National Gallery, London
So sombre Poussin was actually a hedonist? What a surprise! By dwelling on his decade in Rome, then a city revelling in raw sensuality, this show casts him as Caravaggio’s lewder cousin
Nicolas Poussin intimidates me. This 17th-century French artist, who spent most of his life in Rome, is so profoundly serious it can feel like you’ll never be quite grownup enough to get him. Quail before his solemn depictions of the Seven Sacraments. Melt under the severe gaze of his Self-Portrait in the Louvre. His greatest champion in Britain was the art historian and Soviet spy Anthony Blunt, who presumably found something delicious in possessing a secret knowledge of the Poussin code, the one I’ve never been privy to. It was also possessed by the snobbish writer Anthony Powell, whose novel sequence shares its title with Poussin’s painting A Dance to the Music of Time.
Now the mystery is blown wide open. The National Gallery has cracked art’s most elitist code. Its liberating new exhibition unleashes a Poussin who is human, passionate and high on ancient history. This it achieves with a razor-sharp focus on his first 10 years living in Rome and feasting on its pleasures.