Titian, “The Flaying of Marsyas” (probably 1570s), oil on canvas, 86 5/8 x 80 5/16 inches, Archidiocese Olomouc, Archiepiscopal Palace, Picture Gallery, Kroměříž (© Archdiocesan Museum Kroměříž, photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

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.

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Thomas Micchelli

Thomas Micchelli is an artist, writer, and co-editor of Hyperallergic Weekend.

23 replies on “How Do You Say Goodbye to a Painting?”

  1. I thought I would never see this painting. Your article beautifully expresses the struggle to take it all in– and let it go. That said: after reading this, I am going to go back for a final, final encounter.

  2. If one your critics is going to analyze a painting, why on earth can’t Hyperallergic find a better reproduction so that those of us who aren’t in New York, and won’t get there before September 4, can better follow what the writer is saying? Try asking for images from the Met press office.

    1. We’re not interested in press images most of the time and prefer the subjectivity of the writer in the images. If you want an official image, you are welcome to use Google to find one. There are tons.

          1. Though I stand partially corrected here. It seems the Flaying of Marsyas, according to art historian Ingrid Rowland, was “inspired by an intimately Venetian trauma”–its loss of dominion over Cyprus and surrender of a garrison of soldiers to the Pasha, “who subjected his prisoners to two weeks of unspeakable tortures, including the flaying that began while the [Cypriot governor] was still alive but killed him in the process.” So Midas, “who bears silent witness to the scene, is like Titian himself, an ancient who has lived to see too much.” An interesting analysis to keep in mind when one goes back for a second (or first) look. But I don’t think this is the kind of propaganda you meant…..

          2. Your remark needs decoding because your use of the term “propaganda” is unclear. Do you mean the images put out by museum press offices? And why are these “propaganda”? Surely museums try for the most honest representations they can offer, or at least a clearer image than that presented by your writer. You seem to be saying that an art website’s duty is only to the words, not the images. I find that strange.

          3. Nope, we just want the writer to take their own images because the way we see the images in the official press images are often nothing like what we we would see it in person (though this is more obvious in contemporary exhibitions where lighting and other factors create an idealized image) . In the case of Old Master, the works are often impacted by glare, lighting, placement (often higher than we expect), and other factors that are removed from the official images. In this case, it is a well known painting and there are many reproductions elsewhere (I can’t imagine anyone has trouble finding them).

            We privilege the writers perspective in this and often ask them to take their own images. The use of press images often (almost always) privileges the curatorial or market perspective (creating desire, etc.) and would be akin to reproducing the press materials or official essay to understand the work (it can be useful but not the job of a review or essay to retell that verbatime). By using the writer’s image in this case, he is approaching (and hiding, because anything one writes includes omissions) the work with a specific perspective and his framing tells us additional info about the work and his thoughts on it.

            This has been something we’ve done from day one at Hyperallergic. It forces writers to be critical of the official images.

          4. Hrag, come on. Getting a clearer image to accompany the article is not the same as “promoting official visual propaganda”, whatever that’s supposed to mean in this context. It’s a painting by Titian; would there be some strange agenda attached to a press photo issued by the museum? Some subverted message buried therein? Doesnt that sound just a tad… uhm… paranoid?

            Sometimes a photo, like the infamous cigar, is just a photo. And this one, good sir, is crap. Titian, like your readership, deserves better.

          5. The author chose this image probably so that people go and look at the painting and not an online image. I was using the term tongue in cheek to denote an official and approved version of the image. I personally prefer the subjectivity of the author in the image because most people pretend like the image is without bias.

          6. That’s all well and good if you live in NYC, but for most of us that’s certainly not going to happen. Dude, you have an international readership — why this incessant NYC bubble?

            As for an “official and approved version” — Hrag, it’s a painting. by Titian. Hanging on a wall. How could there be an *unofficial* version??

            Face it: no matter how you choose to defend it, the photo is crap. It’s some snapped image taken with a mobile and completely disrespects the work in question. And frankly, your reply that people should just go Google it adds to the disrespect you’re putting on it. If you treated your trendy Soho artists like this, there’d be outrage — and you know it.

          7. You are always bring up stuff that has no bearing on the topic. This idea and perspective was present from day one of Hyperallergic but you appear to have been blind to it. You have no respect for the writers and future comments will be deleted.

          8. I “always bring up stuff that has no bearing on the topic”?? SERIOUSLY? :: insert eye roll here ::

            You know, I’ve had some fun discussions on here, but dude, if you;re so incapable of accepting that you screwed up on this one, that’s your issue to deal with, not mine. And I dont have time for such petty bullshit. So do please delete if it makes you feel all toasty warm and fuzzy inside.

            Maybe in the future, you should consider reporting on things that happen just in NY so you dont accidently confuse someone dropping by who might think you actually want an international readership. Just an 0.02.

            EDIT TO ADD: I went mucking around for the Manhattan-centric mission statement you referenced above. Didnt find anything about that so maybe you need to put something there to remind everyone. Know what I did find? “Sensitive to Art and its Discontents”. I guess that too has its geographic limits, right?

  3. Here here. Very well written; expressing my sentiments exactly. And I think this applies to SO many others in this amazing show (they took down the Lybian Sybl weeks ago, but at least one can see that in the Met’s drawing department). I’m headed there now for my sixth, and final visit. Farewell cruel world… Sigh….

  4. the writing about this great painting is so well expressed, thoughtful, insightful, and humble. well done!
    thank you.

  5. Wonderfully written….you encapsulate the nature of “life” itself; so, are you talking about the painting or of life….or is it not ultimately the same thing?

  6. Thomas Miccelli has encapsulated the otherwise wordless concept that we all feel about a particular work of art, a landmark or building, etc.

    It is ironic in my case. I have stood before particular statues or paintings in museums, almost possessive and jealous when other visitors make ignorant or dismissive remarks before snapping their “obligatory” selfies while making faces. Then, when the spell breaks, I realize I’m no better or different than anyone else who visits the museum.

    In my opinion, that is the sign of a masterpiece. It never needs to be proclaimed as such if it speaks so strongly to someone to make them feel so passionate.

    Thank you for the article Mr. Miccelli!

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