Thursday, 3 January 2019

Poussin’s Roads: a Play About

Scene 1.

A dark room- harsh early-noon sunlight pierces through shutters- dust mites float in the beams-

We hear a lock turn at stage right- a door creaking open, letting in the sounds of street bustle and a shaft of light which falls on a portrait across the room- 

The door is closed- darkness and silence again-

A man (Philippe de Champaigne) walks in from stage right, taking off his gloves- he stands letting his eyes adjust, squinting- he looks around, walks over to a desk with a laptop and a media projector on it- fires it up- the projector illuminates the room in deep blue, followed by an image of the portrait we saw standing nearby- a stern looking man in 17th Century dress, surrounded by picture frames-

Philippe slumps down into a swivel chair- we can now see the room- a 17thC study with 21 paintings in frames leaning and hanging against every wall- he is dressed himself in the style of the period, a small greying goatee and shaggy hair- only the chair, laptop and projector are anachronistic (apart from the reshuffling of historical dates/deaths indulged in- quotations from his ledger are quoted verbatum) - 


Philippe swivels round in his chair, sighs- 

He gets up and picks through a row of canvases – picks one up, dusts the unframed edges- smiles sadly- he puts it back down- measures it with a tape-

He goes over to the desk, and with a quill writes in a large ledger-

Philippe: Item- a large picture painted on canvas, without a frame, six feet long by four high, representing the story of Rebecca at the well. Work of the said Poussin, here estimated at the sum of thirteen, hundred, livres.

He leans back. Then sits forward- scores out the last line-

Philippe: Twelve, hundred, livres.

He leans back again, puts the quill down-

Philippe: He should’ve painted the camels.

He looks out at the audience-

Philippe:  ...I met Nicholas in 1623. We were decorating Luxembourg Palace for Marie de Medici. I was 21, 22, he was in his thirties, not that you’d know it. He was a rascal then. Ended up a syphilitic old monk. God he’d ruined himself by the end, his hands shaking...each tiny leaf was a victory. A battle. Look at this-

He takes the mouse, clicks, the projector changes image-

Phillipe: ‘Blind Orion Searching for the Rising Sun’, it’s a late one...Good title, isn’t it? ‘Blind Orion Searching for the Rising Sun’...

He looks at it. Throughout he often takes very long pauses just looking at the image- you never know when he is going to say something-

Philippe: It’s from ’58 I think. He died 1665. Look at the brushwork-

[He rolls the wheel on the mouse, the screen zooms in as it click-click-clicks-]

Philippe: You can see him controlling it, leaning into the shakes, using them... Break your heart...Anyway-

He clicks and changes the image-

Philippe: Orion’s not part of the collection. What you see around you are the last worldly goods of Monsieur Jean Pointel. He died last Friday. He was a banker, from Lyon, a great supporter of Nicholas’s, probably his best patron... Seems to have had a good eye in life- I hope it’s found contentment, wherever it may now roam...

He looks at the screen- it’s the painting of Rebecca he started with-

Philippe: He really should’ve put in some camels though...Their ugliness would’ve revealed the brilliance of all those beautiful figures...

He sighs-

Philippe: Well, for twelve-hundred livres it’ll be someone else’s problem now...they can put what they like in it. [Looks at it again] ...That globe’s a queer thing as well.

He looks away from the screen- gets up and has another rummage through the stacked paintings-

Philippe: Nicholas trusted Pointel as his executor, now Monsieur Pointel’s gone they’ve asked me in to catalogue this lot...Many of them I’ve never seen. It’s a treasure chest.

He holds up the self-portrait- it’s smilier than the one from the screen-

Philippe: Don’t fancy his chances much though, poor bugger- I’d give him a hundred and fifty at a push.

He puts it down and goes back over to the laptop-

Philippe: What’ve we got?

Click- another painting flashes up on the projector-

Philippe: A Road! He liked roads, Nicholas...Perhaps an appropriate parable’ll come to mind. They always seem to happen by a road, don’t they...? ’There was a traveller on the road’...’the traveller was robbed on the road’, ‘he lay thirsting in the dusty road’...Can’t think of a Greek subject...three travellers... [writes in the ledger] ‘Travellers, Resting, by, a Road’ [quill down] That’ll do for now...and why not? It’s what it is...Sometimes I fancy that all Nicholas’s roads are the same road, going on and on...and each picture’s a stop on the way...moments on the road...of rest, of hesitation...sometimes terror, death...calm...enlightenment...

He looks at the image-

Philippe: ...’Travellers Resting’- this business of titling...?! What was it he used to say- ‘I who make a profession of mute things, silent objects’, something like that...pompous git! ...But he was right.

He leans back- huffs and waves his hand, changes the image again-

Philippe: Another road! 

Drums his fingers, thinks, rubs his forehead- has a thought- scribbles it down quickly-full stop-

Philippe: ‘A Roman Road’. [Pen down]

He stares at the painting- breathes deeply-

Philippe: ...You cannot tell me this road stretches back only into space...Somehow the rascal’s captured the glacial slip of time itself...Don’t you think?

He looks between the audience and the image, the laptop and the projection-

Phillipe:  Hasn’t he...? As the road unravels so the minutes and hours and days stretch out in invisible increments...He’s come up with an equation, a, distance, time...Those tiny figures, they’re not so much in the far-away half so much as they’re in the long ago...They go about their business, unnoticed by those of us in the here and now, the up close...The daily grind goes on, a hundred little tasks and tests and motions, forgetting themselves on the path as they unwind... like that man with the orange peel...As if time were constantly chucking away its shelled remains...over the and memories, growing smaller...quieter...

He scrolls in and out of the image-

Philippe: ...Or perhaps it’s the other way around, perhaps it is the still-to-come which sits waiting patiently for our arrival, at the other end...they run both ways after all...

He skips the image along- 

Philippe:  That’s when his roads run straight...Look at the connective tissues on this one, the roads lassoing themselves around near and far, now and then and after...and then he pulls the rope tight, coiling the whole comedy together...He pushes things and deeds and people apart just as he reels them in...And this great tree pulling the whole thing back on itself...Look at it bending like a rod!


Philippe:  Look how many plates the man keeps spinning...

He pauses- then goes back to the long, straight Roman Road painting-

Philippe: ...There is no way that road merely stretches back in space. Every single thing, from the ruins to the recession to the sinking sun, says, that to walk down that road is to swim impossibly against the current, into the recently passed...where all moments still play themselves out........Or, it is to allow yourself to be yanked along, swept through to your journey’s end, wherever that may the ends of your rehearsals......We shouldn’t let the dust fool us...Those roads could take the feet from under you...They are slippery........Smart. Like traps. Waiting for the touch of a sandaled foot to set a hundred cogs and pulleys in motion...How does he do it...? All with just a road, a sky, and the natural ebb of the far-away and hazy...He’s put down time in a still image, without the usual clunking symbols, skulls and suchlike...

He pauses- switches the image-

Philippe:  This is a painting of mine...It seems very stupid now. Actually, it seemed very stupid when I thought of it, but some ideas are so irresistibly stupid you wonder why no one else has had them, and in the end you can’t help yourself... I suppose there’s only a set number of ideas available to the world...somebody has to have some of them...Still quite like it though.

He flicks between this image and the image of the looping road- then changes the image again-

Philippe: Landscape with a Calm...Even here, at the end of the day, the animals being put to rest by the falling sun, he touches the great Mystery...a breeze blows though the trees, one shivers...for a moment...The herders in the distance cast no image in the lake- do you see? – yet their cities, their lowly beasts of burden, do...What order of being is Man in this landscape...? How impermanent...And how fragile his creations?

He zooms in to the stable on the left side of the picture-

Philippe: Look at the stable- it isn’t very, is it? Stable, that is, heh...No but look- how many times does that wall turn? Are these lines, or planes, or shadows...? It’s a house of cards...but a convincing one...and look-

He switches back to the painting of the looping roads with the great tree-

Philippe: Our fleeing rider, our serene herder- here they are, further along the road...! The herdsman is still propped on his stick, the rider still madly completing his circuits, never making it to the stable........Nicholas used to make little wax models for his figures, dress them up, collect scraps of moss, pebbles and whatnot...It’s as if he’s set them in motion, in this painted world, wound them up like a child’s clockwork novelty........Was he a hack? Re-using the same stock motifs to fill in the background...? Ha. Ha. Ha...Nicholas knew the truth...

He looks at the audience, slyly-

Philippe:  We are all just motifs...

He leaves a long pause-

Philippe:  ...Filling up space. Filling in time...[Checks his wristwatch]...playing our parts, our types...Whether we’re populating the background for some great creator or not...

He shrugs.

Philippe:  One can hold the stage one moment, and be dragged off the next...there’s always some bastard with their eye on the clock...I’m aware we’ve been here for some time now, soon be over, soon be over... [Smiles sadly at the audience] ...But what of the great events in life? One’s struggle for mastery and one’s defeat in death...?

He zooms out for the full view of the looping roads and the great tree-

Philippe: Here we see the body of the Athenian warrior Phocion- a hero disgraced, lugged away from the city that praised him, destined for a pauper’s funeral...The world gets on with its comings and goings. The sheep graze in the meadow. The bearers will carry someone else tomorrow...The trees don’t even notice......[Quietly] Strange to think of Nicholas’s studio, the next day...untouched tools, to be sold off to lesser hands...little wax people, waiting to be immortalized...No more pictures.

He sits- then changes the image once again-

He looks at it- waits, takes up his pen- writes-

Philippe: Item- another large picture painted on canvas, also six feet long by four high, without a frame, representing a landscape in which there is a man devoured by a snake near a spring. Work...Work of the said estimated at the sum of twelve hundred livres.

He discards his pen- sits back- 

Looks at the screen- 

Philippe: ...Death again...What a miracle of a thing. [Turns to the audience to clarify] The painting...[Looks back to the screen] See-sawing...the arms of the man and woman, held out to steady the boat, to keep the world afloat...That running man... running down the tunnel of light, halfway between life and death...The turn...the frozen backward’s almost Orpheus, turning to see his Eurydice in the Underworld...and in his gaze losing her forever...Almost. But not really...

Long pause-

Philippe: ...He often painted snakes, Nicholas...snakes and roads...I think it was their indifferent lack of geometry that sickened him...They seem to defy the natural order of things...Or rather, they are the natural order...Swinging arms, building buildings...all this limbed gravity, this upright, bipedal propulsion, merely an aberrant quirk of our temporary promotion......The serpent likes to remind us of our immanent flaccidity...the vacant body...striking out to reassert the rules of the game...Choking the very mind from its prey......Yeugh.......The brain starved of oxygen....queer to think this great organ of memory and yearning should be so easily drained......squeezed dry......

He sits and stares at the image-

Then switches it back to Blind Orion-

Philippe: ...That man Descartes from La Haye, says that the mind can exist without the body, I think, or something to that effect...Not to speak of the immortal soul...I suppose I often feel like the giant Orion there...I, me, Phillippe, am up here [Points to his head], or just behind, driving the a coachman...or riding up in the crow’s nest...looking out to see what’s ahead...watching out for rocks and stones....

He zooms in, rt-t-t-t-t-t- -

-to the tiny lighthouse in the distance- 

Philippe:  ...Lighthouse to lighthouse...sending out warnings and greetings...Look at this painting...! Leaping over clouds, light and heavy, bounding, bound and boundless...! That was Nicholas... like weather...I miss him.

He sits – stares – then swivels his chair to look at the pictures, some still under dusty drapes-

Phillipe: ...But what of his mind...? Is it not here, a part of it at least...? The part that counted...Pointel too- is he not here? In this room......?

He stands- addresses the audience from the front of the stage- gestures at the paintings behind-

Philippe:  If the mind can exist without the mortal body then does its residue not persist here, in these objects? These silent things...Do they need me, my body, my mind, to conspire a new brain? Do I think Nicholas...? Do these painted things......?

He smiles sadly-

Philippe:  Do they think on? His little lighthouses......?      


He taps the laptop and the image on the screen disappears-
The room is bathed in the blue from the media projector’s ‘No Signal’ screen- the tiny legend bounces from corner to corner- 

He closes the large ledger, puts the quill back in the inkwell, pulls on his gloves-

He takes a last look at the portrait across the room- and exists stage right-

A flash of light, noise of bustle from the street- then silence and the blue- 



(The preceding scene is an adapted extract from a work for the theatre- The Ugliness of Camels – it was inspired by a small passage in T.J. Clark’s book The Sight of Death, which mentions the evocatively terse and careful descriptions of the works in Jean Pointel’s collection written by Philippe de Champaigne, as the painter made his way methodically through the necessary ‘valuations’, sorting through what remains an extremely well-considered and curated collection for the time, quietly uncovering important work after important work in the soft shuttered light. Dramatic licence has obviously been taken- Poussin actually outlived his patron Pointel- which shouldn’t happen again on Sunny Blinking Painting.)

The picture of a Roman road mentioned in the inventory of Pointel's collection has historically been believed to be the picture 'A Roman Road' (now attributed to 'Poussin/School of') in the Dulwich Picture Gallery. The Dulwich's picture has a shakey history of attribution, but consensus has it that it is at the very least a copy of Poussin's own composition, if not an original.Certainly, the straightness of the road and the central structure it builds would seem far too singular amongst Poussin's works for it to have been the invention of a copyist, who would arguably have been much more likely to create a derivatively looping road.


At his touch, words start up into images, thoughts become things...

                                        -William Hazlitt