Anybody’s

Malcolm Bull

  • Nicolas Poussin, 1594-1665 by Pierre Rosenberg and Louis-Antoine Prat
    Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 560 pp, frs 350.00, September 1994, ISBN 2 7118 3027 6
  • Nicolas Poussin by Anthony Blunt
    Pallas Athene, 690 pp, £24.95, January 1995, ISBN 1 873429 64 9
  • Nicolas Poussin 1594-1665 by Richard Verdi, with an essay by Pierre Rosenberg
    Zwemmer, 336 pp, £39.50, January 1995, ISBN 0 302 00647 8
  • Roma 1630: Il trionfo del pennello edited by Olivier Bonfait
    Electa, 260 pp, July 1994, ISBN 88 435 5047 0
  • Poussin before Rome 1594-1624 by Jacques Thuillier
    Feigen, 119 pp, £40.00, January 1995, ISBN 1 873232 03 9
  • The Expression of the Passions by Jennifer Montagu
    Yale, 256 pp, £35.00, October 1994, ISBN 0 300 05891 8
  • L’Ecole du silence by Marc Fumaroli
    Flammarion, 512 pp, frs 295.00, May 1994, ISBN 2 08 012618 0
  • To Destroy Painting by Louis Marin, translated by Mette Hjort
    Chicago, 196 pp, £31.95, April 1995, ISBN 0 226 50535 9

They want him back. They always have, but now they want him more than ever: living in Rome for almost his entire career was one thing, posthumous residence in England is another. That the artist ‘qui incame le XVIIe siècle français’ should have become (as Olivier Bonfait’s essay in the Paris catalogue describes him) ‘un objet totalement “anglo-saxon” ’ is seen as a source of national shame. Interviewed in Le Monde, Jacques Thuillier of the Collège de France complained that, ‘à l’étranger’, Poussin’s reputation had been dulled if not sullied; the quatercentenary of his birth was an opportunity to clean and polish his image to its true lustre, to show the world that the artist was (in the words of Thuillier’s colleague, Marc Fumaroli) ‘at heart ever more loyal to that noble simplicity of form that Frenchmen in the 17th century were quick to recognise as one of the ... distinctive characteristics of their own kingdom’.

Such chauvinism may say as much about the anxious cultural politics of contemporary France as it does about the history of Poussin scholarship, and yet the underlying concern is not without foundation. The villain of the piece (now typecast by his starring role in other dramas) is Anthony Blunt, who wrote the standard monograph on Poussin’s paintings (now republished), co-authored the five-volume catalogue of the drawings, and, in 1960, wrote the catalogue for the largest Poussin exhibition ever seen. At the time, it seemed that the Francophile Blunt was paying homage to the artist rather than taking him away. But it soon became apparent that the study of Poussin had shifted location: the debate about the dating of his work took place between Blunt and another English connoisseur, Denis Mahon; investigation of his iconography was conducted in the Teutonic spirit of the Warburg Institute. The French Poussin, ‘the contemporary of Descartes and the master of Le Brun’, the Poussin of Paul Desjardins’s La Méthode des classiques français, seemed, inexplicably, to have emigrated.

Was he kidnapped or was he only ever a phantom? Last autumn’s Paris show was the culmination of two decades of French exhibitions devoted to early 17th-century painters. It could have addressed the question of Poussin’s place in French art, but the selectors, Pierre Rosenberg of the Louvre and Neil MacGregor of the National Gallery, opted to avoid controversy, and simply to include the ‘most beautiful’ works. Important paintings that didn’t make the grade were omitted, even when (as in the case of the Richelieu Bacchanals) preparatory drawings were on show. The result was a remarkably rich and catholic selection hung in dark and crowded galleries. In this all too plausible re-creation of 17th-century viewing conditions, some paintings glowed mysteriously; others, in which the grounds show through, merely glowered.

At the Royal Academy, where there are fewer paintings, no drawings, and the galleries are as bright as a hospital ward, the hanging is a great success. However, by reducing an already uncontroversial selection still further, the exhibition is in danger of becoming a bland array of ‘masterpieces’, all properly cleaned and certified free from the contagion of misattribution. The paintings quarantined in satellite exhibitions compensate to some degree, but the absence from the Royal Academy of any of the possible works from the first thirty years of Poussin’s life (some were on view at Richard Feigen till 3 March and will be at Yale from 23 May), all the highly commercial erotica of the 1620s (there are a couple of examples in the National Gallery’s little room of ‘Poussin Problems’), and every one of the major allegorical and religious commissions of the Paris period of 1640-2 (go to the Louvre), means that we only see paintings executed when the artist had congenial patrons. It is hard to understand Poussin (or any other artist) without some of the pictures produced when he was under economic, political or psychological pressure, and the London exhibition inevitably makes the precarious serenity of his work seem unmotivated – as unearned as the jewels given to the bimbo daughters of Lycomedes in the Richmond Achilles and the Daughters of Lycomedes.

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