Austere, cold and remote: The National Gallery’s Nicolas Poussin exhibition is full of fine works, but it won’t transform anyone’s views
Poussin And The Dance
National Gallery, London Until January 2
The paintings of the old master Nicolas Poussin tend to be respected rather than enjoyed. The 17th Century Frenchman, who moved to Rome in his 20s and never really left, is renowned for his austere art, which can seem cold and remote today.
The organisers of a new exhibition at the National Gallery, however, argue that Poussin has been misunderstood, and that during the first of his many decades in Rome he actually let his hair down and painted scenes of wild, orgiastic dancing.
In the pictures on show, tambourines shake, wine spills, satyrs and nymphs cavort and togas fall off. The Triumph Of Pan is a decent example.
In the pictures on show, tambourines shake, wine spills, satyrs and nymphs cavort and togas fall off. The Triumph Of Pan (above, created in 1636) is a decent example
It depicts a woodland festival dedicated to Bacchus, the god of wine. The reason for the festival is to ensure a good harvest, and everyone is having a jolly old drink-up and dance to that end.
What’s interesting about this painting, though, is that it undermines the show’s thesis as much as it supports it.
Far from jiving about the canvas like drunks at a disco, Poussin’s dozen figures are meticulously composed. Their lithe bodies are connected, in what might be called a wave.
As he matured, Poussin left dances behind and devoted himself to the religious paintings and landscapes for which he’s best known.
His later works weren’t a huge departure from his early ones: what we encounter at the National Gallery is an artist honing his talent for disciplined design.
This show is full of fine works, but it isn’t going to transform anyone’s view of Poussin.