Bold Strokes and Dashes: Titian

Titian, Diana and Actaeon (1556-59), oil on canvas, 73″ x 80″; courtesy The National Gallery, London

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The following review was originally published in the May 2003 edition of The New Criterion and is posted here on the occasion of  Metamorphosis: Titian 2012, an exhibition at London’s National Gallery (until September 23).

With the exception of the museum personnel whose livelihood depends on them, nobody likes a crowd at an art exhibition. Aesthetic experience isn’t encouraged by peering over the shoulders of a half-a-dozen onlookers, the tinny squawk of audio tours, or waiting on what are often onerous lines. Looking at a painting or sculpture is a one-to-one encounter that benefits from an unimpeded view, an amplitude of time, and peace and quiet. That these attributes are absent from the typical blockbuster show doesn’t mean that a real engagement with art is impossible. Only a cynic could claim that the nuances of a Leonardo drawing couldn’t make themselves known through a thicket of gallery-goers. Nor do I want to insinuate that the glories of art should be the purview of a privileged few. It’s just that there’s no denying that the pedestrian traffic one encounters at a museum can make the solace we seek from art a hassle to obtain.

Which isn’t to say that the same crowds can’t tell us something about the art they are viewing. The exhibition I saw prior to visiting London’s National Gallery—where a retrospective of paintings by the Venetian painter Tiziano Vecellio (c. 1487–1576), better known as Titian, is on display—was the Matthew Barney show at New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Comparing the two shows might seem spurious work. What can such radically disparate events hope to tell us about the art audience? One answer is that no artist, not even a Renaissance master, is invulnerable to hype (though he is likely to be less dependent on it than the art scene’s latest culture starlet). Many people visit big museum shows because they are, as it is said, the place to be.

Another answer to the question is that the manner in which crowds move through an art exhibit can be a fairly reliable indicator of the quality of work on view. Visitors to the Guggenheim drift past Barney’s spectacle as if they instinctively know that it isn’t worth bothering with in the first place. Visitors to the National Gallery, in contrast, take their time and get up close to Titian’s paintings. The crowd I wrestled with in order to view The Andrians (c. 1523–1524) was hunched around it as if they couldn’t bear to leave the canvas until its last virtue had been absorbed. Given how various, abundant, and sexy its virtues are, one felt curmudgeonly begrudging them their concentration.

Titian, The Death of Actaeon (c. 1559-1575), oil on canvas, 70.2″ x 78″; courtesy The National Gallery, London

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Titian is the first of three exhibitions the National Gallery will dedicate to painters of the Renaissance; El Greco and Raphael are on the docket for 2004. If the museum’s current show is any indication, the future exhibitions are likely to enthrall and frustrate, at least a bit. Comprised of only forty or so paintings, a number that includes a trio of pictures by Dosso Dossi and collaborations with Giovanni Bellini and Jacopo Palma il Vecchio, Titian is less extensive an exhibition than one might have hoped for. One understands, of course, that matters of conservation prevent museums from lending—and possibly endangering—their treasures; definitive exhibitions are becoming less possible. And it should quickly be mentioned that Titian doesn’t stint on masterpieces—any show that includes A Man with a Quilted Sleeve (c. 1510), the aforementioned AndriansDanae (1544–1546), Bacchus and Ariadne (1520–1523) and the charming Clarissa Strozzi (c. 1542) merits a stopover. So, one shouldn’t grouse too much.

Still, there are notable absences here, to name just a few: The Venus of Urbino (before 1538), Man with the Glove (c. 1520) and Concert Champêtre (1510–1511), a canvas whose attribution is, admittedly, in dispute. (Once attributed to Giorgione and then to Titian, the painting now has a third candidate proposed for its authorship: the little known Domenico Mancini.) As a consequence of these and other omissions, Titian feels curt and punchy; its abbreviation leaves one wanting more.

The artist that emerges from the National Gallery show is a monumental figure, but not an ingratiating one. Titian is, at least initially, distant and aloof; the paintings are, notwithstanding their mastery, resistible. The primary reason for this is Titian’s emphasis on surface. Even in the earliest piece on view, The Virgin and Child (“The Gypsy Madonna”) (c. 1511), the features of the painting—whether it be the title figures, the landscape or the various draperies pictured therein—are delineated more through value than texture. Texture, here and throughout the oeuvre, is predominantly the surface of the canvas itself, uniform and coarse. From the outset, a pictorial scrim is established between the viewer and the image.

Titian, Diana and Callisto (1556-1559), oil on canvas, 74″ x 80-1/2″; courtesy The National Gallery, London and The National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh

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Titian doesn’t readily invite entry to his paintings; he challenges the eye by throwing a roadblock in its path. This frankness about material means only increased as Titian grew older. The later pieces in particular—one thinks of The Flaying of Marsyas (c. 1570–1576) and The Death of Actæon (c. 1565–1576)—are enveloped in a fog of flurried oils. A colleague informs me that this quality has been linked to the subsuming haze of Venice. It can also be attributed to Titian’s wish for the physicality of oils to remain relatively unencumbered, a tack that did not go unremarked upon by his contemporaries. The artist’s friend Pietro Aretino, after commissioning a portrait from Titian, ultimately rebuked him for not suitably finishing it. Giorgio Vasari, writing in Lives of the Artists, stated that Titian’s “later work is done in bold strokes and dashes, and if seen too near, the effect is confusing.”

Vasari then went on to state that a late Titian, seen “at a distance … is perfect.” He was right, of course. To insist that Titian is all surface all the time is to reduce his art to the narrowest of painterly extremes. The more time one spends with the paintings the more perceptive, humane, and even cagey Titian becomes. The depth of feeling he brought to Biblical subjects like The Entombment (1559), Ecce Homo (c. 1570), and the enchantingly tender Virgin and Child with Saint Catherine and a Shepherd (“The Madonna of the Rabbit”) (1530) is limitless. His ability to capture the psychology of his subjects—whether it be the unhealthy relationship that existed between Georges d’Armagnac, Bishop of Rodez, and his secretary Guillaume Philandrier or a Pope whose august demeanor could not disguise a parsimoniousness of spirit—inspires awe. Few artists have cut so quickly to the essence of their sitters. This is especially true of the late self-portraits. Unflinching in their honesty and cunningly self-conscious, they are the work of a man aware of his own mortality yet confident in how history will judge him—that is to say, highly. Late Titian, unlike late Rembrandt, did not lack in humility. It goes to the scale of Titian’s genius that we take pleasure in his arrogance.

© 2003 Mario Naves

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