Titian’s “The Flaying of Marsyas” (c. 1570s) is among the most celebrated and disturbing images the Venetian master ever painted. It is also the prime showstopper of the Met Breuer’s kickoff exhibition, Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible, due to close on September 4.
The last time “The Flaying of Marsyas” traveled to the US was a generation ago, for the blockbuster retrospective Titian: Prince of Painters (October 28, 1990–January 27, 1991) at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. It’s a safe bet that it will not leave its home at the Archiepiscopal Palace in the southeastern Czech village of Kroměříž, where it has hung since the end of the 18th century, for a good long time.
Kroměříž is a three-hour drive from Prague, and the same distance from Vienna. On public transportation, the trip lengthens considerably, between nine and 12 hours depending on the point of origin and time of day. The remoteness of the town is such that the great Erwin Panofsky was forced to reduce “The Flaying of Marsyas” to a footnote in his book Problems in Titian, Mostly Iconographic (posthumously published by New York University Press in 1969) because “I have never seen the original.” All this is to say that, absent the outside chance of an extended idyll in Eastern Europe, the odds are that the Breuer is the last place I would ever see the painting.
This wouldn’t be a question, of course, if “The Flaying of Marsyas” were just another Renaissance masterpiece. Extraordinary in every sense of the word, it is in fact a proto-Modernist exercise in space, form, execution, and content. It is also one of the artist’s last paintings, left in his studio at the time of his death, and so could be interpreted as a de facto summation of a long and exalted career.
The unusual composition arranges the actors frontally across the picture plane, flattening them into jangling, V-shaped rhythms activated by Marsyas’s legs and his tormentors’ crooked elbows, a wall of bodies broken occasionally by punch-outs into deep space. The brushwork is feathery, impressionistic, and inconsistent, with some areas barely resolved and others, like the bejeweled gold crown on the figure of Midas — the impassive witness to the execution — refined to a trompe-l’oeil finish.
The color is penumbral, with forms emerging out of deep shadow into half-light. The primary paradox of the picture is that Marsyas, despite his placement front and center, doesn’t dominate the image: he may bisect the composition straight down the middle, but the interlocking heads, torsos, and arms on either side of him subsume his tortured form — which is partitioned at the waist between the dark fur of his satyr’s goat legs and the fleshy humanity of his upper body — into an all-over design with no focal point, a device well ahead of its time.
The painting wasn’t a commission, which implies that Titian took up the subject for his own reasons — another Modernist practice — and it is intriguing to contemplate what Ovid’s tale of hubris (Marsyas meets his terrible end by losing a challenge to Apollo’s mastery of music) meant for him. The image is also something of an appropriation, based on a remarkably similar drawing by Giuliano Romano.
Whether or not the painting is actually finished has been debated for decades, the presence of the artist’s signature notwithstanding. (Some scholars have speculated that after the artist died, his workshop added some touches to make the work more salable.) The levels of ambiguity in content and intent are, again, quite Modernist in the degree of anxiety and uncertainty they leave in their wake. Why, you might ask, did Titian change Midas’s demeanor from the shrinking horror depicted in the Romano drawing to the clinical dispassion rendered in the painting? (It has been suggested that Midas is actually a self-portrait.) And why would he want to swap Apollo’s customary instrument, the lyre, as cited in the drawing, for a less-than-noble viola?
The knotty chains of meaning, alternately obscure and contradictory, running through this image, coupled with the dusky color, the jagged design, and the manipulation of myth in the service of personal expression, resonate strongly with the art of the early 20th century, which in turn, like a relay of relevance and recognition, opens a portal into our own time. The connection is real and inescapable.
And so what do you do if you are looking at this painting for the last time? Do you zero in on every square inch of the surface, emptying it into the memory palace behind your eyes? Or do you submit to it as you would an ocean wave, surrendering its details to the gritty, shimmering, draining pull of its emotional undertow? A choice between total control and total dissolution, each inhabiting its own realm of impossibility.
It goes without saying that the termination of a particular experience carries with it the perturbing sting of mortality. You’re losing a unique emotional bond, a source of enrichment you’ve had to earn, with honed perceptions and broadened knowledge, just to meet it halfway. But now, once you turn your back on it, it’ll be gone.
And the way you go about your leave-taking becomes again a matter of control and surrender. Do you choose the moment to break your gaze, endure the stab of separation, and head for the door? Or do you plan your visit for late in the afternoon, plant yourself in front of the canvas until closing time, and part company only when the guard politely asks you to go? How long can you hold onto something that was never yours in the first place?
Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible continues at the Met Breuer (945 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through September 4.