Poussin et Dieu
Musée du Louvre, Paris | April 2 – June 29, 2015
For any art historian interested in Nicolas Poussin but not a devotee of the interpretative literature, visiting this exhibition, which marks the 305th year since the artist’s death in 1665, might be puzzling. At the entrance to the show, immediately after Poussin’s “Self-Portrait” (1649 – 50), is the large “The Miracle of St. François Xavier”(1641), often dismissed as a marginal clerical commission. Noting the title of this exhibition and the quotations from theologians included in the wall labels, it is no surprise to find images of the holy family, Moses (an Old Testament subject of special interest for the painter), and the Sacraments. These, after all, are Christian scenes. But the inclusion of numerous scenes from pagan antiquity seems peculiar—“Et in Arcadia Ego (The Arcadian Shepherds)”(1640), “Landscape with Diogenes”(ca. 1648), and “Stormy Landscape with Pyramus and Thisbe”(1651), for example. If the show’s theme is Poussin and God, then why have these pictures been included in the exhibition? And why are the paintings shown out of chronological order?
To answer these questions, you need both to read the catalogue and know the scholarly tradition, which it builds upon and critiques. Normally an exhibition review focuses on the art on display, but it is impossible to understand Poussin et Dieu without knowing about the long history of diverse champions Poussin has attracted. In the early 19th century, William Hazlitt developed a poetic analysis; in the 20th century, Roger Fry offered a formalist account, which was rejected by Anthony Blunt, in 1967, in favor of focusing on Poussin as a Stoic religious skeptic. Then Denis Mahon reconstructed Poussin’s development; Pierre Rosenberg published a comprehensive catalogue, and Jacques Thuillier an up-to-date biography. And in the past 30 years the philosopher Richard Wollheim gave a psychoanalytic interpretation, while T. J. Clark offered a highly personal political viewing; even I have published both a book and a collection, in Italian, of Poussin’s letters. This array of interpretations has notbeen driven by the rediscovery of pictures or by novel archival evidence about Poussin himself. Nor does it involve projection of contemporary values onto the Baroque world, as happens with the recent apotheosis of Poussin’s nemesis, Caravaggio—now known as our heroic homosexual rebel. Rather, because Poussin, the ‘philosopher-painter,’ is thought to have been erudite, he has been interpreted in ever more complex ways. Poussin et Dieu takes this extensive process to a new extreme.
In the 1994 grand Paris exhibition that celebrated 400 years since Poussin’s birth, one saw the body of paintings, and some drawings assembled in chronological order. He painted many sacred themes but also numerous pagan subjects, and he often expressed criticism of popular religious devotions in his correspondence. But in his time, of course, one prudently revealed such opinions only to intimate friends. Since Poussin responded to his patrons’ desire for religious subjects, we might understand his development—and the ultimate unity of his oeuvre—by reference to Mahon’s connoisseurship, which traces the artist’s stylistic development across all his subjects, profane and sacred.
Anthony Blunt’s Nicolas Poussin and publications by his followers offered a different argument, claiming that in fact many sacred subjects actually reveal a skeptical worldview. Poussin, a lover of pagan antiquity, was perhaps not really a believer. In reaction, the commentary accompanying this exhibition turns Blunt’s central argument inside out by suggesting that Poussin was a Catholic believer who even in his pagan subjects deals with Christian themes. Thus, his Christ in “St. François Xavier”is borrowed from the pagan god Jupiter, and his scene from antiquity, “The Arcadian Shepherds” presents a Catholic theme of Vanitas. What defines the unity of Poussin’s painting is the purported constant concern with Christian themes, explicit in the sacred pictures, and hidden in the pagan subjects. Hence the thematic organization of this exhibition: Poussin and Roman Catholicism; Holy Families; Poussin and his Christian friends; Fortune, Destiny and Providence; Poussin and Moses; Poussin and Christ; and sacred landscapes.
Considerable scholarly labor is required to properly consider the implications of this radically revisionist analysis—the catalogue has 488 pages. Let us tentatively test it by considering just one example, “Landscape with Diana and Orion”(1658), a painting that normally hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. According to the older commentaries, this picture presents a complex allegory of a Stoic vision of nature. When Orion, blinded by the goddess Diana, arrives at the distant seashore to recover his sight, he will leave behind the clouds which obscure his vision. Understood in religious terms, it is proposed, the picture shows that arrogance blinds us to God’s glory. To quote the catalogue entry by Nicolas Milovanovic: “The Christian interpretation completes the story, the artist symbolizing in one composition the power of nature and the divine transcendence which rules.” No evidence is given that this was Poussin’s belief or intent; instead, we are implicitly asked to believe that this was the case, just as we are asked to believe in God.
The Louvre galleries for temporary exhibitions are in the basement, which makes for a claustrophobic setting, made even more unforgiving by the harsh lighting on garish red and blue walls. You need only go upstairs to the Poussins on the top floor in the permanent collections to see how much better these paintings look in natural light. When I visited, the Louvre was jam-packed; this exhibition, however, was not crowded. This is unsurprising, for no visitor who merely looks at the pictures—although they are often very sensuous—could grasp the claims of this exhibition without first reading the catalogue. In Four Seasons (1660 – 64) Milovanovic argues, “first the poignant poetry of the grand landscapes imposes itself, then the multiple sacred and profane resonances which enrich our viewing and invite contemplation.” For many modern viewers, I believe, moving from seeing the visual poetry to identifying these bookish meanings will be difficult.
That of course says nothing about the truth of this novel interpretation, which may appeal to religious art-lovers, those who already believe, but is unlikely to convince many others. In his introduction to the catalogue, Sébastien Allard asks two deep questions: “Can a painting be in itself an autobiographical expression? Can a painting be read like a text?” If this exhibition persuades, then the answer to both questions is yes—Poussin’s painting expresses an esoteric culture, drawing upon the full resources provided by his most erudite contemporary theologians. But if so, then he has become a very exotic artist—a grand intellectual whose concerns are extraordinarily distant from those of present day visual culture.
The catalogue, edited by Nicolas Milovanovic and Mikaêl Szanto is Poussin et dieu (Paris, 2015); quotation of Anthony Blunt comes from his Nicolas Poussin (Washington, D.C., 1967).
I give the titles in English following Alain Mérot, Nicolas Poussin (New York, 1990).
DAVID CARRIER is co-author with Joachim Pissarro of Wild Art (Phaidon, 2013). His next books, with Joachim Pissarro, are Aesthetics of the Margins / The Margins of Aesthetics and Aesthetic Theory, Abstract Art and Lawrence Carroll.