Formal perfection

27th January 1995 at 00:00
Michael Clarke on exhibitions showing the work of Nicolas Poussin. It is interesting that the acknowledged father of French painting and indisputably a profound influence on David, Ingres, Seurat and Cezanne has been as much admired and collected in Britain as France.

Reynolds praised and bought his work. The two pivotal sets of paintings of the sacraments are in British collections and the Poussin holdings at the National Gallery are the finest outside France. Our continuing interest is sufficiently demonstrated in the very large, Anglo-French retrospective exhibition of his paintings at the Royal Academy, but several related events reveal the extent of this interest.

The Royal Collection at Windsor contains one of the largest and most important groups of Poussin's drawings and 65 of these will go on show next month at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. Spanning the whole of the artist's career, many have never been on public view before and most are in pristine condition. The majority are concerned with Poussin's rigorous approach to pictorial composition, often drawing and redrawing the various components until a finely honed solution was achieved. Every student will benefit from looking at these, but the Dulwich education team can arrange tailor-made tours of the exhibition to suit a school's particular requirements or direct artist-in-residence Graham Crowley's Tuesday drawing classes towards Poussin's works on paper.

A previous artist-in-residence at Dulwich, Michael Kenny, has drawings after Poussin on show in the Friends' Room at the RA that express a contemporary response. At the Wallace Collection, Poussin's "Dance to the Music of Time" is being specialLy displayed with illustrated text panels and a bronze cast of the Borghese antique relief which inspired the artist. In the space left at the National Gallery by its own loans to the RA retrospective is an additional display of pictures by or connected with Poussin together with works by others borrowed from elsewhere for the purposes of comparison. And to complete this comprehensive survey of the French master, the Feigen Gallery has a small exhibition examining Poussin's formative years before he left France for Rome in 1624.

Except for a brief and very frustrating period working in Paris for Louis XIII, Poussin more than willingly spent the remaining 40 years of his career in Rome, then the unchallenged centre of the Western art world and unquestionabLy the best place for a history painter. Faced with the crucial problem of telescoping the temporal events of mythological, historical and biblical narratives into the spatial dimensions of pictorial art, Poussin was on the spot to learn lessons from not just the antique but the poetic, richly-coloured example of Titian and, most decisively, the dramatic and formally near-perfect works of his greatly revered Raphael.

Three elements in particular distinguish Poussin's work from his predecessors and contemporaries like the very baroque, Bernini and Rubens; his subjects, his interpretation and his classical form. Several subjects, like those of Germanicus or Eudamidas, had never been treated before. Two late masterpieces dealing with the remains of Phocion are unique as is Poussin's own invention, the "Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake". All indicate an exceptional independence for the time But whether these subjects reflect an early obsession with ill-fated lovers, like Acis and Galatea or Rinaldo and Armida, a more sustained preoccupation with the imperilled lives of leaders, heroes or gods, like Moses, Achilles or Bacchus or, increasingly toward the end of the artist's own life, the unavoidable role of the natural world in our destinies, all were determined by Poussin's deeply stoical disposition. And in the interpretation of his chosen subjects, he developed an unusually wide range of dramatic and narrative exposition. "The Judgement of Solomon" is almost a compendium of affective body-language while the ominous compression of events in "Landscape with Orpheus and Euridice" is made all the more moving by the fact that only we as spectators can fully appreciate the impending tragedy.

What ultimately raises Poussin's art to the level of perfection is his sometimes innovative and frequently exceptional formal coherence. His most persistent pictorial structure is that of finely modelled forms in overlapping planes that themselves suggest the influence of antique relief sculpture. But the diversity of effect can be easily seen by comparing the elevated, near static arrangement of "The Holy Family on the Steps" with the centrifugal dynamics of "The Rape of the Sabines" and the almost liquid transition from near to far in "Landscape with Buildings". All are fitting forms for their subjects and vividly demonstrate Poussin's belief that pictorial form should be suited to the subject.

Idolised by the Neo-classicists, it was Poussin's fate in the l9th century to be falsely reduced to a role-model in academic teaching. But just as our present-day academy is a reformed institution, so are our responses to the classical tradition that the academy sought to uphold. On an aesthetic and emotional level, Poussin can still be relied upon to speak for himself. His subjects and interpretations, however, are another matter and the majority of visitors to the RA exhibition will be grateful for all the help they are given in the excellent catalogue, the gallery guide and the indispensable information that accompanies every picture.

For teachers, the RA has a private view on February 10 and a resource pack that examines nine different pictures with suggestions for follow-up activities, including possible connections with the forthcoming exhibition, "The Palladian Revival: Lord Burlington and his House and Garden at Chiswick". Study days for GCSE and sixth-form students will begin with a slide talk introduction to the exhibition followed by discussion of major issues arising out of the experience while half-day workshops for primary school children will offer a guide to Poussin as a storyteller before practical work on composition.

Nicolas Poussin. Royal Academy until April 9. After Poussin. Royal Academy until February 3. For further information, telephone 0171 494 5733.

Poussin: Works on Paper. Dulwich Gallery February 16-April 30. For further information, telephone 0181 693 5254.

Dance to the Music of Time. Wallace Collection, Manchester Square,W1 until April 9.

Poussin Before Rome. Richard L Feigen Co. 6 Ryder Street, SW1until March 3.

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