In Review

Poussin and the Dance: a small but revelatory exhibition, packed with ‘fabulous moments’

Poussin’s reputation as an ‘austere landscapist’ is only half the story, proves this National Gallery show

Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) is “a problematic presence in art”, said Waldemar Januszczak in The Sunday Times. “Nothing about him quite fits”: although he was French, he spent most of his career in Rome, and while his dates are roughly equivalent to Rembrandt’s, you might assume they had lived in different centuries altogether.

Poussin was a stickler for precision, taking a formal and academic approach that makes much of his work “cool and erudite to the point of being off-putting”. Yet as this new exhibition at the National Gallery shows, Poussin’s reputation as an “austere landscapist” is only half the story.

Concentrating on the early phases of his career, the show presents the artist as “a lover of the classical world at its naughtiest”, a painter of “gorgeous” sunlit scenes, “beautiful nymphs” dancing in forest glades, and bacchanalian scenes of love and intoxication. Bringing together a small but revelatory selection of glorious paintings, “dazzling” drawings and a variety of exhibits explaining his working methods, it is packed with “fabulous moments”.

If the show makes one thing clear, it’s that Poussin was a “colossal nerd”, said Alastair Sooke in The Daily Telegraph. When he arrived in Rome in 1624, he carried around a tape measure to record precise dimensions of the city’s classical statues. More “obsessive” still, he based the figures in his paintings on “laboriously constructed” wax figurines he built in his studio, a few replicas of which we see here.

Sometimes, these “strange” working methods paid off: the drawings featured are “remarkably vigorous”. The paintings, however, feel “measured, detached, even artificial”: they may depict Dionysian scenes, but Poussin has no interest in “conveying the sensation of being amid the mêlée”, instead giving us technically perfect exercises in “studied elegance”. There is “too much decorum, not enough rapture or raunch”.

It’s true that Poussin was never a particularly “fun” artist, said Laura Cumming in The Observer. Even so, it’s remarkable to see these scenes of “wild abandon”, painted with such “precise conceptual engineering” – the figures at once “technically in motion” and “spellbindingly still”. Nowhere is this clearer than in the last picture here, the “masterpiece” A Dance to the Music of Time. Four female figures dance “a merry-go-round beginning to slow out of kilter”, their motion “not so much graceful as disturbing”; one of the dancers is visibly “flagging”, her hand slipping from her partner’s. Time itself is represented by a winged harpist, “his expression sardonic as he watches the dance that must soon come to an end”. It is the highlight of a gripping and “beautifully choreographed” exhibition.

The National Gallery, London WC2 (020-7747 2885, nationalgallery.org.uk). Until 2 January 2022

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