WOID XVIII-42. Museumwatch: Bo-ring.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008 5:50 pm

Poussin and Nature: Arcadian Visions
Through May 11, 2008
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

There’s something about Poussin that makes me cringe. Not until this show did I realize I was in good company. Not in the company of the art critic for the New York Sun, though, who writes:

There are few, if any, superlatives that would overstate the astounding achievement — the lyric poetry, the rigorous classicism, the emotional richness, the refined magic — of the paintings of Nicolas Poussin. And there are few superlatives that would overstate the impact of "Poussin and Nature: Arcadian Visions," a profound exhibition of more than 100 landscape paintings and drawings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. For anyone who loves painting, this show, pitch-perfect from beginning to end, is to be savored and adored.

But in the company of everybody else, because the galleries are virtually empty. Vox populi, vox dei.

I mean this: I was standing in front of Poussin’s Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake and thinking of how dreadful a painting it is, the way every single landscape in the show is dreadful with the possible exception of his Landscape with Hagar and the Angel, one of his last works. Every Poussin landscape’s dreadful in the way that all of Poussin’s bad, only more so: Poussin would design his human figures separately, make little theater cutouts of them, and then arrange them in a toy theater against his painted backdrops. The effect is odd enough in Poussin’s History paintings, but his landscapes all end up looking like stage sets with cutouts of human figures spread around. His sense of space was poor and his sense of color was disastrous, and the lack of any kind of overarching atmosphere weighs each painting down like a pair of concrete shoes; it leaves you desperately looking for a unifying principle. The signage for Man Killed by a Snake proudly quotes Diderot’s evaluation of this same painting, in his Salon of 1767: “From the peaceful travelers in the background to the final scene of terror, what an enormous distance there is...” That’s Diderotspeak for: "This painting doesn’t hold together."

But don’t trust Diderot, just look at the central figure of a woman bent over: she’s at the center of the painting and yet she’s painted as if seen from the viewer’s right. She’s also the same size as the man in the foreground. This is what makes the Hagar painting magical: the angel floating in mid-air is as impossible as the Snake lady, but this makes the angel mysterious where it makes the Snake lady look like a result of mere incompetence.

It must have been painful for a French painter of the mid-nineteenth century to look at this stuff and realize Poussin was the great glory of French culture; to wonder if, maybe, all of this dreadfulness could be redeemed. Poussin was a near contemporary of the poet Malherbe, infamous in the history of French literature for imposing a rigid orthodoxy of technique and rationalisty on the Art of Poetry; but Malherbe is remembered today for a single, superb and mysterious line of poetry which, in fact, was not his, but a typesetter's error. So perhaps Poussin has played the role for painters that Malherbe played for poets: the unaccountable lapses of reason could be turned against Reason itself. Using the figure of a woman bending over in the background to collapse space was a way of assigning new intent to Poussin’s landscapes and preserving his technique. Then, if you were interested in the symbolic aspects of space and of the human figure you could place a couple of couples in the foreground, with a woman, naked, smiling at the viewer while the others are fully clothed, and the viewer was left, as Poussin must have intended, desperately looking for a unifying principle....