Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Pious Poussin

This last weekend afforded an informative tromp through the recent history of western art, from post-Renaissance Poussin, to pre-shock art Courbet, concluding with a post-shock art Whitney Biennial (though the show has suffered generally negative reviews, a charitable mood can result in genuine refreshment from the inescapably theological video installations of Mika Rottenberg's and Javier Téllez).

The Poussin exhibit at the Met, however, was the strongest and - not coincidentally - oldest of the three exhibitions. Historian John Walford once asked a mysteriously silent student what he had thought of an intro art history course. Having not said anything all semester, the student immediately exclaimed: "Poussin - What an artist!" and went on to write a dissertation on the subject.

Poussin has long had such an effect, transfixing characters as diverse as Bernini, Wordsworth or Diderot; so it's perhaps unfair to compare him to the Biennial, or even to the indisputably brilliant Courbet (but I will). The Met's show - which, I regret to relate, is now concluded - focused on landscape, showing off how Poussin cast trees, wind and mountains as characters in his imposing dramas. With Poussin, landscape is dignified by human presence, human presence is dignified by landscape. As one of my museum companions observed, Courbet's figures, in contrast, are frequently disproportionate to their contexts. Stylistically, Poussin somehow synthesized the energies of Classicism and Baroque. Thematically, he brought together Christian and Classical themes. "The gulf between pagan and Christian art that had opened up during the Italian Renaissance," writes the esteemed Grove, "is reconciled by Poussin's strong sense of historical continuity."

Neither of Poussin's Seven Sacrament series were here displayed, but as the religious side of Poussin is ignored by many, perhaps this is just as well. We get the Poussin we deserve. But one cannot ultimately ignore the obvious. Art historian Anthony Blunt called Poussin a "a pure example of the Christian Stoic," and in the exhibit one can see how Poussin matured beyond the pornographic forays of his early career, (to be taken with a grain of Psalter), into his spiritually mature accomplishments. Courbet, again by contrast, counted pornography the fillet of his artistic achievement.

Karen Wilkin, in her celebratory review of this "fiercely intelligent exhibition" suggests that Poussin's Saint John on Patmos may be asserting "the instability of the pagan world in the face of Christianity." Furthermore, having now seen Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake in the original, I proudly stick by my thesis (self-link: drink!) as to its sublimated religious content. One Poussin scholar who responded to my earlier post seems to concur. No word yet from T.J. Clark.

But, of course, a Christian gloss on Poussin (however justified for the lack of scholarly attention to his faith), is not the story whole. The Louvre's more famous version of Et in Arcadia Ego was not in this exhibit, though an earlier manifestation of it, before the death theme was completely eclipsed, did appear. Erwin Panofsky's noted essay on art history's favorite Latinism shows how a medieval momento mori was transformed into a clouded euphamism. The Poussin painting on view showed a freeze frame in this unfortunate development, that is, from Gospel to Goth.
"Poussin... no longer shows a dramatic encounter with Death but a contemplative absorption in the idea of mortality. We are confronted with a change from thinly veiled moralism to undisguised elegiac sentiment."
Poussin hadn't then been reading his John Climacus, who in rung six of the Heavenly Ladder explained, "Just as bread is the most necessary of all foods, so the thought of death is the most essential of all works." A society that turns its graveyards into cemeteries and its parlors into "living rooms" (as ours did at the end of the nineteenth century) is in sad condition indeed. Poussin's Arcadia paintings may have contributed, however innocently, to the same development in Europe. Give me Guercino instead.

As the perceptive group I enjoyed the exhibit with gathered around Poussin's landscapes - giving them much of the meditative attention they deserve - the acres of canvas sparked delightful conversation, moreso than even film. One in our group, Adam, referenced Marshall McLuhan's idea of hot and cool media (from Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man). Cool media, unlike hot, demands something of its viewers, but can often give so much more. Poussin, the case in point, is eminently cool, and therefore demands much. Like Poussin, MacLuhan's faith is also frequently ignored (or not even realized). "In Jesus Christ," wrote MacLuhan, "there is no distance or separation between the medium and the message. It's the one case where we can say that the medium and the message are fully one and the same."

In Poussin, the medium and the message are wonderfully blurred as well (if not entirely unified), which puts those who wish to ignore his Christianity in an art historically sanctioned bind. But there's enough Poussin to please even those without eyes to see this essential component. Before Bohemian Courbet, who could fill an entire room with brooding self-portraits, there was the disciplined Poussin who (in this exhibit at least), provides us only one. The point, Poussin seems to be indicating, is not Poussin. Art, as always and like everything, must lose itself to be found.

Gladly, this is something at least a few artists at the 2008 Biennial seem also to have understood.

update: Incidentally, I can be nicer about Courbet (self link: drink!).