Poussin in Texas

Poussin, The Early Years in Rome: The Origins of French Classicism September 24–November 27, 1988.

an exhibition at the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas,, Catalog of the exhibition by Konrad Oberhuber, foreword by Edmund P. Pillsbury
Hudson Hills Press, 367 pp., $34.95 (paper)

To see the early works of one of the greatest of seventeenth-century painters inside a late work by one of the greatest of twentieth-century architects has its own heady appropriateness. In their art Nicolas Poussin and Louis Kahn, the architect of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, aimed at the same sumptuous austerity. The spectator who, slipping out of the Texan heat, observes, under Kahn’s silver-covered barrel vault, Poussin’s Diana and Endymion, in which the heavy curtains of night are pulled back to reveal the chariot of the sun racing across the sky, gold on gold, witnesses art conversing across the centuries with art in a common idiom. (See the illustration on this page.) Until November 27 the Kimbell Art Museum shelters about one hundred works on canvas or on paper, almost all from the hand of the great French master, and anyone who loves painting or drawing and can get there, should see them.

Poussin, The Early Years is the first major exhibition of Poussin on American soil, and it owes its existence to the coming together of two trends. The first is the emergence of the Kimbell Museum as a major art center. In the years, not altogether past, when the prevailing idea of an exhibition was for several containers of immensely precious objects, many of them often seen in reproduction, to be lugged in stages from one American coast to the other, the Kimbell was unsuitable as a caravan stop. It lacked the wall space to show off the merchandise, and it could not mobilize the jostling crowds needed to pay for the freight, the insurance, and the promotion involved. But now the blockbuster exhibition is itself under scrutiny, and curators and scholars question whether the risks to the objects are really offset by the cultural or educational benefits such a show provides, since people are likely to have seen more backs of people’s heads than fronts of works of art. Would it not be better, they begin to wonder, to have smaller exhibitions, with a clear theme, well chosen, carefully hung, and fully visible to all those within striking distance who are, or could be, interested?

For this new kind of exhibition the Kimbell Museum has already established itself as an ideal stopping place. It entertained the great collection of the Courtauld Museum from London. Four years ago I saw a marvelous Ingres exhibition, organized by Patricia Condon, which visited only Louisville and Fort Worth. Vigée-Lebrun, Cavallino, Crespi, minor artists of real interest, have been seen at the Kimbell. The present Poussin show goes nowhere else. Next spring the Kimbell shares with Bologna and Los Angeles an exhibition of Guido Reni, once one of the most admired painters of modern Europe.

The Kimbell is the ideal place for a small, well-designed exhibition for two reasons.1 First, the building is itself a magnified jewel box or reliquary, filled with light, in which virtually all works of art look to their best advantage. Second, the…

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