Nicolas Poussin’s The Crossing of the Red Sea is like a great uncle who never leaves his big house, always up for a family visit. I am a fan of Poussin’s work in general.
Apart from being beautifully painted and loaded with historical references, this painting is such a treasure. It’s an amazing painting to have in the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) collection. There’s something about it that I recognise, which only occurred to me recently. The scene is set in Egypt, where I was born. It has long been a painting that I loved to sit and look at and learn from and then I thought, ‘Hang on, this is historically relevant to my background’. I recognise that in the subject but not in the painting per se and perhaps I always knew of the Egyptian reference but hadn’t consciously made the personal link.
In the past few years, because I’ve been working at VCA and walking through the NGV regularly, I would always at least walk past the painting, to make sure it’s there. If I have time, I sit in front of it, sometimes for a few minutes but often for longer. I could not and would not want to paint like Poussin. The painting is materially and conceptually distant from what I am interested in, yet it holds something that I guess I cannot imagine letting go of. A mystical connection with a past that is muddled in pagan practices, biblical narratives, Eurocentric views and modernist aspirations.
There’s something about its dark skies, how it conjures the looming disaster. It’s hard to work out if the group of people are walking into or coming out of a storm, there are so many layers in the foreground and background it’s difficult to tell which way they are actually heading. That murkiness, the browns, greens and greys, spotted with brightly coloured clothing, a type of faith in the ability of humans to collaborate and overcome a looming catastrophe. In essence, a classically derived belief in the human ability to physically and emotionally move across as one people to overcome hardships.