Titian: Love, Desire and Death

The London Art Traveller at the National Gallery

my first trip into the wide world since COVID lockdown: the National Gallery in London. Photo:theartraveller

National Gallery film about Titian https://youtu.be/loaUxU_peL8

The description of the Poesies:


Titian: love, desire and death

It was always going to be the National Gallery. I knew that the very first place I would go to as soon as the Covid lockdown eased would be the National Gallery. In all the years, I’ve never failed to get a thrill from the National Gallery. Not merely its incredible collection, which I can see over and over again, but also the splendour of the building. I love its fantastic location on Trafalgar Square, and its stupendous interior architecture and décor. Just walking up to its front entrance is a treat and an experience in itself. Being inside surrounded by incredible paintings is literally visceral.

I went to the Gallery ostensibly to see the Titian exhibition, which was closed only three days after it opened its doors for the first time. But although, of course, I wanted desperately to see Titian, I also just really needed to be in the Gallery. I needed to see the paintings as some kind of reassurance that there is still some reality after all the lunacy and unreality of the previous five months.

One of my favourite paintings in the Gallery’s collection Is An Allegory of Venus and Cupid by Bronzino. There are a lot of reasons why I really love the painting, and I wrote a whole chunk of about it in my book Art History for Filmmakers so I won’t go into that here. Let me just say there are three things I like about it: 1) the absolutely beautiful smooth pearlescent and jewel-like surface of Bronzino’s technique; 2) the fact that such a fabulous example of mannerist painting; and 3) it’s a theatrical piece, it essentially represents a particular kind of dramatic comedy which is still with us today in the rom-com genre.

Anyway, I walked in, and as I was walking over to the section where the Titian exhibition Was hung, I saw Venus and Cupid and – my God, if I didn’t stand there and feel the tears running down my cheeks. It was such an emotional moment, like seeing a really old friend I dearly love. I didn’t think I would react so strongly to seeing a painting but hey ho, there it was. The picture is half a millennia old.  It was created in Florence around 1545, and it’s quite surprising that something so old can still have so much power over somebody in the modern world. But to me, it speaks of really timeless aspects of the human condition: love, desire, jealousy, the passage of time and the performative ways we relate to one another.  

An Allegory of Venus and Cupid Photo: theartraveller

I urge you to read up on the painting

Anyway, just as I digressed to contemplating Bronzino on my way to the Titian exhibition, I digress in this post; let’s move forward.

Venetian painter Titian was in his lifetime the most famous painter in the world. Although he never visited the court, he was an official painter to both the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and his son Phillip II of Spain. If you grew up in the Anglo-American world, you might have heard of Phillip of Spain as the antagonist of Elizabeth I of England, but there was a lot more to him than that. I find Phillip to be a fascinating and rather appealing character; one thing we know about him is, he really appreciated and patronized the arts. It’s partly because of Phillip that Spain is so full of great art. The rest of Europe, too, because he didn’t just fill Spain with art, he patronized artists like Titian and thus enabled them to keep creating incredible works, which continue to exist in posterity. So yeah, I’d say Phillip II of Spain is one of my favourite historical despots.  

One of my favouries: Bacchus and Ariadne Photo: theartraveller

Titian is also the first of the truly great ‘cinematic’ painters in art history and I promise I will write about this in another post. Whenever I’m teaching film artistry and visual storytelling, I almost always include a lesson on Titian.  

I mentioned Phillip because one of the highlights of the Titian exhibition is that it recreates a collection that Titian made for the king, and which has long been dispersed to museum collections around the world. The collection is usually referred to as the Poesies, and they are paintings interpreting scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. ‘Perseus and Andromeda’ is one of my absolute favourite paintings and is usually in The Wallace Collection. The National Gallery itself owns a good number of Titians, many of which were also displayed in the show. The exhibition brought in ‘Danaë’ (about 1551–3) from the Wellington Collection, Apsley House; ‘Venus and Adonis’ (1554) from the Prado; ‘Diana and Actaeon’ (1556–9) and ‘Diana and Callisto’ (1556–9), which the National Gallery Co owns with National Galleries of Scotland, and they also brought over the ‘Rape of Europa’ (1559–62) from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.

See the Poesies on Wikimedia excellent reproductions

Titian provided mostly religious pictures to Phillip, and you can see many of them in the Escorial. However, with the Poesies Titian proposed scenes from Ovid and Phillip gave the artist full rein to decide what to depict. It’s exciting to muse on what Titian was thinking when he made them. They’re all quite different in style, and they are all examples of Titian’s late style. The style is characterized by much looser, more open brushwork, more considerable attention to the dynamic qualities of light and shade and an overwhelming sense of impermanence.  The book Titian the Last Days, English writer Mark Hudson describes at least one of the pictures in this late style as being ‘impressionist’. Although that is deliberately anachronistic, and Hudson is being a bit provocative here, I understand what he means. ‘The Death of Actaeon’, with its remarkable sense of movement, delivers the feeling that you are experiencing the flurry of light amid the trees of a dense forest. I couldn’t take a decent picture of it in the exhibition, so I direct you to the Wikimedia picture here, because it’s the best reproduction you can see online.

There is plenty of writing on the Poesies series and on Titian, and I do recommend Mark Hudson’s book; actually, there are lots of books about Titian. I’m not going to repeat what they say. Instead, I’m going to talk about my own reaction to the paintings. I was struck, on seeing the Poesies, how many depict the goddess Diana. If, as has been said, Phillip was a man with an eye for the ladies, one might wonder what on earth the virginal goddess of the Moon might have had to offer such a man. Although I’m certainly no scholar of the classics, I was fascinated and intrigued.  I did a little bit of digging around, and I looked up Diana, or Artemis, as she’s known to the Greeks.

Identified by her bow and arrows as the goddess of hunting, Diana was also the goddess of woodlands, chastity and wild animals. She was reputed to be able to communicate with woodland animals. Some scholars note that her identity as the goddess of the Moon was more critical than her patronage of the hunt.

Diana and Actaeon By Titian – at Google Cultural Institute, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13360974

The hunter Actaeon, in pursuit of quarry, blunders into the Goddess Diana’s private quarters deep in the forest. He gawks at the goddess and her handmaidens. While some of the maidens seem a bit coy about it, the goddess is unamused. She shields herself behind her scarf but she has a face like thunder. According to Ovid, in the next moment, she turned Actaeon into a stag and sent him on his way.

What this indicates to me is the profound roots of the Diana cult in ancient hunting ceremonies. We have seen these painted on the walls of prehistoric caves.  Add to that the recognition that ancient peoples understood the role of the Moon in terms of its impact on human behaviour. The Moon affects the menstruation of women and the rise and fall of the tides. Diana, in her role as goddess of the Moon, was also the goddess that women prayed to when they wanted to have children. This might seem strange when you think that she was the goddess of chastity but, given the impact of the Moon on the menses, it does make sense.

 We also know that Philip was meant to impregnate his wife, Mary Tudor of England. Instead, she suffered a horrific false pregnancy. This meant that Mary had no heir, and so the throne passed to her younger sister Elizabeth, known as Elizabeth I. It makes you wonder if Titian was in any way alluding to this sad situation, given that he was painting these pictures at precisely the same time as this was going on! Phillip did have children with his other three wives, however, so perhaps Diana came in handy, after all.

I said that Diana is the Roman incarnation of Artemis, the Greek goddess, and there are striking overlaps, as there are in most of the Roman gods which derived from their Greek antecedents. But the Roman religion was slightly different from the Greek, and the gods had slightly different attributes; Diana perhaps most of all. The Etruscans (a group of people who joined with the Latin tribes in Rome) had a goddess called Diana Nemorensis (Diana of the Woods), whose cult was added to the Greek Artemisian cult of Diana. I first heard about this cult of Diana when I read James Frazer’s incredible book The Golden Bough (I should say I did read the abridged version because the original is many volumes).  The main thing to understand about Diana of the Woods is that her cult was headed by a priest who was always a runaway slave. He would gain his position as the head of this powerful cult by killing whoever was the existing cult leader. A fascinating concept: essentially, the King is ritually killed and is replaced by his murderer. The cult of Diana is stranger and more interesting than it at first appears;  it does make me really wonder what was actually going on with these Diana pictures in Titian’s Poesies.   

The other Poesies are equally compelling. Titian knew how to paint the sensual in a very honest way. His Rape of Europa, where the girl (a Phoenician princess) is carried off across the sea by a white bull (Zeus in disguise) is dramatic and strange, but at the same time, you can feel Europa’s panic at the bizarre situation she is in. Titian makes us understand that what happened to Europa is dreadful and weird. It seems he really understood Ovid’s underlying message: the gods use us as their playthings, and don’t forget it.

By Titian – http://www.gardnermuseum.org/collection/artwork/3rd_floor/titian_room/europa?filter=artist:3150, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=159563

One thing that is so fascinating about Titian is that, despite being the most famous and successful painter in Europe, he was not formulaic. He seems to have approached every commission with a free and open mind, and in each painting, he sought to do something different – whether it was simply to show off how he could make a tour de force of painting different kinds of textures (the reflecting water and glass in Diana and Actaeon) or how he could suggest the character and personality of his sitter. Titian: Love, Desire and Death is quite a small exhibition but certainly made an impact on this discerning viewer.

Death of Actaeon By Titian – The National Gallery , Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=804472

Here the Goddess enacts her final revenge. The blundering Actaeon, transformed into a stag, is torn to death by his own hunting dogs as th goddess looks on. As he perishes he transforms back inot a man, but too late. In the myth, Diana is not present during Actaeon’s final moments, but the artist has added her in.