ArtWeekend

Titian, in the Harsh Light of Day

Titian was, as the great English poet Geoffrey Chaucer would put it, a ‘man’s man,’ accustomed to showing off his posturing pride.

Titian, “Venus and Adonis” (ca. 1554), oil on canvas, 186 × 207 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid (© Photographic Archive Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, all images courtesy National Gallery of Art, London)

LONDON — It was around 1550 that Harvey Weinstein commissioned a sequence of six paintings in celebration of rape, violence, savagery between man and beast, and other kindred matters from Tiziano Vecelli (aka ‘Titian’), a man widely regarded by many as the greatest Venetian painter of his day.

Titian was already fairly elderly at the time (people got older much younger then), but he responded to the commission with tremendous gusto. He continued to work on what might well have been the seventh and last painting in the series until his death, a quarter-century later, at the age of 86 or 88, depending on the birth date you believe, which means that his patron never actually lived to see it.

Last week the entire cycle was brought together for the first time in 450 years at the National Gallery in London for the exhibition Titian: Love, Desire, Death. This brilliant occasion was marked by a brief address to the assembled press from Gabriele Finaldi, the institution’s untouchable director.

Titian, “Diana and Actaeon” (1556-59), oil on canvas 184.5 x 202.2 cm (© the National Gallery London / the National Galleries of Scotland)

The two men – Harvey and Tiziano that is – had much in common. Like Harvey, Tiziano was, as the great English poet Geoffrey Chaucer would put it, a ‘man’s man,’ accustomed to showing off the posturing pride and the near-indomitability of the male of the species – ‘solder, sailor, horseman he’ in the deathless words of the poet W.B. Yeats, yet another near-indomitable and prideful male. What is more, neither Harvey nor Tiziano could speak or read a word of Latin.

Latin? “Why is this ridiculous detail of any relevance?” I hear you ask with some petulance. Because the underlying thrust of this great new cycle of paintings, Weinstein cunningly mused, would be helpfully kept from overmuch public scrutiny by pesky, grievance-fueled and, generally speaking, over-opinionated young women, if it were to be presented as a spasmodic sequence of scenes from a poem that doesn’t seem to be peopled by human beings at all.

And that is exactly what happened. The entire sequence of six paintings is collectively known as Poesie, and it is based on Metamorphoses, a shape-shifting masterpiece of a book-length poem about the bad deeds of the gods of antiquity by Publius Ovidius Naso (aka Ovid), a Roman blackguard (it was mere happenstance that he proved to be a genius) from almost a couple of millennia back, who was finally exiled to the Black Sea coast for his many misdemeanors, where he was not a happy bunny. Oh no.

Titian, “The Death of Actaeon” (ca. 1559-75), oil on canvas, 178.8 x 197.8 cm (© the National Gallery, London)

Now, as soon as you call anything ‘poetry,’ you have a license to print pink candy floss until your jaws ache. A poem is what it is. Nobody dare get too near it for fear of being made to look an idiot.

And so it was with Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The fact that Weinstein and Titian never read it in the original doesn’t matter two hoots. Titian had a pretty good idea of some of the most famous bits, the main story lines, and Weinstein was happy for him to mix and match as he so wished.

These six paintings, now shown off once again in natural light in a magnificent 19th-century gallery at the heart of the old building, in their ponderous gilded frames and set off against rich maroon walls, are considered among the greatest works of the Renaissance. What is more, their extraordinary brutality cannot be underestimated.

Two of them must have been of particular interest to Harvey. “Danae” (ca. 1551–53) shows the daughter of the King of Argos magnificently reclining on a bed, outspread in all the welcoming abundance of her nakedness. She has just been impregnated by Jupiter, king of the Olympian gods, who has descended upon her in the form of a shower of gold.

Titian, “Danaë” (ca. 1551–53), oil on canvas, 114.6 × 192.5 cm, Wellington Collection, Apsley House, London (© Stratfield Saye Preservation Trust)

The impregnation has just happened, but the golden shower continues to teem down through the air, to the amazement of an old crone nearby. Rape in the form of money. Is this a dark and malign tale, for all the alluring beauty of its presentation? It most certainly is.

Now let us skip over the waves (and across the room) to consider a dreamily post-coital, fully sated bull and its equally happy prey. In “The Rape of Europa” (1559–62), we are once again in the presence of a scene that comes off as the perfect sanctification of rape.

Jupiter has descended upon Europa in the form of a bull and, having sated himself, the two now seem to be in a strange kind of harmony with each other.

The bull’s look seems to possess all the wide-eyed innocence of those who feign ignorance of what they do in any courtroom while cupids frolic in the sky and a savage fish cuts through the nearby waters. The very painted surface seems to be a-quiver. Is she ecstatic? Is she horrified by all that buffeting? Perhaps there is a mingling of emotions here, of ecstasy and horror.

Titian, “The Rape of Europa” (1559–62), oil on canvas, 178 × 205 cm, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston (© Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston)

Power does not always move in one direction. Men are ripped apart too from time to time – consider “The Death of Acteaon” (ca. 1559-75), that seventh painting to which I referred, the one which Titian worked on and worked on, and never quite finished.

In this painting, Actaeon gets torn to bits by his own hounds for having stumbled upon Diana in the woods in all her nakedness. Looking was forbidden. That was his punishment. Nevertheless, Diana had been mightily curious when she spotted him in all his handsomeness. He was fully clothed, of course. It is the beautiful women who are ogled naked in the very best of Titian. Exactly as Harvey would have wished.

Titian: Love Desire Death continues at the National Gallery (Trafalgar Square, London, England) through June 14.

Pleased be advised that the National Gallery, London, is currently closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic until May 4 at the earliest; check the museum’s website for further announcements.

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