Two Poussins with Special Effects

I had not paid any attention to Nicolas Poussin before I read T. J. Clark’s The Sight of Death. Clark’s book documents him looking at two Poussin paintings and as far as premises for books go this is a deceptively simple one. It is an interesting read and it makes one think that writing about art or the act of looking at art is a game that anyone can play, but it also makes one see quite clearly that not everyone is going to be good at it despite the fact that to do it all one has to do is report one’s sensations and thoughts that appear in the presence of an artwork. Sadly, neither of the paintings Clark writes about was in the Louvre. However, there were at least two rooms dedicated to Poussin and I spent a good deal of time sitting next to a number of his paintings on the second floor because my feet were killing me. (Also, because they are amazing paintings.)

Clark writes a lot about Poussin’s use of blues and yellows, and because of this obsession with bright colors I was very surprised to find myself scribbling things like “very dark” and “quite dim” in my notebook. I tried to look at the dates of the paintings to figure this out; maybe, I thought, he was trying to be Caravaggio or someone as a younger man and just blackened out spots he didn’t want to think about too much. But this did not really make any sense. Poussin could do color magnificently and often did, no matter what the dates said. It seemed like his tastes were not very consistent when it came to light, but I may well be mistaken because I’m quite ignorant of these matters.

One painting I marked “quite dim” was his L’Inspiration du poète, an allegorical picture of a poet, Apollo, and muse engaged in the production of some lines of ecstatic verse.

Source: Wikipedia

This sort of picture is always striking because it shows the gods and their entourage matter-of-factly, like they were on the same material plain with us mortals. They are present with mortals like mortals are present, there is no sense of mystery in their existence. There is something very imposing in these gods and muses and nymphs who refuse to appear to us in some otherworldly form and instead face us as man would face man. It’s not as if we as human beings are in a position to say to them: “Damn it, be more mysterious and elusive!” The only way to make a god retain his power is to talk nonsense or be silent. The gods themselves, on the other hand, do whatever they please — Apollo’s words being dictated to the poet may or may not make sense, who knows.

The poet himself is a bit of a mystery, unlike the protagonists in Poussin’s Echo and Narcissus. The two would-be lovers are portrayed well into their unfortunate affair.

Source: Wikipedia

The painting is sharp, surgical, clinical even, and it is as distant from the viewer as the ailing Echo is from Narcissus. It is emotionally cold and recreates the story beautifully. Echo is untouched by the repulsed Narcissus, Narcissus dead or unconscious by his reflection. There is no connection between the characters in the work and there is no connection to be had with them. All this cold precision makes Poussin’s depiction of Echo all the more powerful. She is out of focus or somehow blurred.

Source: Wikipedia

On paper it sounds a bit cheesy. Echo is unfocused, imprecise, distant, but thanks to the general ambiance of the picture it seems to work. This is how the gods should appear as well if they were to conform to our expectations, something they would never do. (What’s the point of being a god if your actions can be predicted by puny mortals.) Echo is unobtainable, in a haze, unreachable. You may squint your eyes to try to get to her, but it’s no use. She’s never there completely. It is such an obvious idea, but Poussin manages to pull it off.

1 Response to “Two Poussins with Special Effects”

  1. 1 Art in Paris « nonvisedvoce Trackback on January 30, 2012 at 22:38

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