Bilbao isn’t a very inspiring place to visit, especially in the wintertime: difficult to get a beverage or something stronger in the afternoon, and if you want to eat dinner in the early evening- forget it! You’d have to bribe or arm wrestle a waiter to get a table between 7.00 and 9.00 pm. Situated amongst the mountains in the Basque country, the industrial town enjoys an oceanic climate which roughly translated means that it isn’t as warm as most of Spain. Still, I didn’t come to Bilbao to grouse about the amenities or the climate; I came to see Poussin, so onwards and upwards.
The exhibition is currently being held at the Museum of Fine Arts, Bilbao, an institution that boasts impressive holdings, on which I’ll write another day. You enter Poussin and Nature through a door to the right of the main entrance on the ground floor. I have to say that what struck me immediately was the inclusion of two Poussin paintings that were unfamiliar to me, and I was tempted initially to dismiss them as copies after lost paintings. However, I’m now coming round to thinking that the ‘Apollo and Daphne’, of 1626 and the ‘Pan, Midas and Shepherd’ of slightly later may be autograph. I’m at an immense disadvantage here, as I didn’t take notes en route because I naturally assumed that I’d buy a catalogue on the way out. No dice! I refused to pay 135 Euros or nearly £95 for a paperback catalogue written mainly in Spanish. However, I digress.
Most of the landscape paintings hung in this exhibition were familiar to me through actual visits or illustrations in publications. It was wonderful to study such canvases as the ‘Amor Vincit Omnia’, or ‘Cupid Tugs Pan’s Beard’ (left) as the catalogue has it. You never really experience Poussin properly until you stand in front of his creations and drink in his genius. Apart from the early mythologies or subject-less paintings set in landscape there were good examples of his monumental landscape period when the poetic view of nature is replaced by a more rigid and geometrical organization. I can’t remember which one of the Phocion pictures was present here- probably the Liverpool ‘Burial of Phocion’ (1648) (right) in which the Athenian general’s remains are returned to a plot of earth in the shade of presiding trees. It was interesting to compare the clouds and vegetation in the Liverpool painting with a similar composition on the other side of the room whose title, date and location, time, tiredness and too much Spanish wine has wiped from my mind. However, I do recall that the quotations of sarcophagi and tombs in that painting were too detailed for Poussin: he likes to cover his tracks where sources are concerned. No, I would challenge Rosenberg’s claim that this painting is by Poussin alone- more a collaboration between him and his French compatriot Jean Le Maire. This is intriguing and exciting because it’s yet another canvas that I haven’t seen. Le Maire and Poussin certainly worked together in the early Roman period on such trail blazing paintings as the ‘Plague of Ashdod’, but does this prove that their partnership lasted well into the 1640s?
Halfway through the exhibition, the visitor encounters the graphic area of the show: the drawings after nature. My eyes lit up at my first physical encounter with the beautiful sheet owned by the Uffizi of the Aventine in Rome; it is almost soaked in light, an effect recalling Félibien’s comments supposedly inspired by standing behind Poussin as he sketched the antiquities of Rome in the sunlight. Equally impressive is the drawing of St Mary of Egypt and St Zosimus in nature (left), a sheet that I’ve held in my hands at Windsor, as I was inclined to tell the guard who rebuked me for getting too close to the art. Still, they’re only doing their job, bless them. I was more put out at the inclusion of a group of drawings which betrayed alien hands, not Poussin’s own at all. Some of these drawings were exhibited by Konrad Oberhuber in his controversial though excellent show at Fort Worth in 1988. I also recall that some of these drawings were shown in a loan exhibition hosted by the Ashmolean, Oxford between 1990-1; I was not convinced of their authenticity then and am still not persuaded that they are autograph. Such drawings as ‘A View with S. Giorgio in Velabro, Rome’ just don’t fit into the picture of Poussin’s development as far as I’m concerned. To be fair to Rosenberg, he has put a note on the wall saying that some of these drawings have been disputed, but why then not ‘attributed to Poussin’, rather than give the impression that they’re drawn by the master himself? For all that, the public, very small at Bilbao –about 5 people in the gallery beside me- and in New York – travels there next Feb- will have been given a rare chance to familiarize themselves with Poussin’s graphic technique.
Returning to the paintings, there is much to admire in the latter stages of the exhibition. It was fitting that a painting owned by the Prado, ‘Landscape with St Jerome’ (right) should be included in the Spanish leg of Poussin and Nature. Standing before it I was reminded of Poussin’s ability to render light on rock or the fleeciness of a tree against the sky. And if you want an excellent example of how Poussin can paint different trees, then check out Montreal’s ‘Landscape with a Man Chased by a Serpent’, a canvas much written on by me in my doctoral dissertation. There I argued that this painting might have been influenced by the neo-Augustinianism of the seventeenth- century, something that this show and perhaps Poussin scholarship in general doesn’t seem interested in. I got a brief look at the catalogue before leaving the building, but apart from a few references to the Flight into Egypt, there seemed to be hardly anything about the relationship between Christianity and nature. True, in the exhibition we do have ‘Hagar and the Angel’ and two splendid canvases from the Seasons (Spring and Autumn), but wouldn’t the show have benefited from some of those paintings Poussin did of those Holy Families in a natural setting. The closest we come to this- no small compensation- is the Louvre’s Finding of Moses (left) which caused Chantelou to be jealous of its owner, Pointel.
This can only be a summary of the Bilbao show based upon fragmented recollections hindered by the absence of a catalogue and the limitations of memory, but my overriding impression was very positive. For God’s sake, there hasn’t been a Poussin exhibition on this scale since the big shows of the 1990s. Walking around this exhibition made me very conscious of that and how this exhibition- especially when it transfers to New York- MUST mark a new phase of Poussin scholarship. Yes, there are minor omissions and problems of connoisseurship, but despite this Rosenberg is to be congratulated on an excellent and long overdue show. I can’t wait to see it again in New York next year when doubtless I’ll have even more to say!