Titian Given Contemporary Makeover In New National Gallery Exhibition

Titian metamorphosis

The most common way of seeing a Titian is as follows: you walk into a prestigious and/or 19th Century building, follow the signs to Venice, take a deep breath, and walk into a huge room full of Venetian oil paintings of various thicknesses. The most common way of seeing Titian is amidst other Titians, which, if we take as axiomatic that Titian is quite good, is unexpectedly numbing. There is such a thing as too much Château Lafite. This is good for Titian’s mystic aura but less good for each of his paintings individually.

So the National Gallery seem to have unwittingly stumbled on something valuable with ‘Metamorphosis Titian 2012’ by having three, and just three, Titians lit in the soft, reverential, raking light of the Sainsbury Wing. Most people approach the National Gallery like Everest- charging around the massive amount of paintings trying to see everything at the expense of seeing anything, but in the Sainsbury Wing people seem to get lulled by the dark of the place and the cellar-like configuration, with the result that people on average look at what is down there longer and harder and more exploratorily than anywhere else. The Titians are lit intimately, and I am pretty sure that the light conspires to make the picture space of The Death of Actaeon really opens out as though you are looking with 3d glasses on, though I’m not 100% on this.

It is worth heading down there for this one-on-one time, but 3 contemporary artists have been commissioned to make “responses” to Titian’s themes: Diana and Actaeon, Diana and Callisto. (There was also a ballet, which I didn’t see, but the costumes are collected in the show as well, although if you have ever seen any of the Ballet Russes costumes these look very uninspired). Whether there is a great need for “responses” to Titian I’m not totally sure- I think we should all be comfortable by now with the idea that Titian is not “relevant” and (yet) is still worth having around without trying to bring his “themes” “up-to-date”. Actually, the result can be the opposite: making a response (essentially for the benefit of and to continue reverence paid) to an old artist can reinforce a kind of self-fulfilling and Modernist view of “influence”, as skewered by Kenneth Koch in Fresh Air:

Together they sang the new poem of the twentieth century Which, though influenced by Mallarmé, Shelley, Byron, and Whitman, Plus a million other poets, is still entirely original And is so exciting that it cannot be here repeated.

The National’s stunt, though, doesn’t seem to have had that effect- perhaps partly because none of the three artists- Chris Ofili, Conrad Shawcross and Mark Wallinger- have tried to take Titian on head to head. Rather, they have either gone back to his sources, or thought about what is happening technically and intellectually within the Titians themselves. One of the good and jarring things about this exhibition is really showing, though it sounds trite, how much “art” has changed- where now any kind of visual Realism is just utterly separate to purpose-, and to a certain extent the three living artists are in a state of reciprocal bafflement with the dead one. It is not that they contradict each other, more that Titian is playing football and the other three are playing rugby. Because of the layout of the gallery space, you can occasionally see one of the modern responses with a Titian in the background, or two Titians marking the doorway to one of the responses, and it is very odd to think we give them both the same name.

Chris Ofili goes nearest to Titian, both in his use of paint and his composition (although he is clearly keener on Bacon and Matisse). He mimicks essentially Titian’s process and makes his own responses to Ovid’s poems, while also taking in some of Titian’s compositional curved lines to reference his curvatious nude forms and the overall compositional sweep of Diana and Callisto. This is particularly apparent in works like Ovid: Stag and Ovid: Actaeon, which also feature a lot of phallic shapes as part of the more feminine (for Titian) curve. They are very dynamic paintings, and seem more like a Greek frieze or vase painting in their flatness than a snapshot of movement, but as a result seem like illustrations that are not illustrative. (Ovid: Bather reminds me more of the album cover for New Order’s Technique than anything else, and that kind of album-cover-esque fire is what I mean by their being illustrations that are not illustrative. Eye-catching and insistent.) They are static without really impressing anything on the viewer apart from their immense size (they are each bigger than the Titians), and the colour seems washed out (the paint is very thinly applied) by the spotlighting. I do not doubt they are good on their own and with less intense lighting, but with Titian shining in the next room under the same conditions I suppose Ofili’s work was always going to have it tough.

Mark Wallinger seems to commonly be thought to have “won” this one. His Diana- an installation where viewers are invited to peep through a keyhole at a woman bathing and preening- has attracted alleged real-life Actaeon voyeurs asking directions to “the peepshow thingy”. These ‘art lovers’ were subsequently pursued by that lapdog of propriety the Daily Mail, a British tabloid mostly read by the elderly, in the home counties.

One worker, who wished to remain anonymous, told a leading newspaper: ‘The gallery used publicity shots of the youngest and prettiest model, and dirty old men have got a bit aggressive that [most of the] models are women in their late forties and fifties.’ Another said: ‘We really have sunk to new lows with this idea. These visitors have no interest in art at all.’
But actually the “dirty old men” spying do have an interest in art- they participate exactly as the art invites them to do. In other words, Wallinger’s concept was so well employed that any kind of critical writing is outclassed by the buzz around the piece in other parts of the media. The tabloid article has everything without realising- perversion, voyeurism, “what is art?”, morality, beauty, image worship, etc.. The real testament to this piece is that it has made real Actaeons of its viewers.

But in an odd way this is its one downfall- you can “get” Wallinger’s piece. It has a feedline and a punchline, and then the tabloids weigh in. Conrad Shawcross’ piece Trophy, on the other hand, is one of the most complicated things I have seen in a long while. It is a mechanical arm that moves around- growling as the motor moves- which holds a bright white light on the end of a stick, like a magic wand. Also in the tank is a wood-carved stag’s antler. presumably created by the machine.  What this collection of things could mean, and then mean with respect to Titian still remains something of a mystery. Is it Diana admiring her prize? Does Diana growl? The movements of Trophy remind me more of a dragon than a Goddess. All I could really come up with was something about the composition of the Titians relying on pointing gestures, so in some way this was like a moving Titian painting, that pointed to the antler, then itself, then moved in an enthralling arc. If this was the case, then the title Trophy doesn’t really seem to fit without another huge flight of fancy. It is quite fun to look at, but then I quite like cranes and lights. Maybe attempting to generate just raw innocent marvel as the aesthetic phenomenon is a more accurate response to Titian than any of the intricacies of the other two.

This exhibition is part of a partnership between the National Gallery and the Royal Ballet. Three contemporary artists were chosen to work with different genres of visual art and dance, coming together to honour the great Renaissance painter in “Metamorphosis: Titian 2012.”

Photo: Courtesy Conrad Shawcross and Victoria Miro Gallery.

 ****- 4 Stars  Words by Jack Castle © Artlyst 2012

Titian 2012, National Gallery, 11th July- 23rd September 2012


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