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Friday, August 09, 2013

Dancing in Time


Nicolas Poussin 1594 - 1665
Dance to the Music of Time
c. 1634-6
Oil on canvas
83 x 104 cm
Wallace Collection, London


Nicolas Poussin 1594 - 1665
Preparatory drawing for A Dance to the Music of Time
About 1634-6
Pen, brown ink and wash on paper; traces of squaring on black chalk
14.80 x 19.90 cm
The National Gallery of Scotland


The painting has been described as "the jewel" in The Wallace Collection in London

It is a most impressive work

It was commissioned by then Cardinal Giulio Rospigliosi (1600-1669) later Pope Clement IX

Rospigliosi was one of the most cultured men of his day

His pontificate only lasted two years but it was reckoned to be one of the good ones. Humility, charity and peace were the hallmarks of his ministry

Rospigliosi was a supporter of France in the contest between France and Spain which dominated Europe in the early seventeenth century but not an extreme supporter. This contest was extended into the papacy and the Church

The final chapter of Giovan Pietro Bellori`s  Le vite de’ pittori, scultori, ed architetti moderni (1672) is the primary source for studies of Poussin.

From Bellori, we know that Rospigliosi determined the theme and greatly influenced the composition

It was one of three related paintings which he commissioned from Poussin. All have similar or related themes.

He defined the theme of this painting: "a moral poem", a pastoral in what seems almost Arcadian surroundings. So are the other two

In those times, poetry and painting were regarded as similar and related (almost identical) pursuits. The principle of ut pictura poesis was predominant in the late sixteenth and in the seventeenth century

The Italian poet of the time  Giambattista Marino (1569 - March 25, 1625), a close friend of Poussin in Rome,  expressed it this way:
"Many are the relationships, and great are the analogies, as believe  all the sages, between canvas and paper, between colours and ink,  between brush and pen… 
Poetry is described as speaking Painting,  
Painting as mute poetry; one is characterised by mute eloquence; the other by eloquent silence. 
One is silent in the other; one argues in the other, thus in turn exchanging roles and voices,  
Poetry may be said to Paint, and Painting to write" 
Giambattista Marino, Dicerie sacre, ed. Giovanni Pozzi (Turin: G. Einuadi, 1966)


Four people (three women and one man) are seen dancing and frame a circle. They face out from the centre. They seem to be dancing clockwise. Or are they ? There are indications that perhaps there are forces pushing anti-clockwise.

These figures are stages in the Fortune of Mankind: Poverty, Industry (or Labour), Wealth and Luxury

Luxury looks out on the viewer. She catches the viewer`s eye. It is she who draws the viewer into the picture.

They like all figures in this poetic work are lit from the upper left. In the background in the sky we see figures who are traversing the heavens from left to right also. The mmovement in the picture appears to be from left to right

The dancing figures are the representation of the Greek and Roman  "Wheel of Fortune" (Rota Fortunae) which was also a popular image in medieval times. Fortune`s wheel could be advantageous, disadvantageous, or both.

"Slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" were in the hands of Providence not his Will

The man is Poverty. He is the barefoot figure in the rear with his back to the viewer. He looks onto the next stage: Labour. Labour leads to Wealth who is dressed in more finery than the other two. Wealth then to Luxury. Too much Luxury leads of course to Poverty. But the dance can be reversed. 

The music for the Dance is provided for by Time: the old man playing the lyre. 

He dictates the tempo of Life and Fortune. When he stops playing, the Dance is ended and the circle dissipates.The wheel is broken. 

None of the dancers can stop while Time plays on. If they do, the Dance and Fortune stops. 

They do have some influence or control over which direction the dancers move and gyrate.

As regards the two putti. One is beside Father Time holding an hour glass. The other is blowing bubbles. Both underline the finite nature of life and its brevity, the transitoriness of existence and its fragility.

There are two stone works which frame the figures on the ground. They set the boundaries of movement for the dancers.

On the left is a sculpture of a two-headed Janus figure. 

Janus was of course a Roman God: the god of beginnings and transitions, always looking to the past, the other face to the future. His month is January, the beginning or doorway of the year.

He is the god of Doors and Doorways.

As regards his temple in Rome, the gates to the temple were open in war. They were closed in time of peace. They were rarely closed.

We see the god. The doors of his temple must be open. Peace does not reign in Arcady. War and conflict stalk the land. This is not Arcady or Eden. This is after the Fall 

The right hand boundary on which Father Time and assistant rest is of course a tombstone or funeral monument or more likely, cenotaph, an empty tomb. The young dancers are slowly making their way towards it. They must see it and realise that it is for them.

In the heavens above, Aurora, goddess of Dawn, leads the procession with  the chariot of Apollo the sun-god in the sky behind.  The Hours are in his train.  Apollo holds a ring representing the Zodiac.

It is mid morning. The dancers are young. They are energetic and love to dance. It is a happy scene. Both it is a snapshot, a moment in Time.  The figures will change and their energy will fail as evening and night appear. In the end there will be darkness and stillness.

But they will be replaced by new dancers and dances and so on and so on.

It is of course a sombre work. 

On the face of it, not a Christian work. 

One is reminded of the tarantella. One bite of the spider and the victim dances till he or she drops dead either from exhaustion or the poison of the spider. 

However by presenting a Classical pagan meditation on Time and on Life, the commissioner and artist show the futility and vacuousness of the Classical culture. Something is missing. For Poussin and Rospigliosi, it is the Christian vision. 

It is a time and place where the Christian vision is absent. It is either before the Incarnation or where news of the Incarnation, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection has not reached. 

It is the time in history of pagan Classicism

All the Popes of modern times have spoken about the emptiness lying at the heart of modern life. It is not a new theme. The picture above demonstrates it. 

Shortly after the Second World War, in 1946 - 8, the Swiss Protestant theologian and ecumenist Emil Brunner (1899 - 1966) delivered the Gifford Lectures at the University of St Andrews. His lectures were entitled  Christianity and Civilisation

He was then Professor of Systematic and Practical Theology, University of Zurich and an associate of Karl Barth

In his lecture, The Problem of Time, Brunner considered (1) Time in Eastern cultures; (2) Time in Greek Platonism; (3) Time for Modern Mankind since the Enlightenment, the French Revolution and the Idea of Progress; and (4) the Christian concept of Time

He said of Modern Man and the modernist conception of Time:
"Modern man's understanding of time is quite different from this conception. 
To him the temporal is the real. 
Whether there is anything eternal is uncertain; but that the things in time are, is beyond question. 
But what is his concept of time? 
As it is quantity which determines his concept of reality, time also is a quantum—measurable time, time which consists of time-units, time-atoms. The second hand of the watch is the symbol of modern man's understanding of time. 
He looks for reality in the present moment, but the present moment is the smallest indivisible element or fraction of time. 
Life, then, cannot be but the sum or addition of such fractional time-entities, of time-atoms. 
This quantified physical time has completely lost its distinctiveness from space; it has become a fourth dimension of space. Quantified time is spatialised time. 
Time dwindles away into space. It has no quality of its own. It is interchangeable with the dimensions of space, and is therefore always about to pass into zero. 
It is this conception—not the watch or the telephone or the aeroplane—which is the cause of man's not having time. 
Time was lost to him metaphysically long before he had overcome it technically. 
The exact time-signal on the radio, which every decent citizen notes in order to set his watch correct to the second, the wrist watch, which at any moment shows him the exact time—all these devices have been invented because man wants them, because time vanishes under his fingers, because he does not have time any longer. 
We have reached here the opposite pole from the Oriental view. 
Reality is pulverised temporality. 
It is in vain that Faust wishes to see that moment to which he can say: “Verweile doch, Du bist so schön!” It is in vain that Nietzsche exclaims in a superb poem: “Denn alle Lust will Ewigkeit, will tiefe, tiefe, Ewigkeit”. 
If once you have declared your option for the moment, the fate of your reality as radical temporality is determined, and radical temporality is vanishing time. Time dwindles away, constantly approaching zero. 
It is for this reason that modern man wants to snatch as much of this time as possible, to get as much “into his time” as he can. 
He begins, so to say, a race with time, and in this race man is inevitably the loser, because it is the last moment which decides, and the last moment is death. 
Man races death, but death wins. 
Over the whole of life there looms this certainty of a lost race with death. 
But no one likes to face it. The thought of it is avoided, because man's chances are so absolutely hopeless. Modern man puts out of sight as well as he can all reminders of death; he does not want to hear of it, because the thought reminds him of his being the loser. 
All the same, the remembrance of death stands behind him with its whip like a slave-driver and urges him on. 
This—and this—and this I must have, cries man, before it is too late, before the door closes for ever. 
It is the panic of the closed door. This panic explains many of the features which are typical of modern life: man's hasty enjoyment, his all-dominating craving for security, to which finally he sacrifices freedom and his soul."