Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Coming out: the French Chick Painter and I

A few months ago I wrote a post about painters whose work I don't get. Among them ( horror, self-flagellation etc.) was Nicolas Poussin. In fact I have been shamed several times and even recently rebuked (or better reDukesed) by a brilliant artist friend for daring to dislike- no it's not even this harsh, not care for is probably a better description- the Philosopher Painter.
"You will like him ! "
said the Poussinian who told me he's not going to read this post so Robert look away now.

In fact I should like Poussin. Firstly, he's French but he would rather live in Rome, which should make me partial towards him ( although his paintings is so deeply French). Secondly, I was served Poussin for breakfast, lunch and dinner as I arrived in London and made my first steps in the world of oil painting: my tutors referred to him as one to worship, the Divine P.

I saw Poussin's paintings as I visited the Fitzwilliams Museum in Cambridge a couple of weeks ago (they have launched a campaign to buy one of his Sacraments series, a grim deathbed scene). I also have seen his paintings in the Wallace Collection, Dulwich Picture Gallery and the recent Twombly/Poussin show there as well ( a strange pairing). In the past I probably saw a lot of Poussins in big museums as well but it looks like they failed to grab my attention.

Poussin was a prolific painter so again it's difficult to generalize, but take this small gallery of works on his Wikipedia page: the groups are all "closed" or aligned horizontally in the paintings, a reference to roman sarcophages, I read somewhere. They don't invite you in, it looks like you are not welcome among those people.
I said people but another element that leaves me cold is that his arcadic or biblical characters are really not very human, their gestures are pompous and frozen, not natural.
Also I am not really enchanted by his colours: a bit of yellow, a bit of red, a bit of blue. And burnt sienna. Also since he was painting over a dark ground in many paintings his colours seem to have faded and are barely visible.

Are there exceptions ? Of course: this Balthusian composition from the National Gallery for example is beautiful, as pointed out by Jonathan Jones on his blog ( but read the comments to his post, there are a few unbelievers like me ).

I am starting to think that Poussin's classicism is so stern and dry that it's not too difficult for other painters to inhabit it and make it theirs ( see Uglow's and Kossoff's after Poussins).

Cezanne said that he wanted to recreate Poussin " after nature" so in a way he was commenting on the lack of life in Poussins paintings. Of course I admire the elegance and balance of Poussin's compositions, like the Venus and Adonis in Dulwich, but it seems to me as if he is stuck in the wrong century. 
He is a Cinquecentesco in his heavy draperies, intellectual subjects, stories from Ariosto, and misses out completely on the charge of Life that broke in on the paintings of his contemporaries Seicenteschi like Velazquez and Rembrandt.

I am sorry, his works don't speak to me. Yet.

No comments: