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‘Poussin and the Dance’ review

Art National Gallery , Trafalgar Square Until Sunday January 2 2022
3 out of 5 stars
BPK 50.005.011
SKD Gemälde / Öl auf Leinwand (1631) , Nicolas Poussin [15.6.1594 - 19.11.1665] , Bildmaß 131,00 x 181,00 cm , Inventar-Nr.: Gal. Nr. 719, Artist: Nicolas Poussin Werbliche Nutzung nur nach Rücksprache!, Copyright: bpk | Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden | Elke Estel | Hans-Peter Klut

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

There’s a party going on at the National Gallery, and it’s not family-friendly. We’re talking drinking, fighting, dancing and a lot of nudity.

The host of this shindig is French master Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), who – the gallery insists – is ‘the single most important French painter before Manet and the Impressionists’. A bold claim that absolutely reeks of BS (what about Ingres, David, Gericault, Delacroix or Courbet?), but don’t let a bit of heavy editorialising get in the way of a good story.

Poussin loved painting and drawing objects from antiquity – huge vases, elaborate friezes – and used dancing as a way of giving them life. The works here are full of drunks and pervs lounging and dancing in poses and movements inspired by those objects. 

Most of the works here are feather-light: all pinks and peaches and sky blues. There are no stark contrasts or dramatic colours in ‘The Realm of Flora’ or ‘A Bacchanalian Revel Before a Term [a kind of antique staue]’, despite all the rape and death. Instead, Poussin goes full soft-focus, creating a joyous world of flesh and wine.

The paintings are shown alongside the objects that inspired them: the figures holding hands from ‘The Borghese Dancers’ relief are echoed in the painting opposite, the pissed-up punters from the giant ‘Borghese Vase’ show up in ‘The Triumph of Bacchus’. This relationship, this conversation, between Poussin and the Romans is the best thing about the show. It’s adoring and dedicated, full of nuances to discover.

The three ‘Triumph’ paintings are the standout Poussin works on display. They’re dark, wild, dangerous, unhinged images of people living on the edge of sobriety and sanity.

But there’s a schmaltziness to Poussin that’s a little tacky. It’s all gentle colours and chubby faces, and so much of the famed movement of his revellers seems stilted and joyless. Poussin is adored by art historians, especially the ones writing the National Gallery’s wall panels, so make of the show whatever you will. But for all the hard-partying here, the whole thing just feels a bit soft.   


Venue name: National Gallery
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Address: Trafalgar Square
Transport: Tube: Charing Cross

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