The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
12 February-11 May 2008
Catalogue: Pierre Rosenberg, Keith Christiansen. Poussin and Nature. New Haven, CT, New York: Yale University Press, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2008.
Landscape painting remains, in the 21st-century, a continuing subject of fascination for art enthusiasts. This leads major national museums and their curators to develop historical exhibitions of the genre, with endless variations of culture, time and place.
It might have been thought that the Poussin exhibition staged in London at the Royal Academy in January through to April 1995, and previously at the Grand Palais, with Pierre Rosenberg's searching and revisionary flagship essay, would constitute the last word on this tempestuous and brilliantly driven painter. Indeed the presence in that show of the famous late series, 'The Four Seasons', loaned by the Louvre, would seem to endorse that. Now it has been superseded by the Metropolitan Mueum of Art, New York, however, one might say not exceeded in magnificence.
The engagement again of Pierre Rosenberg, together with Keith Christiansen, in curating this new exhibition might have set the seal; however, they have been denied the fulfilment of the full set of 'The Four Seasons', having only been given 'Spring' and 'Summer', which is really, for New Yorkers, a serious setback in the show.
Undoubtedly it reduces the impact of the exhibition to be denied 'Autumn' and 'Winter'. Whereas the former is an ominous, even enigmatic portrayal of a natural landscape, the latter - 'The Deluge' - seems today to be wholly relevant to a natural habitat of man that is prone to impending climatic disaster, and can re-emphasise the contemporary threat of ultimate extinction that faces humanity. The portrayal by Poussin of the cyclical aspect of nature is truncated. Poussin's clear intention was also denied in the total concept of meeting the inspirational challenge he found in the images of Philostratus (which described an actual painting of the four seasons). In producing the series, Poussin must indeed have felt that his mentor Philostratus sought to express the triumph of art, of nature in all her beauty, and so the prevalent condition of human destiny itself. Poussin was being helped to discover the underlying order of the universe.
In the early years, landscape more often than not supplied a backdrop for human drama, but subsequently Poussin's quest was to understand the natural elements, the movement of the heavens, and the relative vulnerability of both gods and men, an increasingly profound if unfulfilling investigation. 'Landscape with Orion' (itself the property of the Metropolitan Museum), reveals a deep, phantasmagoric investigation of the power of the colour green. As Richard Verdi said in the catalogue of 1995:
With its dense undergrowth and umbrageous trees, the picture is pervaded by an intoxicating range of greens that evoke nature in its primordial state. Scarcely less visionary is the composition of the scene, which violates all the conventions of classical art in its abrupt and mysterious spatial elisions and dramatic distortions of size. These combine to conjure forth thoughts of the most wondrous and inexplicable forces in nature and reveal the aged Poussin immersed in the mystery of creation and awed by its elemental power.1
The Royal Academy catalogue gave us the information that this work had once belonged to Reynolds, and had inspired two poems by Sacheverell Sitwell. Richard Verdi claims, and rightly, that this painting is actually, 'An allegory of the circulation of water in nature'.1 Today this painting epitomises the appeal that Poussin, especially in his later work, holds alike for contemporary curators, academia, and the broader public.
It is now at last realised widely as never before that the planet is under threat. Thus the focus of interest in Poussin's work has shifted from the primarily figurative and allegorical which characterised his earlier work to the environmental: this was indeed the sequence of Poussin's own investigative obsession. His ready familiarity with the classical language of Roman and Greek culture was moderated and channelled by his own Stoic philosophy. Reaching for tranquillity was a Stoic imperative; but 'tsunami' effects or twister traumas were beyond depiction by Poussin. We just have to feel that he recognised the potential of natural forces to precipitate unforeseen disaster.
It has been said frequently that Poussin gave us a dramatic new depth of focus, and the crowds thronging the Met (as they were in London and Paris earlier in the 1990s) are enthralled even more so by the extent to which Poussin developed a personal language of the sublime, wholly distinctive from that of his friend and neighbour Claude Lorrain. What is evident is the extent to which this quality and ethos was the artist's own way of constructing for himself and others a viable, plausible escape from the strife-torn world of the seventeenth century, via a new serendipidity. And of the man himself? We have only to examine Poussin's self-portrait in red chalk (completed in 1630 and owned by the British Museum), to realise the artist's own remorse at his pox-ridden physical predicament. He would increasingly seek to escape that reality while exchanging it for the sublime. It seems that Poussin had anticipated today's awe and trepidation at the planetary threat to human existence. His own mythological figures reiterate our own contemporary awareness of man's proneness to land himself in disaster, without recourse to redemption.
1. Richard Verdi. Nicolas Poussin. London: Zwemmer, 1995.