Art Review: Metamorphosis – Titian 2012 @ National Gallery

Great artworks serve as inspiration for other artists, but how far does this go? The National Gallery has dedicated a show to the inspiration provided by three great masterpieces by Titian. As £95 million was spent on two of these paintings, cynics will argue that this exhibition is merely an attempt to justify the spend.

Titian’s paintings are based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, particularly the stories revolving around the goddess Diana. First, how she discovered the pregnancy of her supposed virginal nymph Callisto, and secondly how, when bathing, she was spied upon by the hunter Actaeon and in revenge turned him into a stag to be ripped asunder by his own hounds.

As a response and tribute to Titian, artists have created works based on these paintings. Of the three only Mark Wallinger’s installation seems fitting. It brilliantly transports the viewer into the role of Actaeon. A number of actresses, all named Diana, bathe within a room and they can only be seen through a pair of peepholes in the wall, shifting us from viewer to voyeur and heightening our self-awareness. The only drawback being a sense of shame and the odd perverted visitor. Thankfully transformation into a stag is not an option.

Three ballets based on the paintings are to be performed at the Royal Opera House (now all sold out) but as this exhibition only contains excerpts of the ballet and the rehearsals, it seems a waste to have dedicated so much space to the costume and set designs when only visitors on 16 July were treated to the live screening in Trafalgar Square.

The final tribute is 14 poems that each interpret the artworks from a unique angle, whether from the viewpoint of the artist himself or of secondary characters within the paintings.  These are both clever and creative, encouraging the viewer to appreciate Titian’s works in a new light.

The inspired works are hit and miss but centre stage is rightfully taken by Titian’s three masterpieces. Most of the other works pale in comparison.

Metamorphosis: Titian 2012 is on display in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery until 23 September. Admission is free.

See also: How many nipples are there in the National Gallery.

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Tabish Khan 2

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  • http://www.grassfedart.com/ grassfedart

    “As a response and tribute to Titian, artists have created works based on
    these paintings. Of the three only Mark Wallinger’s installation seems
    fitting. It brilliantly transports the viewer into the role of Actaeon.”

    It would be useful to know why you think Wallinger’s piece “seems fitting” and why the other two do not. Can you share your insights?

    “The inspired works are hit and miss but centre stage is rightfully taken by Titian’s three masterpieces.”

    “These are both clever and creative, encouraging the viewer to appreciate Titian’s works in a new light.”

    How are they clever and creative? What does the “new light” reveal?

    Again, why? What makes Titian worth seeing, or worth £95 million?

    Peace.

    • http://twitter.com/LondonArtCritic Tabish Khan

      Thanks for your questions, I’ll try to answer them but of course this is just my personal opinion:

      Why only Mark Wallinger? Because it’s a modern appropriation of Actaeon’s dilemma. You as the viewer are unlikely to come across women bathing in lakes these days – well, not in London anyway. So the peepholes in the bathroom wall are a modern version and temptation equal to Actaeon’s. Chris Ofili uses primitivism in his work and the translation from Renaissance to Primitivist art felt jarring to me, equally Conrad Shawcross’ mechanistic interpretation. Neither of the latter two captured the spirit of Titian’s originals.

      How did the poetry present the paintings in a new light? Many Renaissance paintings have side characters that blend into the background that we tend to ignore. Presenting their views through the poems makes you appreciate these side characters and that they may have a story to tell as well.

      Is it worth £95m? Not sure on this. Titian is a great painter with a lot of talent and with a great ability to convey emotion, just look at Diana’s glare in ‘Diana and Actaeon’. But it’s great that the country has spent money to ensure that these paintings can be seen by anybody in London (resident or visitor) for free, rather than the paintings being locked up in some private collection off limits to most.

      • http://twitter.com/CrystalTierney1 Crystal Tierney

        The inspired works are hit and miss but centre stage is rightfully taken by Titian’s three masterpieces. Most of the other works pale in comparison. http://AlluringWay.blogspot.com

      • http://www.grassfedart.com/ grassfedart

         Mr. Khan,

            Thanks for the quick reply.

            I haven’t seen Mr. Ofili & Shawcross’ commissioned works (except
        one or two pictures), so I am in no position to critique them. But from
        the reviews I’ve read, all the contributions to this ambitious
        exhibition do have merit worthy of at least a few more words than those
        you gave them in your review. To be honest, your review  (tweeted with a reference to “pervs”) angered me a bit. It felt like
        an over the shoulder remark given with a dismissive wave of the hand.
        But that’s my opinion.

            I would venture further to say that the effort by the National
        Gallery to situate the Titian works in a modern context represents the
        best purpose of such institutions. Exhibitions like “Metamorphosis:
        Titian 2012″ illustrate why it is essential that civilization cultivate
        and patronize the arts, both with attendance at shows, and with public
        funding: they offer rare moments of reflection on our too often woeful
        human condition. Civilization without art ceases to be civilized. Our museums,
        theatres, opera houses, dance stages, orchestra halls and libraries are
        our most precious collective possessions. They map not only the past,
        but our future via the force of inspiration. Without them, the web of
        shared history and wisdom that binds us together in the ineffable
        grander scheme dissipates and dissolves. We stare into the abyss and
        find nothing redeeming; existential angst overwhelms aspiration, and we
        descend into nihilistic, self-serving anarchy. As we create, so do we
        destroy. Witness the library at Alexandria, witness the persecution of
        “magic” during the reign of the brothers Valens and Valentinian, Roman
        emperors who drove philosophers to burn their own libraries. I happen to
        be reading “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” (an abridged
        version edited by Dero Saunders — worth a look!), and there is a
        footnote on book burning (p. 474):

        “The persecution against philosophers and their libraries
        was carried out with such fury that from this time (A.D. 374) the names
        of the Gentile philosophers became almost extinct,” said Dean Milman, of
        Gibbon’s editors. “Besides vast heaps of manuscripts publicly destroyed
        throughout the East, men of learning burned their whole libraries lest
        some fatal volume expose them to the malice of the informers and the extreme penalty of the law.”

            Suppression of learning and art occurred during the Inquisition. It
        happens in the US when benighted politicians score points with a too
        easily fooled electorate by cutting cultural funding below its already
        shamefully anemic level. Antiquity fell under siege after the US invaded
        Iraq, and looters destroyed museums and libraries while indifferent
        leaders of the occupiers did nothing. I live near Detroit, where the
        Detroit Institute of Arts struggles to put a referendum on the ballot to
        provide modest but essential funding, and demagogues rail against
        “lefty priorities.”

            So to me, when someone courageous invites inevitable scorn by
        undertaking an exhibition like this one at the National Gallery, I think
        those of us who put any value at all on art owe it to them to grant
        them more than a cursory aside. We owe it to them to recognize the
        necessity of muses; our collective appetite for grace. From other
        reviews I’ve read, I suspect this exhibition offers both. You say you
        found Mr. Ofili and Shawcross’ works jarring. But isn’t that exactly
        what Titian’s work was, in contrast to the forced (and likely
        hypocritical) piety and devotion to Christianity prevalent at the time?
        From what I gather, all of the works commissioned for this show are
        jarring in one way or another, and that is exactly what we should be
        thankful for. I listened to the poems, read by the poets, available on
        the National Gallery website. They varied widely, and some strayed far
        from both Ovid and Titian. But they got me thinking how little things
        have changed since Romans burned books, or guys like Acteon were
        murdered for being “pervs.” Let’s defend and nurture our better angels,
        and let our petty ones perish from neglect. We owe ourselves that.

            And you, Sir, are blessed with two things that I, candidly, would
        cut off my own hand for: a bully pulpit and a willing audience. Cherish
        them both, and put them to good use. You have my admiration and respect.
        You’re one of the good guys.

        Your ever faithful reader,
        Jim Welke

        • http://twitter.com/LondonArtCritic Tabish Khan

          Thanks Jim, glad you’re a regular reader and a fan of the arts.

          Some final comments from me:

          – We have a goal of keeping our reviews short and snappy, so in an exhibition with many works we can’t always give them all the column inches they may deserve. In this case I focussed on Wallinger’s work as it spoke to me more than the others. I’m glad that other reviewers disagree as art inspires different opinions and that’s the beauty of it

          – I’m not responsible for the tweets but your concerns have been noted by those who are

          – I’m very grateful for the privilege of writing for Londonist but I hope I’m not telling people what to go and see, rather advising them on what’s out there and offering an opinion.

          It’s great to know we have regular readers and your opinions on this and future reviews are always welcome

          • http://www.grassfedart.com/ grassfedart

            Thanks. Peace, love.