The National Gallery is filled with nudes. Some are covered with drapery strategically blown by the wind, others are fully exposed, but nudity has been a feature of art since the beginning. What, then, is the difference between viewing as a casual observer and viewing as a voyeur? As part of the homage to Titian, Mark Wallinger provides a contemporary interpretation of Ovid’s tale of exposure and revenge.
Ovid’s tale recounts the virgin goddess Diana relaxing in a pool aided by woodland nymphs after a tiring day of hunting. Actaeon, wandering in unfamiliar woods, stumbles upon the goddess bathing and is subsequently transformed into a voiceless stag. The ultimate revenge comes when Actaeon’s own hunting dogs devour the speckled stag without realizing it is his master. The bath has long been regarded as a personal and private event; however, Diana’s revenge seems a bit harsh.
As part of the partnership between the National Gallery and the Royal Ballet, contemporary artists working in different genres of visual art and dance are coming together to honour the great Renaissance painter in “Metamorphosis: Titian 2012.” Because of a recent acquisition by the National Gallery, three of Titian’s paintings chronicling the tale of the goddess Diana are now shown together for the first time in three hundred years. “Diana and Actaeon,” “The Death of Actaeon,” and “Diana and Callisto” form the basis for this new interdisciplinary project.
Among other contemporary artists including Chris Ofili and Conrad Shawcross, Mark Wallinger is also paying tribute to the Venetian master. In his work “Diana” visitors find themselves in the role of a contemporary Actaeon, blindly navigating a dark and unfamiliar space. Through peepholes and Venetian (pun intended?) blinds spread throughout the room, viewers glimpse a real woman bathing. The key of the work is the atypical viewpoint highlighting the voyeurism found throughout the art historical canon, transforming all visitors into the “male gaze.” Wallinger has commented on historical paintings remarking: “This building, after all, is all about the history of the male gaze and the female nude.”
Society’s views on nudity and privacy have greatly evolved since the 16th century and Titian’s works that were initially seen as progressive and inappropriate for female viewers are now thought of a relatively tame. Intentionally enforcing discomfort, Wallinger places real women (all named Diana, of course) into a modern bathroom setting. The shock of scene inspires all viewers, male and female, to feel predatory, voyeuristic, and even a bit slimy. Now visitors just have to hope that these real-life Dianas don’t possess god-like powers because mythical revenge seems far from pleasant.
Words: Emily Sack © ArtLyst 2012
Mark Walling’s work can be found within Metamorphosis: Titian 2012 from 11 July to 23 September 2012 at the National Gallery. Visit Here