Sunday, April 20, 2008


T.J. Clark on Nicolas Poussin and Gustave Courbet at the Met...

Painting is a craft. It works up its grandest, largest-scale effects from a set of familiar coloured substances. Usually, looking at the way these substances go to make a world within the rectangle, one is aware of the special motion of a hand putting them on: a hand and a forearm, or occasionally the whole arm swinging from the shoulder. Poussin, whose hand in later life trembled from the effects of syphilis, devised a way of painting through the trembling – but also taking advantage of the slightly broader patchwork it dictated – that seems to me ‘handling’ in the most moving form we have. But all painters are handlers, even those, like Ingres, who want to show us the manual activity covering its tracks.

Painting is material. Materialism, for it, is not one view of the nature of the world among others, but the view – the felt reality – it cannot help but inhabit. Courbet used to enjoy upsetting the serious neo-Catholic disciples of Ingres by sticking his stubby hand in their faces and saying: ‘La peinture, c’est ça!’ But there is no need to be an atheist or a positivist for it to be one’s life’s work to place a viewer in the here and now. Poussin was neither, but his world is as earthly and creaturely as Goya’s or Masaccio’s. One thing that seems to follow naturally from painting’s material nature is that it sees its task as always turning on the human body – the body conjured up immediately and substantially. But the human animal is not painting’s whole subject (here is what marks it off from sculpture, to say nothing of dance). For painting is also convinced, in the way of no other art but architecture, of the reality of space. And it thinks that painting is uniquely equipped to give us this space, to contain and articulate it – to show its specific shape and pressure. The world in painting is one of bodies, but bodies in surroundings.

Posting either of their paintings would have been rather hackneyed - in my view...

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