The troubling topicality of Poussin’s painting
A few months ago — a lifetime ago — I went to the Musée Condé in Chantilly. From Raphael to Clouet, from Fra Angelico to Antoine Watteau, the museum is brimming with masterpieces. Yet, I was specifically going to see one of them: the Massacre des Innocents by Nicolas Poussin. 2020 has proven to be the year of the unexpected and indeed, I could not have expected for this painting to resonate so profoundly today. Painted around 1627 in Rome the painting has become bewilderingly current and it has been relentlessly on my mind.
Pierre Rosenberg, the honorary President of the Musée du Louvre and an eminent Poussinist, describes the painting in the catalogue of the exhibition Poussin, Le Massacre des Innocents: Picasso, Bacon that took place at the Jeu de Paume du Musee de Chantilly in 2017. Reading him is the closest experience one would find to the actual encounter with the work and I have therefore translated it:
‘The sword slashes through the cloud studded blue sky. The man, in the prime of life, his face tensed by the required effort, a red coat thrown over his shoulder, is about to strike a second time. He has heavily set his foot on the still living and naked baby whose arms are wide open. Laying down on swaddling clothes, the child closes his eyes and screams. A spurt of madder blood comes out of his side.’
The painting is unsettling in stages. From the outset, the viewer becomes the is upset to witness the encounter of the executioner and the child. He is striking for the second time. We are in front of a wounded being struggling for its life. My first reaction was to question the executioner’s humanity. How could he kill an innocent child? How could he, in total impunity, massacre this infant? How could a human being be so vile as to step on the neck of another human being? These questions swarmed into my mind and despite their timelessness, as I left the museum, I found comfort in concealing them into the seventeenth century.
These questions came back to haunt me as I witnessed another massacre. The man this time was not stepping but kneeling on the neck of another whose humanity he had plainly forgotten. The man, unlike the infant, was not literally naked but unarmed. The executioner dressed in sky and dark blue ascertained boldly his right to dispose of a life. This time however, I could not distance myself from the events. They were not biblical; they were not represented by Poussin. It was my time, the twenty first century and the innocent could be named: George Floyd.
Facing the painting, one is revolted by the moment seized by the artist. Confronted with the video, we are facing the abject for an eternal 8 minutes and 46 seconds. Yet, two elements are missing from the video, first and foremost: the mother.
‘A kneeling woman wearing a saffron dress tries to stop the soldier’s movement. With her right hand, she scratches his back. Her left arm shaped as a pendulum wants to stop the sword. The brute bluntly pushes her away and pulls her long hair back. Her mouth wide opened, she looks up to the executioner, raises her eyes to heaven, she begs, she implores, she screams. Her scream is intolerable, unbearable. One continues hearing it for a long time.’
Should you have a heart and soul, there is an echo to that scream; it is no wonder that it made its way into Francis Bacon’s writings. The Massacre of the Innocents was represented by a number of artists during the Renaissance and the seicento but where Guido Reni opted to centre his composition on the sword, where Rubens or Raphael chose to fill theirs with distressed characters, the mother’s scream is at the centre of Poussin’s work, perpetually assailing the viewer.
She is lacking in the video. Three men watched, their conniving silence giving even more weigh to that knee. Could we however say that no one screamed by George Floyd’s side? I did as did thousands of other horrified people in front of their screens all over the world. The crowds took central stage and roared. They showed their pain, shouting as loudly as Poussin’s mother and will hopefully continue to do so for this scream, like the one in Chantilly, needs to be heard in perpetuity.
Also missing from the video are the other mothers who are populating the painting.
‘Between the soldier’s muscular legs, further down, as if framed by a window, two women seen from the waist down are going away. One with a child in her arm sis turned towards us and looks at us. The other one coiffed in white seems to be crying. To the right, a woman dressed in blue leaves the scene, escapes, flees. With her folded right arm, she tears her hair out. She holds under her left arm her dead child with his bloody head. Her mouth widely opened, her eyes closed, in despair, she is appealing to heavens. To her right, a mother seen from behind, her living child in her arms, her head on her shoulder is giving us her back.’
This is the reality of the massacre of the innocents. There is not just the death we are watching. There are all the deaths that occurred and the mental encumbrance of the ones that may follow. The biblical episode of the massacre is circumscribed in time. According to the Gospel of Matthew, Herod the Great ordered on a given date the murder of all male under two years old in Bethlehem.
What happens when the massacre is not caused by the fancy of a king but by racism, but by a societal construct that has designated you at birth? The massacre endures. Alongside the dead man we scream for there is too long of a list with all the ones we have screamed for in the past, and all of those whose name we do not know.
Time is suspended in Poussin’s painting, therefore there still is hope. The mother’s scream may not be pointless. Her child has been struck but he is not dead. George Floyd is dead but the crowds shouting his name bring hope. Hope that the cycle can be broken. Hope that black mothers will walk without hiding from view, will finally believe that there is a protection for their children besides their arms. Hope that one will not have to be wary to walk or jog down the streets. Hope that this time around it will not be pointless.
 Pierre Rosenberg, in Poussin, Le massacre des innocents: Picasso, Bacon, exhibition at Jeu de Paume du Domaine de Chantilly (Paris, Flammarion, 2017). The three excerpts translated by the author of the essay are as follows in French. Due to Covid-19, I have however not been able to check the catalogue of the exhibition and relied on the reading of the text on the French Culture podcast: https://www.franceculture.fr/emissions/lart-est-la-matiere/poussin-le-massacre-des-innocents.
L’épée lacère un ciel bleu pommelé. L’homme, dans la force de l’âge, le visage tendu par l’effort, un manteau rouge jeté sur l’épaule s’apprête à frapper une seconde fois. Il a lourdement posé son pied sur le corps d’un bébé encore en vie, nu, aux bras largement ouverts. Couché au sol sur son lange, l’enfant ferme les yeux et crie. Un jet de sang garance jaillit de son flan. Une femme à genoux vêtue d’une robe safran tente de retenir le geste du soldat. De sa main droite, elle lui griffe le dos. Son bras gauche en forme de balancier veut arrêter l’épée. La brute la repousse sans ménagement et tire en arrière ses longs cheveux. La bouche grande ouverte elle lève les yeux vers le bourreau, elle lève les yeux au ciel, elle supplie, elle implore, elle hurle. Son cri est intolérable, insoutenable. On continue longtemps à l’entendre. Entre les jambes musclées du soldat, en contrebas, comme dans l’encadrement d’une fenêtre, deux femmes vues à mi-corps s’éloignent. L’une un enfant dans les bras se tourne vers nous et nous regardent. L’autre, coiffée de blanc, semble pleurer. Sur la droite, de bleu vêtue, une femme s’écarte de la scène, s’en échappe, s’enfuit. De son bras droit replié elle s’arrache les cheveux elle tient sous son bras gauche son enfant mort le crâne ensanglanté. La bouche largement ouverte, les yeux clos dans un geste de désespoir, elle en appelle au ciel. A sa droite, au loin, une mère vue de dos, son enfant bien vivant dans les bras la tête reposant sur son épaule nous tourne le dos. C’est le massacre des innocents.’