Pousin and the Dance

Nicolas Poussin, A Dance to the Music of Time, c.1634-6 © The Trustees of the Wallace Collection

The National Gallery’s latest exhibition examines the importance of the early works of the French artist Nicholas Poussin (1594-1665). There is a visual and chromatic splendour in Poussin’s painting. Based around dance these paintings and drawings established his reputation. The show also explores the influences which shaped and formed this remarkable artist.

In 1624 Poussin moved to Rome where we would live for the rest of his life with the exception of a brief and unhappy period in Paris.

Rome, the seat of the Renaissance, provided the closest encounter with classical antiquity in 17th century Europe. The English painter Sir Joshua Reynolds observed how Poussin’s mind was naturalised in antiquity. Poussin had visited Venice and admired Titian’s work. Although, like Milton, Poussin would move to a more serious manner with a moral preoccupation there is an underlying vibrant Venetian poetry which seems to inform these early pictures. It is in Rome that the Christian and Classical worlds meet and both would inform his art.

Poussin would find an extraordinary vocabulary giving voice to the expressive potential of the human body employing new methods of composition. He would create wax figurines to choreograph the compositions he drew and painted.

Poussin admired the classical reliefs from ancient antiquity depicting dancers. They inform the cool, abstract, formal language of Poussin’s dance pictures which contrasts with the animated scenes which they portray.

Nicolas Poussin, The Empire of Flora (detail), c.1630-1 © bpk/Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden/photo Elke Estel/Hans-Peter Klut

The Empire of Flora is an early example of the artist’s dance pictures – Ovidian yet carefree. Flora the goddess of flowers and spring dances with a ring of putti. The mythological scene is played out beneath the sun god Apollo and his chariot. The figures are allegorical representing poverty, wealth and pleasure in a repeated cycle. Human labour, ambition and decadence are played out as the dancers move through the seasons of life and nature.

The exceptional painting A Dance to the Music of Time is set as Dawn scatters flowers in the heavens heralding both a new day and Apollo who is once again depicted with his chariot.

The hues of the dancers’ flowing garments heighten the conflicting sense of stillness and movement. The dancers’ steps are measured responding to the chords of the winged representation of Father Time. This poetic dance is unending. The light and shadows appear real rather than imagined.

Poussin’s patrons were as serious as the artist himself. The literary, musical and choreographic elements of A Dance to the Music and Time are informed by the poet-patron Giulio Rospigliosi (1600-1669), who would later become Pope Clement IX.

This beautiful exhibition offers a fresh perspective on this exceptional classical French Baroque artist and displays the visual and chromatic splendour in Poussin’s dance paintings. Poussin and the Dance runs until the 2nd January 2022. To book your tickets visit www.nationalgallery.org.uk .

Maggi Hambling and Max Wall

Maggi Hambling., CBE, ‘Max Sitting (no.9)’, oil, signed and dated 1982

An important portrait by the leading British artist Maggi Hambling, from her famous Max Wall series of portraits, is to be auctioned at Toovey’s on Wednesday 19th June 2019.

Maggi Hambling was the artist in residence at the National Gallery in London during 1980 and 1981 as her work grew in confidence and power. It was during this time that she went to see Max Wall at the Garrick Theatre for the first time.

Max Wall’s public life as a clown and entertainer was in contrast to his often unhappy and disrupted private life.

In the summer of 1981 Max Wall played Vladimir in Samuel Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’ to much acclaim in the Royal Exchange production at the Round House. Hambling went to see him in the role on four or five occasions and began to work out a series of pictures based on his performance. As Max sat for her Maggi’s portraits of him became more intimate and insightful. Although they corresponded between October 1981 and Easter 1982 they remained apart.

In his absence, Hambling completed three of her most impressive paintings in the series. Among these is the picture illustrated, ‘Max Sitting (no.9)’. The painting is an act of recapitulation. Hambling gives expression to a painting of dreams, recalling a dream where a white owl bursts through a pane of glass in an isolated, lonely house. Max sits dreaming, his cigarette smoke hangs in the air as he waits on his muse represented by the owl’s arrival. The challenges of his life are signified by the cat’s shadow as the floor veers off in a nightmarish way. Her use of colour to create mood and atmosphere and the rendering of his features acts as though the portrait is a mirror into his soul. It gives voice to her concern for the individual human predicament.

Hambling would recall “At Easter 1982, Max reappeared and posed for drawings. After painting so long from my internal image of him, it was a traumatic experience to have him in front of me again, and to work from life.” Max thought it was marvellous that he should inspire Hambling in this way.

This powerful portrait would be reproduced on the cover of the exhibition catalogue for ‘Max Wall Pictures by Maggi Hambling’ at London’s National Portrait Gallery in 1983.

It was a measure of Hambling’s status as an artist when, in 1986, ‘Max Sitting (no.9)’ was hung alongside her fellow London Group artists, including Frank Auerbach, Peter Blake, Lucian Freud, David Hockney and Ron B. Kitaj at Manchester’s Whitworth Gallery in the ‘Artist and Model’ exhibition.

This important work will be auctioned at Toovey’s as part of their sale of fine paintings on Wednesday 19th June 2019 with a presale estimate of £10,000-£15,000. For more information telephone Nicholas Toovey on 01903 891955.

By Rupert Toovey, a senior director of Toovey’s, the leading fine art auction house in West Sussex, based on the A24 at Washington. Originally published in the West Sussex Gazette.