We should apprehend, too, the nature of death; and that only if it be steadily contemplated, and the fancies we associate with it be mentally dissected, it will soon come to be thought of as no more than a process of nature (and only children are scared by a natural process)—or rather, something more than a mere process, a positive contribution to nature’s well-being.
—Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 2, Section 121
All of modernism—color for the sake of color, form for the sake of form, in varying proportions and arrangements2—is contained in Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), but much more. The sadness of modernism is that this “much more”—nature, in all the majesty of its meaning—has slowly disappeared from modern painting, which finally loses its resonance because of this absence and loss. Pure abstraction is a Pyrrhic victory over nature, for without nature, if only as expressive trace or emotional undercurrent, art becomes stale, flat and unprofitable, a technical game with diminished aesthetic and human returns, as post-painterly abstraction—the dregs of modernist purity—makes clear.
“To work from nature is to improvise,”3 Braque declared. But not to work from nature, to finally abandon nature as the greatest muse, to make art that engages only “formal facts”4 and the material medium, as Clement Greenberg argued the purest art does, is to miss the point that art, like death, condenses in itself the natural “process of transition,” as Marcus Aurelius called it. Through it, the form and matter of which things consist are “re-fashioned…into some other portion of the universe…and so onward to infinity.” The grandeur of Poussin’s nature is emblematic of this infinite process, unfolding itself in “finite cycles”—symbolized by the fated cycle of seasonal change—to which everything is subject. Neither the “formal element” nor “material…can ever pass away into nothing, any more than either of them came into being from nothing.” But both change with death. Many of Poussin’s pictures deal with death—death as the moment of decisive change in the unchanging process of nature. It appears in the form of weariness in Travelers Resting (A Roman Road) (c. 1637), as a threatening snake in Landscape with a Man Pursued by a Snake (1648) or as symbolic tomb, in Landscape with an Ancient Tomb (1633–35). Most famously, it makes its presence felt in The Arcadian Shepherds (Et in Arcadia Ego) (1628) and Landscape with the Ashes of Phocion (1648).
In of all these paintings, architecture, generally classical, appears within the larger transcendence of nature. The architecture seems more solid than that of the changing clouds in the sky and the glittering leaves on the trees that surround it. But this is deceptive; rendered in excruciatingly concrete detail, Poussin’s nature is much more real than his architecture. It is a man-made hallucination, appearing like a dream of ancient glory—a dignified wish-fulfillment—in the natural environment. Poussin’s architecture has a peculiar transience, an air of enigmatic abandonment, a mirage-like feel to it, as though it were a geometrical façade in an emotional vacuum. Its permanence is a lie, its immortality, an illusion; ruins are almost always evident in Poussin’s pictures, both as acknowledgements and forebodings of death. All that is left of the background buildings in the Landscape with the Ashes of Phocion are the fragments of wall and foundation in the foreground. The weary traveler leans his back against an ancient wall; it looks solid, but it is a remnant of past glory, a piece of dead stone. It will eventually—inevitably—change into the earth on which he sits, however slowly, by the measure of a human lifetime.
Its return to nature is confirmed by the fresh wreath that crowns it. However dead and remote the classical past, and however glorious it was—certainly in myth—the life of nature will continue, and is more glorious. Nature alone is eternal in Poussin’s pictures, more enduring even than the geometry it subsumes in its process. Classical structures have only an imaginary, artistic existence for Poussin. The compulsion to repeat and enhance them—giving them an aesthetic gloss that makes their intrinsic beauty seem even more ideal—confirms that they are memento mori. Time informs Poussin’s space, but time is the instrument of eternity. The background classical buildings belong to the past. The foreground figures, biblical or classical, often running, dramatize the fleeting present. The landscape sometimes hints of future death. A living tree and a dead tree may appear together. In the early erotic pictures—Sleeping Venus and Cupid (c. 1526) and Venus (or a Nymph) Spied on by Satyrs (1627)—death appears in the menacing form of spying shepherds or lusty satyrs. The beautiful nude Venus is their victim, and she is asleep, reminding us of death. She is the passive pole of nature’s eternal dialectic, and their desire for her is the active pole. Each needs the other to be complete, which is why they are fated to copulate and endlessly repeat their merger. They are destined by nature to repeat the cycle of desire, which includes the desire for beauty. For Poussin, the force of nature unites beauty and the beast in paradoxical harmony. Poussin’s paintings are a myth-cloaked “metaphysics” of nature, in which eternity becomes timely through the sensations of nature, which themselves are eternal.
When Cézanne said he “wanted…to make of Impressionism something solid and durable, like the art of the museums,” 5 he seems to have been thinking of Poussin, as Maurice Denis suggests when he notes that “the two operations, the Aspect and Prospect, as Poussin says, are no longer separate with Cézanne.” The “eminently static quality”6 of Cézanne’s work, as Carlo Carrà called it, derives from Poussin, along with Cézanne’s “objectivism of color” and “classical objectivity of form.”7 Cézanne’s “construction of color” owes a debt to Poussin’s, and if Cubist geometry is impossible without Cézanne’s geometry, then Cézanne’s geometry is impossible without Poussin’s geometry, which has more “architectonic” integrity, to use Carrà’s word. All the evidence points to the fact that the modernist “objectification” of form and color—geometry and what Cézanne called “light vibrations” (rendered through what Huysmans called Cézanne’s taches as well as colors)—owes a heavy debt to Poussin.
But the modernists extract—abstract—them from nature, and discard the natural environment to which they belong and signify, while Poussin shows them to be inseparable from—embedded in—nature. It is as though the modernists consciously struggle to repudiate and expunge nature from their art—has it become too Romantic for tough-minded technological society?—however unconsciously they may be drawn to it. Cézanne may insist that “strong experience of nature is the necessary basis for all conception of art,”8 but he certainly didn’t view, let alone “realize,” nature the way Poussin did. Cézanne’s anxiety, noted by Picasso, was that of an Impressionist desperate to observe and capture every fleeting nuance of nature. It stands in sharp contrast to Poussin’s uncanny calm, his contemplative as well as sharp-eyed observational consciousness, which comes from understanding that the seemingly unstable, changing appearances of nature are details of its over-all, unchanging stability.
The different parts of Poussin’s paintings move together like the music of the spheres, forming a seamless harmony, however separate and singular each sphere of visual influence. Cézanne cannot put the parts together because he cannot see nature whole, as Poussin does. Cézanne bifurcates nature into form and color. He says to “treat nature by the cylinder, the sphere, the cone,”9 which is not the same as treating it as a sum of “light vibrations, represented by reds and yellows,” with a “sufficient amount of blue”—on the one hand, reducing it to a composite of geometrical structures, on the other hand, to a composite of primary colors. Poussin grasps it in all its complex integrity. Differentiated details fuse into one nature in Poussin, while in Cézanne innumerable sensations overwhelm the organic oneness of nature, which is why his landscapes seem to disintegrate into “pure art.” The denaturing of art begins with Cézanne. It becomes more physical than philosophical, more a matter of technique than vision. No longer organically integrated, form and color reify into abstract absolutes.
I think Poussin is most modernist in the sensational robes—luminously colored, like expressionist flashes of lightning, grand gestures of vibrating light—many of his dashing figures wear. They appear in the Apollonian landscape like exclamation points, making its Dionysian point obvious. Landscape with a Storm (1651) is the famous exception to the Apollonian rule, but the luminous buildings, with their geometrical sturdiness, stand above the dark storm, holding their own despite its expressionistic intensity. They signify Apollonian sanity and dignity in the midst of Dionysian insanity and violence. And however stormy, the landscape as a whole is an Apollonian construction, like Landscape with a Calm, painted in the same year.
Objectified into pure sensuous presence by the light that informs them, the colors nonetheless convey the “impure” emotional meaning that informs the figures. The colorful robes are, after all, worn by the dramatic figures, however intense the light that makes the colors stand out in relief from their robes. But the ambiguous perception of color—it seems simultaneously pure and decorative, seems to exist in its own space even as it is empirically part of the robe’s space—adds to the dramatic complexity of the figures. The color brings them to life, even though their robes confirm that they belong to a dead world, however mythologized into profound significance it may be. The color, with its indwelling light, lifts them out of their hadean world. It is a landscape with deep, dense shadow, often giving it a greater, more forceful presence than the soft fragmentary light that shines through the flimsy clouds, which never quite dissipate, letting the light take over the scene completely. The ancient robes indicate that they can never leave it.
The interplay of eros and thanatos staged by the figures—they sometimes seem like animated statues—recurs on a cosmic scale in the interplay of bright light and elegiac shadow that informs nature, but the light that gives the colors their ecstatic presence seems trans-natural, compared to the natural light and shadow. The indwelling light makes the colors seem primordial and pure, passionate and abstract at once, reinforcing the fact that they are generally primary colors: red in The Death of Eurydice (1625–26), Midas, Pan and Shepherds (1625), Landscape with Juno, Argus and Io (1636–37), Travelers Resting (A Roman Road) (c. 1637), Landscape with Orpheus and Eurydice (1648); blue in Landscape with a Nymph and Sleeping Satyr (1625–26), The Nurture of Venus(1626), The Infancy of Bacchus (1628), The Arcadian Shepherds (Et in Arcadia Ego) (1628), Landscape with a Man Scooping Water from a Stream (c. 1637); and both red and blue in Venus Anointing the Dead Adonis (1626), A Pastoral Scene (1628), The Finding of Moses (1647), Landscape with Three Men (1651), Landscape with a Woman Washing Her Feet (Vertumnus and Pomona?) (1650), Landscape with a Storm, The Infant Bacchus Entrusted to the Nymphs of Nysa and The Death of Echo and Narcissus (c. 1657). Blue and red, usually alone, sometimes together, spontaneously punctuate other scenes, lifting the spirit with their energy and excitement, as though erupting from Poussin’s unconscious in defiance of his conscious effort to emulate and evoke antiquity. They are modern in spirit, in the sense that they depart from the sobriety of the ancient landscape. One can understand them as dynamic interventions in an otherwise static space, to refer again to Carrà’s characterization of Cézanne’s landscapes.
I am suggesting that one finds the aesthetic fundamentalism or primitivism of modernism—pure form and color—in Poussin. Cézanne’s admiration for him implies as much. But Poussin has something that modernism seems unequal to: a philosophical consciousness of fate, subliminally evident in nature, along with a reverence for its details, the fruit of deep experience and contemplation of it. The dialectic between eros and thanatos that informs human life is also fated, unavoidable, recurrent, constant. It is another finite, natural cycle and eternal process, complicating nature’s infinity, deepening its mystery. Human beings are a small part of nature, a minor detail in the larger landscape, as Poussin’s pastoral scenes make clear, but, like the seasons, they are ruled by the dialectic of life-giving eros and life-taking thanatos that gives nature its inner rhythm. In modern art, the nature that dialectically unites them collapses, allowing each to go its separate way, proclaiming itself the fundamental or primitive truth of nature. Art devolves into a conflict of eros and thanatos in modernity, exemplified by the conflict between dynamic Expression and static Construction (irrepressible energy and repressive geometry) that different advocates of modern art—Clement Greenberg, Theodor Adorno and Alfred Barr, who in 1936 argued that it climaxes in non-geometrical and geometrical abstraction—agree are its opposite and incommensurate poles. Emotional fundamentalism or expressive primitivism vies with aesthetic fundamentalism or formal perfectionism for pride of place in modern art.
Poussin’s paintings also seem to divide into expressively primitive and aesthetically sophisticated parts. The Arcadian shepherd and satyr are emotionally primitive beings; the former tends animals, the latter is half animal. The shepherds symbolize a primitive stage of civilization, when human beings were supposedly more attuned to nature—far more natural than the ideal classical structures, epitomizing civilization at its most glorious. The down-to-earth shepherds exist in a space apart from the elegant architecture, which invariably dwarfs and diminishes them. The satyrs are altogether uncivilized and primitive, wild creatures of nature, however partially human. But the shepherds/satyrs and architecture are natural parts of the same picture, however much one or the other sometimes dominates it.
Poussin’s pictures deal with the emergence of civilization, with its refined architecture, from nature, with its unrefined creatures. Nature and civilization seem at odds; the shepherds and satyrs aren’t fit to live in the classical buildings. The geometrical structures seem to transcend the organic landscape. They are strangers in it, however prominently placed. The dialectic of nature and civilization seems unresolved in Poussin, unless it is resolved in the pagan gods, at home both in nature and the stately temples dedicated to them. The infant Bacchus rides a goat and is cared for by a shepherd and satyrs, who are part goat, but also by Mercury, who signals the higher Olympian world of the architecture. But the temples seem deserted, and the shepherds and satyrs are indifferent to them. They go about their “natural” business, making the temples seem “unnatural.”
Is the difference between nature and civilization in Poussin’s pictures the same as the conflict between uncontainable instinct and self-contained construction in modern art? I don’t think so. In Poussin, the opposites—mythologized by way of the lively Arcadian figures and monumental classical architecture (dead and ghostly, however restored to aesthetic grandeur by Poussin)—are not antagonists but exist side by side. They are in effect parallel expressive lines that converge in cosmic space, inner unconscious space projected outward and made conscious. The all-encompassing space—the geometricization of organic space, that is, the geometrical differentiation of cosmic space into a seamless continuum of discontinuous grounds, is one of Poussin’s great achievements—suggests their inner correspondence despite their outer discrepancy. Poussin’s conflation of visible disjunction and wishful conjunction—the dynamic disjunction created by the eruption of instinctive energy and the constructive conjunction of pure forms—into a singular pictorial space makes his pictures memorable in a way no modern pictures can ever be. Elevating one at the expense of the other, they are invariably aesthetically and expressively incomplete, that is, half-truths.
“Poussin and Nature: Arcadian Visions,” an exhibition of forty paintings and an equal number of drawings, was on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through May 11, 2008.
1 Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (London and New York: Penguin, 1964), p. 49.
2 Georges Braque declared that the modern painter “thinks in terms of form and color,” “Thoughts and Reflections on Art” (1917), in Herschel B. Chipp, ed., Theories of Modern Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968), p. 260.
4 Clement Greenberg, “Abstract, Representational, and so forth” (1954), Art and Culture (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964), p. 138. Greenberg identifies the “formal factors” as the “sheerly abstract.” In his essay on Cézanne, he writes that Cézanne’s “real problem would seem to have been, not how to do Poussin over according to nature, but how to relate—more carefully and explicitly than Poussin had—every part of the illusion in depth to a surface pattern endowed with even superior pictorial rights.” (p. 54) This superior pictoriality is entirely a matter of constructing the surface plane of “facet-planes [that] are one with both surface and image.” (p. 55) But the emphasis is on the formal factors of the facet-planes, not on the surface plane per se, nor on the image.
5 Quoted in Maurice Denis, “Cézanne” (1910), in Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, eds., Art in Theory 1900–1990 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1993), pp. 42–43.
6 Carlo Carrà, “From Cézanne to Us, the Futurists” (1913), in Chipp, p. 305.
8 Cézanne, letter to Louis Aurenche, 1904, in Chipp, p. 18.
9 Ibid., letter to Émile Bernard, 1904, in Chipp, p. 19.