Making my way through the splendid “Poussin and Nature” exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York yesterday, I kept thinking about a comment Jed Perl, the New Republic’s art critic, had made in his review of the show. “At a time when the world around us, political or economic or cultural, seems more disheartening than it has been in at least a generation,” he wrote, “there is something thrilling about Poussin’s conviction that the discipline of painting can make life a little easier to bear.” This statement stayed with me, for two reasons: I couldn’t disagree more about the current political environment, and I never would have thought of Poussin as a painter who would speak to our current condition. Having seen the paintings, I too found them oddly relevant, but I’m still inclined to see the political glass as half full.
Perl’s comment was inspired by “Landscape with Three Men,” in which, as Perl puts it, “one figure, reclining on the grass, is pointing toward the blue-tinted mountains in the distance, while a man with a staff, probably a traveler, points in another direction, guiding our eyes toward the right margin of the canvas.” Perl interprets the first of these gestures as pointing into the imaginary depths of the painting, and the second as traversing the picture plane on which the artist actually works. This, he concludes, is the artist’s world in all its entirety, and somehow– Perl doesn’t really say how-- seeing it may give us a new purchase on our own world.
For me, the overwhelming sense of Poussin’s genius came a room earlier than “Landscape with Three Men,” in a room featuring Poussin’s heroic paintings of the 1640s. Even for those who don’t usually like classically tinged paintings on a grand scale, Poussin’s are unique in their complexity and sheer aesthetic power. (A woman next to me said, referring I think to the symphony of delicate greens in the grass and trees and the beiges and grays of the pillars and stone, “there are so many tones!)” But I wouldn’t have looked to the heroic landscapes for insights into the messiness of the contemporary world. The paintings are Poussin at his most Stoic; many have a hushed quality (an air of “retreat and silence,” as one of the catalogue essays puts it) that seems far removed from the intensity of twenty-first century life.
And yet one of these paintings, based on a famous tale from Greek mythology, seemed eerily relevant. In “Landscape with Orpheus and Eurydice,” Orpheus, dressed in a brilliant red robe, is sweetly and feverishly playing his harp, unaware that his wife Eurydice has just been bitten by a snake. In the middle distance, a group of men strain at a rope, pulling a boat along a river; above them, two thick clouds of smoke stream up from a finely detailed, classical fortress. As in many of the Poussin’s heroic paintings, the narrative tension comes from the contrast between the lovely, pastoral landscape and a great tragedy of which many or most of the figures are unaware. The landscape is littered with clues to the tragedy– the smoke, the boat that hints at the mythological ferry that transports souls to the underworld, a vast shadow edging its way toward Orpheus. But Orpheus is still singing with sweet, passionate contentment.
It was of course another lovely day, at a time when America’s place in the world seemed impregnable, when everything was transformed by the attacks on the twin towers. And that was my first thought when I saw the smoke at the top of the painting. But now, six years later and despite all the tragedy of the current moment, America’s politics seem more encouraging than in many years. Each party gravitated toward its best presidential candidates, and the likely matchup between Barack Obama and John McCain will provide a choice between sharply different visions for the direction of the country. Unlike Orpheus in Poussin’s painting, and unlike America in 2001, we know now what the dangers are. And with Obama’s emphasis on youth and liberalism, and McCain’s on honor and traditional, good government conservatism, the country seems likely to have a clear choice between two very defensible ways to respond.