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June 2020

Vol. 162 / No. 1407

Titian: Love, Desire, Death

Reviewed by Giorgio Tagliaferro

National Gallery, London

16th March–14th June

The present exhibition has reunited the celebrated series of six mythological scenes painted by Venice’s most famous Renaissance master for Philip II of Spain between c.1551 and 1562. It is not known where Philip displayed them, or even whether they were originally hung together, but by 1585 it seems that one (Perseus and Andromeda; Wallace Collection, London) had already left the royal collection. Today only one painting is still in Madrid; the others passed through various collections before ending up in museums in Europe and the United States (a time-lapse video in the exhibition’s lobby suggestively reconstructs their movements). For the first time since their dispersal they can be seen next to one another, a remarkable opportunity curtailed by the COVID-19 pandemic only three days after the exhibition opened.

The group includes some of Titian’s most famous masterpieces: Venus and Adonis (Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid), Diana and Actaeon, Diana and Callisto (jointly owned by the National Gallery, London, and the National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh), Perseus and Andromeda and the Rape of Europa (Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston). The sixth is the hitherto undervalued Danaë (Fig.9), which has only recently been identified as the one sent to Philip – it was formerly believed to be the more famous version in the Prado.(1) The exhibition also includes the Death of Actaeon (National Gallery, London), which may have been conceived as part of the series, but remained in the painter’s studio until his death in 1576. This painting alone will not travel to the future venues for the exhibition in Edinburgh, Madrid and Boston.(2) The exceptional circumstances of this reunion would suffice to make the exhibition essential viewing, but the organisers, led by the National Gallery’s curator Matthias Wivel, have excelled themselves to put on an awe-inspiring display that presents the paintings in a new light.

Modern scholars refer to these pictures as poesie (poems), as Titian called them in his correspondence with Philip. In the sixteenth century the term indicated depictions of fictional subjects taken from secular poetry, as distinct from religious themes intended to convey Christian truth. Classical myths were regarded as ideal sources to stimulate the artists’ imagination, a fact that Titian exploited with unprecedented freedom. Because it is not known who devised the series, or with what purposes, it is assumed that Titian had liberty to choose and develop the subjects for the amusement of his patron. The tales depicted, which are recounted in numerous classical sources (notably Ovid’s Metamorphoses), concern encounters between human and divine characters, often implying a sexual relationship between them. This gave the artist an opportunity to produce explicitly erotic scenes, in which the female nude is explored in diverse attitudes, which would have gratified Philip’s renowned penchant for women. At the same time, Titian has poignantly expressed the subjugation of his mortal characters to the appetites of capricious deities, which causes them tragically to die or undergo metamorphosis. The narratives are compressed into startling images that capture the fatal moment in which the protagonists’ action sparks off their fate. The palpable, seductive colour handling draws the beholder into a pathetic representation of the human struggle against the insurmountable forces governing life: love, desire and death – as the exhibition’s title reads – together with their allies, power, lust, transgression, fear and loss.

Scholars are split between seeing Titian’s poesie either as objects of erotic and aesthetic enjoyment or as receptacles of moral and allegorical meanings. The exhibition adopts a more all-embracing approach, tackling the paintings from multiple angles and bringing to the fore the complexity of the creative process, broadly defined as the totality of the technical, visual, intellectual and even emotional resources mobilised by the artist. These aspects are examined in the catalogue, written by Wivel with contributions by distinguished specialists, which provides a cohesive, in-depth analysis of the poesie.(3) They are presented not as self-contained works carried out according to a preconceived plan but as the results of an endless working and reworking of materials and ideas. New information on Titian’s pigments and painting procedures, obtained by X-radiograph fluorescence spectrometry (XRF) in particular, as well as on his use of underdrawing, has been integrated with scrutiny of the historical data and existing literature. A select bibliography and the transcription of nineteen letters to or by Titian concerning the poesie, fully translated into English for the first time, give additional value to the volume.

The main strength of the exhibition, however, is the unique opportunity to observe the paintings together in the same room (Fig.8). Because a historically correct reconstruction of their original display is impossible, the current arrangement was not an obvious choice, and the organisers deserve credit for creating a setting that allows visitors to evaluate the pictures both individually and as a whole. The canvases have been arranged clockwise, from the first that was executed (Danaë) to the last (the Death of Actaeon). However, the order is not otherwise strictly chronological: the sequence has been adjusted for visual reasons, partly to take account of the paintings’ unequal state of conservation and partly to acknowledge that Titian apparently conceived them in pairings. The arrangement is very effective, as it highlights significant correspondences as well as contrasts that express the polarities of the myths. At the same time, the overall coherence of the series emerges forcefully, and this is further emphasised by the new carved and gilded frames with which the six paintings delivered to Philip have been furnished (their design is derived from the frame of Titian’s late Pietà in the Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice).

Hung facing one another, Danaë (c.1551–53) and Venus and Adonis (c.1553–54) oppose the stories of a maiden subdued to Jupiter’s desire and a youth turning away from Venus’s love. Newly published evidence indicates that Titian reused two compositions that probably were not conceived as pendants.(4) This suggests that the antithesis between Danaë’s frontal view and Venus’s back pose, famously underscored by the artist in a letter to Philip, was conceptualised as the series progressed. Both pictures, thinly painted with a bright palette, show monumental, single figures pushed to the foreground, close to the viewer. In contrast, the two Diana paintings (1556–59), hung here together on the adjacent wall, explore the female nude in groups of intertwined figures of smaller proportions, posing in different postures and receding into a natural setting that unifies the two scenes. Here Titian fully developed his revolutionary painting technique of free, vibrant brushstrokes that look haphazard from close up but take on distinct forms as the viewer moves back. The contours are blurred, the colours blended and the figures fused with the surrounding atmosphere. By capturing the variable quality of objects in nature, Titian conveys the changing states of mind of the protagonists at the moment when Actaeon and Callisto unwittingly offend Diana and are ruthlessly punished.

Perseus and Andromeda (c.1554–56) and the Rape of Europa (Fig.10), both of which are being lent to an exhibition for the first time since they entered the museums that own them, are hung on neighbouring walls. The former was originally to have been paired with Jason and Medea, which was abandoned, and the latter with the Death of Actaeon, which was never delivered. Their mirrored designs suggest that Titian conceived Europa as a counterpoint to Andromeda, drawing a parallel between the two endangered heroines. However, whereas the former painting had a troubled gestation marked by drastic compositional changes, the latter was executed confidently, with few adjustments, in thin layers of brilliant colours. The richness of the paint effects, combined with the suspenseful composition, justify both Titian’s claim in a letter to Philip that Europa was the culmination of his poesie and the organisers’ decision to hang it alone on a wall. This gives particular prominence to the painting, the quality of which is heightened by its exceptional state of preservation (now further enhanced by cleaning).

In later works, Titian took his manner to extremes, making forms dissolve into splotches of thick impasto. But, as the exhibition clarifies, this technique usually alternated with more polished passages, demonstrating that the artist deliberately experimented with a wide range of effects. Death of Actaeon (c.1559–75) is a case in point. Because of its blotchy forms and the lack of some narrative details, such as Diana’s arrow and bowstring, it is often described – like other late paintings by Titian – as unfinished. However, as Wivel suggests, it would be more appropriate to consider it as unresolved, for it is clear that, whatever the artist’s original plan was, his open-ended experimentation prevailed, and any addition aimed at taking the painting to a higher state of finish would be contradicted by painterly logic.

The exhibition successfully elucidates the way that the poesie were a site for artistic experimentation, a work-in-progress through which Titian elaborated new working procedures and modes of representation. They were also a means of personal advancement: through his unmediated manner of painting, which reveals his touch and embodies his engagement in the creative act, he presented himself to a powerful patron who was prepared to reward his intellectual personality and artistic inventiveness. Unlike his father, Emperor Charles V, who used Titian’s art for dynastic and political purposes, Philip was a connoisseur of fine art who came to appreciate the painter’s talents and ambitions. The poesie established new models of court art, which would be replicated, imitated and emulated by generations of painters who learned from them how to push artistic expression to new limits. To view them all together is a pleasure for the eyes and for the mind. It also helps us better understand nearly five centuries of Western art.

1. See M. Falomir, ed.: exh. cat. Dánae y Venus y Adonis: Las primeras ‘poesias’ de Tiziano para Felipe II, Madrid (Museo Nacional del Prado) 2014.

2. The exhibition is scheduled to be shown at the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh (11th July–27th September), the Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid (20th October–10 January 2021), and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston (11th February–9th May 2021).

3. Catalogue: Titian: Love, Desire, Death. By Matthias Wivel, with contributions by Beverly Louise Brown, Jill Dunkerton, Paul Hills, Lelia Packer, Javier Portús, Nathaniel Silver and Aidan Weston-Lewis. 232 pp. incl. 175 col. ills. (National Gallery Publications, London, and Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2020). £25. ISBN 978–1–85709–655–2.

4. J.S. Turner and P. Joannides: ‘Titian’s Rokeby Venus and Adonis and the role of working templates within his development of the theme’, Studi Tizianeschi 9 (2016), pp.48–76; and T. Dalla Costa: Venere e Adone di Tiziano: Arte, cultura e società tra Venezia e l’Europa, Venice 2019.