An interview with Guy de Compiegne about his essay on Nicolas Poussin and the Japanese Garden Masters

Guy de Compiegne is an architect fascinated by Poussin and by the Japanese gardens. His book, The Visual Path – Nicolas Poussin and the Japanese garden Masters, which has just been released, is an original and brilliant approach of Poussin’s work. We met him in order to talk about this essay, published by the Varulv editions.

The Visual Path – Nicolas Poussin and the Japanese garden Masters
The Visual Path – Nicolas Poussin and the Japanese garden Masters by Guy de Compiègne

Guy de Compiegne presented his book at The Tuileries Gardens bookstore, on June 5th 2014 (in French):

Why a new book on Nicolas Poussin?

I have been fascinated by Nicolas Poussin for the past 25 years and roughly 20 for the Japanese gardens.

As an architect living in Australia, Japanese architecture was a familiar subject, this naturally lead on getting interested in Japanese gardens.

Getting involved with the work of Nicolas Poussin wasn’t as straight forward since he is notoriously difficult to appreciate but since I couldn’t get passed the fact that a lot of my readings mentioned him with high praises I had to accept that there was something peculiarly interesting in his work that others had seen and that I couldn’t see. I couldn’t understand for example why, over centuries, there were so much diverse commentaries on his body of work.

I started researching the subject from an architectural stand point using geometry to understand the compositions. It is not the main part of the book and probably the less easy to follow but the closest to an architect’s mind and probably a totally valid approach since Poussin pretended to have left nothing to chance. I went on studying the geometrical studies produced by art historians in the past but found them unconvincing to have been used as a regular system.

If Poussin did use a proportional system, I was convinced that he must have considered the format of the frame. And I was surprised to discover that, for the great majority of the paintings, none of the classic geometrical figures like the golden mean, the square diagonal rectangle or the square itself where used but instead a combination of them, or to be more precise an assemblage or these primary figures. The method is explained in detail in the book and I feel it is an important part to understand.

In summary his geometrical alphabet contained five figures that he assembled to build up his frames with naturally some preferred format.

As we applied this assemblage method we discover that it highlights locations outside the centre, areas which are not immediately noticed. In Spring, from the Four Seasons series, the division does not fall on Adam and Eve but rather on the spiral, the lightning spiral through the dark part of the grove on the left side and more precisely to end on a little clearing. One day, as I was looking again at the painting in search of more information, I discovered that the focus point was, in this clearing, a tiny isolated tree. An amazing story started to emerge: Spring, a lightning spiral falling on hearth and a tree as the fertility response of the earth…

I then analysed a few other paintings and realized that Poussin, as mentioned in a letter to Chantelou, makes a clear distinction between the story and the subject. This is at the hearth of Poussin’s problematic: The story does not need to match the subject.

If we take for example the Massacre of the Innocents from the Chantilly collection: Violence as a subject matches the violence of the biblical story but in other instance it is not the case. With Achilles on Skyros from de Virginia museum of Fine Arts the painter will use the mythological story to illustrate the completely different subject of reflection: the lake as a way to see the landscape from an ounce removed position or the mirror as an object with multiple possible interpretations… The theme of the lake and the mirror leads to the theme of introspection that is also very much present in Japanese Zen gardens.

I realised that, with Poussin, the hidden part is the subject and that the story is used to illustrate it. This started to be very interesting since it allows a link between his work and the ones from Japanese Zen masters despite the fact that neither Poussin nor the zen masters had knowledge of each other.

Let’s take the Japanese concept of the “borrowed landscape”. A design tool which allows the landscaper to integrate, in his garden design, an element located outside. Using the natural tendency we have to associate similar shapes, a Zen master is able to create a link between his garden and the broader context of its environment and by doing so he will be reinforcing the “story” he wants us to read.

Look at the Ninna-Ji garden portal opening to the adjacent property. As we walk along the path its roof will visually connect to the temple behind the fence and generate a new ephemeral but totally plausible construction. It is without mentioning the countless mountains or hills which are nearly always “borrowed” in a Japanese garden design.

We will find the same concept in Poussin paintings.

Observe, for example, how the rock formation in the background of the painting The Manna where two leaning rocks are reflecting the shape of Moses and Aaron, the two pillars of the ancient testament. Then look at Moses arm raised to the sky and the shape of the gap between the rocks: it is the same shape! How amazing, isn’t it?

Another example? In Eliezer and Rebecca from the Louvre collection, look at the formal connection between the columns with a sphere on top and Eliezer with his turban. There are countless examples of this type of connections in Poussin’s work resulting into a meshing of the place of action with its broader context. It is endless and resolutely fascinating.

Which are your favorite Poussin paintings?

I would say one of them is Landscape with two Nymphs from the Chantilly collection, even if this marvelous landscape, very calm and nature orientated is not a particularly surprising composition.

As we observe the painting we see two nymphs smiling and looking across the painting. We later notice that they are in fact gazing, without being frighted, at a coiling snake in a dark spot of the painting. Poussin makes us enjoy the calmness of the landscape before triggering a reaction of fright. We then realise the real subject of the painting: stoicism, where peacefulness and danger must harmoniously cohabit; an idea which we associate to the Zen concept of self-control within non-control.

The Landscape with blind Orion Searching for the Rising Sun from the Metropolitan museum is an equally exceptional painting where Poussin plays with our perception.
There are visual perceptions rules inherent to human nature: In a painting, we will always tend to interpret a smaller person as being in the background. But as Poussin paints, around the giant, four persons of similar size but at different depth in the canvas, he confuses our senses of perception and doing so reinforces our perception of a confused Orion. Note finally how the blind Orion stretches his arm towards the healing sun and in the process seams to grasp the light house in the distance…

Finally I would select the Four Seasons series as it is the ultimate example of a multi-level reading. The round space in the Louvre where there are exposed is, despite poor lighting, a mesmerizing experience.

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