November 5, 2010 10:41 pm

The essence of humanity

I believe I am now in a position to reveal the secret of Poussin’s great philosophical painting ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’

The current show at the Wallace Collection in London, Poussin to Seurat: French Drawings from the National Gallery of Scotland, has all sorts of unexpected delights in a perfect pocket-sized exhibition – and all for free. Having visited recently, I believe I am now in a position to reveal the secret of Poussin’s great philosophical painting “A Dance to the Music of Time”. That secret has nothing to do with the Priory of Sion or the Knights Templar – or indeed with Anthony Powell’s sequence of novels.

The idea that paintings hide secrets reached a lunatic apotheosis in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code . In the world of conspiracy theories, one thing is always pointing to something else; behind the painting on the wall is a secret door leading to another wall behind which is a secret door leading to ... well, either the Holy Grail or an infinite regression of nonsense.

But I am not sure that art historians and iconographers – certain of whom complain in blogs that Brown is the only source quoted in some student essays on Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper”– should wax too indignant about The Da Vinci Code. They have been doing the same kind of thing, no doubt with more rigorous scholarly standards, for decades.

Perhaps scholars have a vested interest in locating the ultimate meaning of a painting outside the painting. Anyone, after all, can look at a painting such as “The Last Supper” or “A Dance to the Music of Time”. Only the tenacious scholar can burrow about in archives and discover hidden sources.

The notion that “A Dance to the Music of Time” might hide a secret is not entirely without foundation. The three paintings commissioned from Poussin in the 1630s by Giulio Rospigliosi (later Pope Clement IX) occupy a special place in his oeuvre. The famous “Shepherds in Arcadia” (in the Louvre), darkened by the stone tomb with the inscription Et in Arcadia Ego, has generated torrents of esoteric speculation.

Poussin himself might be thought to encourage such speculation when he writes: “These things [the meaning in my paintings] will not displease those people who know how to read them.” And then – the crown jewel for Poussin code enthusiasts – there is the mysterious letter of April 17 1656 from Abbé Louis Fouquet to his brother Nicolas Fouquet, Louis XIV’s superintendent of finances, stating that “He [Poussin] and I discussed certain things which I shall with ease be able to explain to you in detail – things which will give you, through Monsieur Poussin, advantages which even kings would have great pains to draw from him.”

Certain things, eh? But before going through that secret door behind the painting, let’s linger a while with the painting itself and with the beautiful preparatory ink drawing that is one of the stars of the Wallace Collection show.

Somehow in the drawing the dance element comes out more strongly. The four dancing figures that occupy the central space of both painting and drawing are less differentiated and also less clothed in the drawing. The near-nakedness gives the dance more of the character of a bacchanal. The dancing seems just a shade more abandoned and Dionysian in the drawing; and somehow that point is emphasised by the greater prominence and magnificence of the four horses that draw the chariot of the sun-god Apollo, much closer to the earthling dancers in the drawing than they are in the painting.

There are several small variations of composition between the drawing and the painting (the two putti together on the right, rather than one on each side, the bearded lyre-player looking down rather than directly at the dancers, Apollo placed further forward) that could be the subject of one of those “spot the difference” parlour games. But once again, though fascinating, they are not really the point.

So what is the point? It is that there is nothing in the least esoteric about this painting, no hidden secret. It is simply one of the most poignant, poised, comprehensive visions of human life – what it is to be a human, living in time – that has ever been committed to canvas. It is a classically inspired vision and surprisingly un-Christian for a painting commissioned by a future pope. The deities presiding over the scene are Dionysus and Apollo – and Time himself, whom some call Saturn. They might be immortal – and the immortality of golden Apollo might be connected with that of art – but human beings are not. Caught up in the sensual music of time, we humans have no choice but to go through the changes of season and age and chance. We can at least foot it lightly.

And if anyone thinks Poussin didn’t really mean this, it is just an academic exercise, he should look more closely. The whole surface of the painting is gently softened by the prints of Poussin’ left thumb, which the supposedly cerebral artist applied to the canvas before priming to give it the most intimate of personal touches.

harry.eyres@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/eyres

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