays them on. A nail-clipping’s worth of white is sufficient to conjure the highest of three glassy bubbles blown by a nearby cherub. It brings me out in chills. Which is the other reason to like Poussin. Because his paintings are so beautiful. The ring of hollow laughter goes on forever, serene and indifferent and profoundly mysterious. On a tree’s highest branch, exactly twenty one and a half leaves are catching in the Götterdämmerung light.

John Phipps

is a freelance journalist. He lives in London.

All contributions from John Phipps

Latest in Criticism