Titian’s Metamorphosis

In 2008, I posted about the National Gallery‘s purchase of Titian‘s Diana and Actaeon, wondering whether they were worth the money, and concluding that although they probably were, I didn’t find the paintings particularly moving or interesting. Now, the NG are exhibiting Titian’s series together, reuniting Diana and Actaeon, Diana and Callisto and The Death of Actaeon for the first time since the eighteenth century. As a celebration of this, and as part of the Cultural Olympiad London 2012 festival, the National Gallery are doing some unusual things with the Titians. Describing it as ‘A multi-faceted experience celebrating British creativity across the arts’, ‘Metamorphosis: Titian 2012’ includes new art, poetry and even ballet in the name of reimagining and re-engaging with Titian’s work in 2012. The exhibition is on until 23rd September, and I have to admit I haven’t yet managed to see it, but the idea of it is so interesting that I thought I would blog about it. My interest was sparked by Imagine on BBC1 on 24th July, which followed the artists working on the project.

Diana and Callisto depicts the moment when Diana reveals that her servant Callisto is pregnant, and banishes her. The Diana and Actaeon and The Death of Actaeon paintings depict the story of Diana’s revenge, also based on Ovid‘s Metamorphoses, and there is useful information and discussion of the paintings on the NG’s website. Actaeon, a young hunter, accidentally sees Diana naked whilst she is bathing with her nymphs. In a fit of what seems like unreasonable fury, Diana pursues him to his death: he is transformed into a stag and torn to pieces by his own hounds. The paintings are full of portent and symbolism, which, it turns out, is ripe for inspiring fresh work, and the idea of this chain of ideas, art inspiring art, appeals to me.

The ‘Metamorphosis’ project includes new paintings inspired by artists Chris Ofili, Conrad Shawcross and Mark Wallinger, which are currently on display at the National Gallery. The artists were also asked to produce set designs and costumes for three short ballets based on the paintings. Imagine interviewed the artists, who pointed out the life and movement of the paintings, which, combined with comedy and tragedy, expression and emotion, make the paintings ideal for such an artistic collaboration. The artists collaborated with choreographers and composers to create the ballets (one of which includes a robot-Diana!), although the new works, both dance and art, are not narrative or figurative, but loosely inspired by the paintings and largely abstract.

The project also includes a range of new poems by poets including Carol Ann Duffy, Jo Shapcott, Simon Armitage, Wendy Cope and Seamus Heaney. (You can watch some of the poems being read by their authors here). The poems, from what I have seen, rely more on narrative and characterisation than the other works, and owe a lot to the ‘violent transformations’ of Ovid’s work as well as to Titian. I love this idea, of Titian being inspired by Ovid to produce something that, at the time, was new, cutting-edge (as well as a kind of respectable erotica), and subsequently inspiring all this new work. Perhaps there was some public doubt about whether so much money should have been spent on the Titians back when they were first for sale, but it seems to me that such new artistic engagement with the works, and the level of public interest in them, more than justifies it.


  1. With a baby son due any day now, I do not expect to see this exhibition but I hope that a gorgeous book is published. I love exhibitions that blur boundaries and this one’s a great idea. Thanks for an excellent post!

  2. Thank you very much – it’s such an unusual approach, isn’t it? Congratulations in advance on your baby – I had my son almost a year ago!

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