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.


Diana and Actaeon: £50m Titians?

The jury is still out, it seems, on whether we (be that the public, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, or some mysterious other benefactor) should be prepared to fork out £100m to keep Titian’s “masterpieces” (always a loaded word), Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto. Actually it’s a complicated situation: the paintings belong to the seventh Duke of Sutherland, who wants to “diversify his assets” – ie, sell some paintings. He has offered them to the National Galleries of England and Scotland for £50m each, or they’ll be sold on the open market and probably leave the UK and become unavailable to the public. Furthermore, the Culture Show mentioned that he also owns a fair proportion of the standing exhibits at the National Gallery in Edinburgh, and will have them back too if the Titians aren’t bought by the NG.
It was painted as one of a series of seven erotic paintings from Ovid’s Metamorphoses for Philip II of Spain in the 1550s. The story – roughly – is that Actaeon comes across Diana and her nymphs bathing, and in her fury she eventually has him killed as revenge for seeing her naked – which makes seeing the painting itself a somewhat illicit business. It’s a painting of exciting textures, colour and movement, as well as portents of Actaeon’s death.
So it’s a big deal, and a lot of money. But is it worth it? To my mind it’s worth it far more than the ridiculous excesses of the 2012 Olympics, which we really can’t afford. However, I went to see Diana and Actaeon last week, and am disappointed to say it doesn’t move me. Titian isn’t my thing, I suppose. I do see it’s a fascinating painting, and also a great teaching resource for getting people interested in art, which is a strong point in its favour. Can the money be raised by public donations? I hope so, actually. I appreciate the Titians without loving them, but they’re an amazing resource for the UK to have, and I sincerely hope we can hang on to them.
If you’re interested, you can donate money via the NG website here.ds_diana_actaeon

Charles I, King and Martyr

npgd1306What with Milton being the hot literary topic of the year, and The Devil’s Whore on TV, Charles I keeps cropping up at the moment. This small exhibition is well worth a visit (though it closes on December 14th) for its examination of how Charles was represented posthumously. The picture left shows Charles’s execution, but to my mind, more interesting are the ones which show his “afterlife” – how people remembered him. After his death the Royalist cause reasserted itself, horrified by the regicides, and virtually deified him.

Images from his trial to his execution show him as a strong, dignified man, resolute in his faith and laughing in the face of death. Victorian images of the same turn him into a devout, sober family man, gathering his children around him (though most had left the country by the time of his execution). After his death, images display him as a Christian martyr, with my favourite, by Bernard Baron, in 1728, showing Charles being borne aloft by cherubs while Britannia turns her face away in shame. It’s almost kitsch, but it was serious; in fact Charles was only removed from the Book of Common Prayer in 1859. It’s a history lesson in itself, this exhibition, since it shows how popular opinion manifests and regenerates itself, sometimes in quite surprising ways.

Sisley in England and Wales

The National Gallery has had some excellent free exhibitions this year, and this one is no exception. Sisley is frequently referred to as the English French Impressionist, though he was born and lived most of his life in France. This is a chance to see the work he did in Britain, thkeyimageough, mostly in later life, and it’s fascinating. He was hardly the most radical of the Impressionists, with none of the near-abstraction and little of the radical use of colours exhibited by others, but he’s still an interesting painter. 

I began my visit by watching a film in the Sunley Cinema Room about the use of light and shade and complementary colours, based on scientific work contemporary with Sisley, which heightened my awareness, when looking at the paintings, of his observation of light and shade, the shimmering light and deep, obscure shadows. This observation is part of the Impressionist interest in “reproducing nature with exactitude” – yet not in a Pre-Raphaelite “truth to nature” way, with every brush-stroke perfect, but rather reproducing their impressions of nature exactly.

Something I especially liked about Sisley’s paintings is how they draw the eye and seem to invite you in – so often one finds oneself looking down a road, or through a bridge, or a path to a river, particularly in his London pictures. The eye is clearly directed in Sisley’s work – a trait I seem to recall is one many of the Impressionists share.  In the Welsh sea-scapes, however, there seems to be more abstraction, of subject rather than style, especially in those of rocks, such as Storr Rock, Lady’s Cove, Evening, 1897, above.  In it, there is a tiny figure standing beside the rock, dwarfed by its size and almost irrelevant against the forces of nature – a traditional idea represented in a modern way.

Love is all around…?

The National Gallery’s Love exhibition seems to have been reviewed everywhere recently, and I’m always a sucker for a freebie anyway, so thought I’d have a quick look. I’m glad I did. It’s not often you get to see such an eclectic mix – Emin alongside Rossetti, Cranach near Claude, etc. Generally I’m a bit wary of “themes” – allows generalised and rather trite philosophising, as well as making often rather tenuous connections, and the NG blurb didn’t inspire me much:

Arguably love has been the inspiration for more great art than any other human emotion. Nevertheless it presents a challenge to the visual artist. How do you depict love? How do you convey its complexity and intensity?
The wide range of types of love made it difficult to focus, but it was managed quite well, covering divine and human love, siblings, parental, and the usual romantic love. I thought Sandys’ Medea was an interesting inclusion – what can go wrong in love (for those who didn’t do Classics A-level, Medea killed her children to pay back her husband for infidelity. Lovely.) And I was surprisingly taken with Grayson Perry’s God Please Keep My Children Safe (above), a fragile-looking ceramic rabbit with prayers for one’s children inscribed on it. Directly opposite that, DG Rossetti’s Astarte Syriaca – now that’s a twisted kind of love, difficult to disentangle the painter’s personal feelings (his adulterous adoration of the model, Jane Morris) from the classical connotations of the subject.
Actually, two of the paintings I liked best were ones I hadn’t seen before: Jan Molenaer’s A Young Man and Woman making music (1630-2) – domestic and artistic harmony (though he looks a lot happier than she does) and painted so comfortably; and Chagall’s Bouquet with Flying Lovers (1934-47), left, which seems a tribute to a happy marriage, though it was painted after her death, and contains shadows and colours of mourning as well as a blissful-looking couple. I guess that’s one of the good things about “themed” exhibitions, though – not only does it throw paintings one knows and loves into a different context, it also provides new joys.


Yesterday I went to see Phantom, an exhibition of paintings by Alison Watt, at the National Gallery. I’d noticed on the NG website that Watt was fascinated by “the suggestive power of fabric”, which sounded cryptic and possibly interesting, so I thought I’d have a look. It’s a small exhibition (and free) – only 7 paintings, plus Saint Francis in Meditation (1635-9) by Zurbaran, a painting which began Watt’s love-affair with fabric – she describes the fabric in the painting as “like a living mass”, “so sculptural, it seems as if the folds have been carved rather than painted.”
There is a short film about the pieces, in which Watt says that it’s about “negative space” – something particularly apparent in Eye, which is not so much a window of the soul as a porthole looking out onto nothingness. However, I think it appealed to me because of the very – fabric-ness of it. White is usually seen as uncomplicated, simple – white sheets, white paper, white snow. This is a very complicated white indeed – shadowed and textured and deep, somehow more complex than colour (and usually, I’m a sucker for colour, bold primaries, hence my interest in Pre-Raphaelitism). Walking towards Root, I felt as though I was going to be sucked into a vortex of whiteness, and quite welcomed the idea (even though my childhood nightmares were about this!) The paintings reminded me of rumpled sheets, which are usually fraught with emotions – even if only in an “I must do the laundry” kind of way…