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Nicolas Milovanovic: “Poussin is an Extraordinarily Sensual Painter”

Published on , by Armelle Fémelat

Nicolas Milovanovic, co-curator with Ludmila Virassamynaïken and Mickaël Szanto of “Poussin et l’amour” (Poussin and Love) at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Lyon, chief curator of the Louvre's Department of Paintings and a 17th-century French painting specialist, discusses this unexpected theme.

© Didier Saulnier Nicolas Milovanovic: “Poussin is an Extraordinarily Sensual Painter”
© Didier Saulnier

Why is the exhibition at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon?
The project started with the museum's exceptional purchase of two paintings by Poussin: The Flight into Egypt in 2008 and The Death of Chione in 2016. The former was very expensive and raising the necessary money was complicated. The second was a very bold acquisition, as the painting was then accepted only by Denis Mahon, and then by Pierre Rosenberg. The museum bought these two extraordinary paintings notably because there is a part of Lyon in Poussin. In a way, he’s a Lyon artist. One of his biographers, Giovanni Battista Passeri, says he spent several years in the city. Henriette Pommier recently discovered that he was there in March and June 1622. She also found a mention of Chione in the 1691 post-mortem inventory of Silvio II Renon, grandson of Silvio I. A master silk worker who came from Italy in the 1610s, he was a passionate painter. He built a fine collection including several works by Poussin, who was about the same age as him. Following its two important acquisitions, the Lyon museum wanted to offer a Poussin event. Now, after the exhibition "Poussin et Dieu" (Poussin and God) that Mickäel Szanto and I presented at the Louvre in 2016, we wanted to show that beyond being a philosopher-painter, Poussin was also a very down-to-earth artist in touch with human emotions, especially love.

Has the current context impacted the event’s organization?
It certainly has. It’s been disastrous, primarily due to Covid. It’s not easy to obtain loans. We had to fight, even though our colleagues are very understanding because there is a kind of solidarity between us. Then, a dozen Russian loans fell through because of the war in Ukraine. The Hermitage has the second-largest number of Poussin paintings in the world and the Pushkin Museum also has some incredible things. They agreed to the loans and our Russian colleagues were set to write the catalog essays. We don't have them, and they are sorely missed. We can’t show the entire Nymph and Satyrs series, of which there are three versions: in Dublin, at the Prado and at the Pushkin Museum. Like other connections, which are made in the same space, this series shows that the young Poussin repeated himself.

 

Nicolas Poussin, Nymph and Drinking Satyr, c. 1626-1628, oil on canvas, Madrid, Prado Museum© Museo Nacional del Prado

Nicolas Poussin, Nymph and Drinking Satyr, c. 1626-1628, oil on canvas, Madrid, Prado Museum
© Museo Nacional del Prado

What is the goal of the exhibition?
The idea is to take a new look at Poussin's painting. His lifelong obsession with the theme of love is found in his work, but in different ways depending on the period. His approach is clearly erotic in his early paintings and during his years in Rome. Then, in the 1630s, he became interested in Bacchic madness. He painted many bacchanals for Richelieu. Afterward, when Poussin fell ill, love became melancholic, associated with death, and he gave it a more dramatic treatment. Much remains to be discovered about the end of his life, and even more about his early years in Rome and before. A bunch of clues suggests that he visited prostitutes in Rome at the same time that he painted. But we mustn’t go too far and jump to any conclusions.

How did he depict the theme of love?
The show is thematically and chronologically divided into five sections, with visual pleasure as a common thread. It’s been designed for "the pleasure of delectation", in Poussin’s own words. Showing works next to each other is crucial. Beauty and the power of the gaze are the exhibition’s hallmarks, which is why we decided to show only Poussin. Paintings and drawings, but no prints, although we hesitated, especially to evoke the lost or damaged paintings. But we didn't want to weaken the message: we wanted to make it understood that Poussin is an immense painter. You can admire works that are never seen either because they’ve been rejected from the corpus and are often stored in museums or they’ve just been discovered on the market and sometimes even by private collectors. An example is Narcissus, which resurfaced at an auction in New York a year ago. This is the first time the public will be able to see the completely unexpected painting that Mickaël and I discovered in the Paul Jamot Collection. Nobody has seen it yet, including the leading specialists. There’s also Poussin’s last painting, the unfinished, very fragile and very moving Apollo and Daphne. I find it poignant: When you look at it closely, you feel that each brushstroke was an effort. Love is still there, but death is at the heart of the painting. This is a truly extraordinary loan from the Louvre.


Do you address the issue of eroticism?
Of course! The second section, called “Desired Bodies”, features the most carnal paintings. They show the desire aroused by the gaze and the focus here is on female nudes: Venus, nymphs, etc. Poussin was really an ultra-erotic painter. We discovered that some of his works were defaced out of prudishness, such as the small painting in the Jamot Collection that we identified in a collector's home in Paris. The restoration revealed a large lacuna at the level of the buttocks of Venus. A similar lacuna, in the same location, can be found in the Dublin painting, Nymph and Satyr, as well as in Venus and Adonis in Providence, Rhode Island. In a handwritten text preserved at the BnF, collector Louis-Henri de Loménie de Brienne wrote that “his” nude Venus, by Poussin, with her legs spread open was too obscene for him and that he cut it up to make it more acceptable. Until then, we didn't really know that Poussin’s paintings had been censored and disfigured because they were deemed too erotic.

What were his sources for eroticism?
His erotic paintings are not as Titianesque as people say. The roots of his inspiration are to be found less in Titian than in Raphael's entourage, especially Giulio Romano or Marcantonio Raimondi, during the clearly erotic moment that occurred in Rome in the 1520s and 1530s, after Raphael's death. Then there are the Carracci: Agostino engraved the “Postures” series, which was censored, like Raimondi’s I Modi. Behind all that, there’s obviously antiquity. Several printmakers interpreted Roman statues or bas-reliefs, including Raimondi and members of Master D.’s entourage.

Do you think Poussin is a sensual painter?
He’s an extraordinarily sensual painter, which the exhibition aims to show. You have to see all these paintings that were overlooked for a long time: the pleasure of painting is really perceptible. One feels a sense of freedom and a sensual touch in the impasto. Poussin is full of fire, and a virtuoso painter. His friend, the Cavaliere Marin, called him "un giovane che ha una furia da diavolo"—"a young man with the devil's fury". The Italian poet’s description is spot on!


 

Nicolas Poussin, Vénus et Adonis, c. 1628-1629, oil on canvas. The Kimbell Art Museum© The Kimbell Art Museum

Nicolas Poussin, Vénus et Adonis, c. 1628-1629, oil on canvas. The Kimbell Art Museum
© The Kimbell Art Museum

WORTH SEEING
“Poussin et l’amour” (Poussin and Love),
Musée des beaux-arts, Lyon, France.
From November 26, 2022 to March 5, 2023.
www.mba-lyon.fr
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