Arts & Books Books

An elusive painting, even after 500 pages

Poussin's The Flight into Egypt: expensive, elusive and luminous

This exhaustive study of a single artwork is gloriously eccentric

This is Not Just a Painting
By Bernard Lahire, translated by Helen Morrison,
Polity, 450pp, £30/$45

Helen Morrison has undoubtedly done English readers a considerable service by translating Bernard Lahire’s 2015 book. Not merely for the contents of the book itself, but also for Lahire’s extraordinary approach to the subject matter. This surely must be one of the most comprehensive studies of any single piece of art ever written – in this instance Nicholas Poussin’s 1657 painting The Flight into Egypt. As wonderful as this book undoubtedly is in places, however, it’s also more than a little eccentric.

Lahire is a French professor of sociology but he’s a firm believer in the value of interdisciplinary studies. In an inadvertently amusing introduction, Lahire explains the nonplussed reaction of his doctoral examiners when he explained during his viva that in order to fully comprehend his work on learning difficulties among working-class children in primary schools, they would need to read his 300 pages of supplementary remarks moving from the contemporary educational world back to Egypt and Mesopotamia in 3000 BC, as well as Ancient Greece and societies in 18th- and 19th-century Europe.

The reader may raise a similarly suspicious eyebrow upon reading the subtitle of this book, An Inquiry Into Art, Domination, Magic and the Sacred. It’s clear why religious studies and a brief history of the Church would be essential to understanding the significance of this painting, but perhaps harder to understand why domination and magic might be important, bringing to mind the unfortunate image of Lahire dressed as a wizard and cracking a whip.

Drawing from the French father of sociology, Émile Durkheim, and the philosopher Michel Foucault, Lahire argues (somewhat quixotically) that theologians “unjustifiably generalise” their ideas by first separating Christianity from other forms of the sacred (defined by him as “mythology, magic, superstition and witchcraft”), and then separating it from the profane. Quite why we need to explore all this to get to the main concern of the book is unclear, especially as when we do finally get to Nicholas Poussin, Lahire begins with the French Wikipedia entry for the artist.

For Lahire, the Catechism of the Catholic Church is “the interpretation of a transfiguration of the relationships of domination into theological language”. He believes that by seeing in human nature the reflection of its Creator the Catechism “inverses the real logic of things” – which is arguably why one wouldn’t normally go to a sociologist for theological discussion. He is on surer ground when he draws a comparison between religious relics and artworks, looking at how museums have become a sacred place “like the church” and the role money has played in this.

This is where the book becomes thought-provoking and original, and where Lahire’s sociological background pays off. Poussin’s painting is the most expensive treasure ever acquired in France – at a price of €17 million (£14.5 million; $19 million) – and as this came out of public money,
it has an impact on all the citizens who contributed to it with their taxes. Given the current ongoing gilets jaunes protests in Paris, most recently aimed at a French philosopher, Alain Finkielkraut, this issue has become even more pertinent than Lahire might have realised at the time.

Poussin’s painting is central to French cultural history, and the artist is mentioned in novels by Proust, Stendhal, Balzac and Gide, among many others. And unlike paintings that have gone for a comparatively high (or higher) price, such as Jackson Pollock’s No. 5, 1948, which sold at private auction for $140 million, the Poussin is an essential part not just of art history, but also religious representation. Lahire cites the art collector Denis Mahon comparing Poussin to the pope, suggesting that any copyist of his art who changed the complexion of the Virgin Mary’s face in the painting would be “more Catholic than the pope”.

And there are other places where Lahire’s free-ranging study finds surprising comparisons and connections. It is commonplace in the television world that the document designed to encapsulate all the characters, locations and situations in a potential show is known as the “Bible”. Not often questioned by TV writers or critics, Lahire gives this description a deeper significance, analysing the “dominant, sovereign and transcendent” role of creators, moving on from the more familiar theological question of biblical inspiration to the less often discussed question of “collective sanctification”.

As exhaustive as this book might seem, it has some strange lacunae. Though we get lots of details on the three versions of the painting and the four international experts who differed over their interpretation of which was the original, there’s not enough on the painting itself. Seven years in the writing and more than 500 pages of discussion, and yet still the true value of this artwork remains elusive.