The Old Masters

Image of Poussin's 'Adoration of the Golden Calf', before it was vandalised, courtesy the National Gallery via Wikipedia

Image of Poussin's 'Adoration of the Golden Calf', before it was vandalised, courtesy the National Gallery via Wikipedia

“The art of Nicolas Poussin might obsess someone whose head was full of conspiracy theories,” wrote the Guardian’s Jonathon Jones recently. Jones was commenting on a recent incident in which a 57 year-old British man sprayed red paint on Poussin’s 1633 masterpiece, ‘The Adoration of the Golden Calf’, a painting at the UK’s National Gallery. Jones described it as a painting “about the forces that can destroy civilisation.” It’s unclear what motivated the 57 year-old vandal, although his paint did cover the painting’s nudity.

What is it about Poussin’s centuries-old paintings that continue to stir such passion?During his recent Wheeler Centre conversation with Antoni Jach, noted art historian and poet TJ Clark spoke at length about his own obsession with Poussin’s ‘Landscape with a Calm’ and art in general. The conversation was broad-ranging, linked by the themes of art, love, obsession and futility. “Art,” said Clark, “is the enemy of truth; art is the practice that knows life is an illusion - all the way down.” Here’s a report by WH Chong on the event.

No novel better captures the obsession some of us have with centuries-old works of art than Old Masters, by that strangest of comedic misanthropes, Thomas Bernhard. The novel features an 82 year-old music critic called Reger, who for 30 years has spent four or five hours every other morning sitting on the same bench in front of Tintoretto’s White-bearded Man in the Bordone Room of Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum. Towards the end of the novel Reger concludes, “in the end we are abandoned by all these so-called so-called great spirits and by these so-called Old Masters, and we see that we are mocked in the meanest way by these great spirits and Old Masters.” (It’s a slightly awkward quote, admittedly, but anyone who’s ever read Bernhard would appreciate how difficult it is to quote him.) Perhaps it was that feeling, that feeling of being mocked in the meanest way by Poussin, that drove one 57 year-old British man to decide he must destroy a painting almost four centuries old.

(Click to watch video.)

(Click to watch video.)