As UK museums head for a resumption of normal service, the National Gallery in London has an unexpected and unlikely offer this month. He organizes his very first exhibition dedicated to Nicolas Poussin, the 17th century master of French Baroque and Neoclassicism and – in a perhaps counterintuitive movement, given the artist’s reputation as a purveyor of all that is solemn and austere – the exhibition will focus on the thin but prominent slice of Poussin’s paintings depicting dance and bacchanalia. “Exactly what we need after the pandemic,” says exhibition curator Francesca Whitlum-Cooper.
Whitlum-Cooper is an enthusiastic proselyte of Poussin, saying it is “terrifying” that the artist’s last major British exhibition took place over a quarter of a century ago, at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1995 She says the main driving force behind the new exhibition, co-organized with the Getty Center in Los Angeles, is that “after the Louvre, we have the world’s largest collection of Poussin paintings.” A fact that is not immediately clear to most who visit the National Gallery. “The feeling was that we weren’t able to engage people with them,” Whitlum-Cooper says. “When I joined the gallery six years ago, the Poussin were hiding in a forgotten corner. I didn’t feel like these were pictures people were going to look for.
The exhibition Chick and dancing seems to be a concerted attempt to remedy this, by redirecting attention to the more overtly joyful and sensual works that Poussin produced relatively early in his career, after moving to Rome in 1624. These include paintings that the museum already holds, such as The worship of the golden calf (1633-34) and Pan’s triumph (1636), alongside loans such as A dance to the music of time (c. 1634-36) from the Wallace Collection, Bacchus and Ariadne (1636-38) from the Museo del Prado and The triumph of Bacchus (1635-1636) in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City.
You don’t have to know all of the classic history to appreciate Poussin
Francesca Whitlum-Cooper, curator
Like his more generally somber religious and historical paintings, these bacchanalia clearly stem from Poussin’s obsessive interest in ancient friezes and statuary. Whitlum-Cooper describes his activities as those of a “total geek”, continually measuring the relationships between the hidden body parts of Roman and Greek works – “the nose to the Adam’s apple”, for example – to understand the perfect proportions of the classic form and make miniatures. wax models to get the silhouette posing just right.
Accepting that Poussin’s current less-than-stellar status is due to “the nature of the art world which, like everything else, has its ups and downs,” Whitlum-Cooper suggests that what she is trying to do is to overcome what she describes as “the fear, even among art historians, of needing to know a lot before they can understand the images”.
“This is why the idea of watching dance is so appealing, because we can all somehow understand the idea of movement in space,” says Whitlum-Cooper. “I hope this will make people realize that in fact you don’t have to know all of classical history, or the Christian liturgy and everything in between, to appreciate Poussin.”
• Chick and dancing, National Gallery, London, October 9-January 2, 2022; Getty Center, Los Angeles, February 15-May 8, 2022