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Titian: Love, Desire, Death review – whims of the gods made flesh | Art and design


The women are the stars in Titian. Men barely get a look-in – and that look-in can be fatal. In his painting Diana and Actaeon, a young man out hunting has chanced on the goddess Diana and her court bathing naked in a woodland hideaway. As he pushes aside a soft pink hanging, he sees inside this female realm. His punishment is shown in another painting here: he will be turned into a stag and torn apart by his hounds. In Diana and Actaeon we see what he sees: women kneel and crouch, turn in horror and rush to cover. Titian’s brush shapes their flesh in ethereal yet weighty flicks of colour that capture form while being smokily suggestive. He called these paintings “poesie”, poetic pictures, with good reason, for they hover in a cloud of carnality and dreams.

This theatre of human flesh hasn’t been experienced in the way you can in this show for more than 300 years. It is Titian’s answer to the Sistine Chapel. In the mid 16th century he started a series of big oil paintings on canvas for King Philip II of Spain, ruler of a global empire that stretched from Flanders to Peru. They were to illustrate the Greco-Roman myths as told by the ancient Latin poet Ovid in his Metamorphoses: Perseus rescuing Andromeda from a sea monster; Venus pleading with her lover Adonis not to leave her. Titian paints these stories as very adult fairytales.

When the National Gallery and National Galleries of Scotland campaigned to buy Diana and Actaeon a few years ago, Lucian Freud, not known for public pronouncements, went on TV to explain why it was his favourite painting. Now, this exhibition brings together what Titian never saw – the entire cycle of canvases that he sent across the sea to Philip. And the first thing you notice is that he is mocking his pious patron.





Danae, c.1554–56.



‘An image of the Venetian sex trade itself’ … Danae, c1554–56. Photograph: Stratfield Saye Preservation Trust

I take that back. The first thing you’ll notice seeing the poesie together is just how many nude women there are. What makes them so irreverent of the devout Philip, whose missionaries were violently converting the peoples of the Americas, is the way he makes the true identity of these women obvious. Venice was notorious for its sex trade and Titian’s models worked in it. This was why he hated leaving Venice. He painted from life, rarely relying on any preparatory drawings. That’s what makes these canvases so immediate – the women are there while he paints. A desperate patron once promised that if he would come to Ferrara he could bring “his” women too. It was assumed by contemporaries that he slept with them.

Titian disguises nothing. Danaë, lying back to receive the god Jupiter as a shower of gold, looks up into a cascade of gilded flecks. It’s an image of the Venetian sex trade itself – for this model has a body you can buy. Her servant is an old woman who tries to catch the money in her apron. She’s the future for Danaë – working as a brothel servant, grateful for coins. A similar bolt of reality strikes in Diana and Callisto. One of Diana’s retinue has been caught out concealing a pregnancy. Her naked, rounded belly disrupts the display of mass nudity. She’s in the same bind as a worker caught pregnant in a brothel – which is exactly the world both this painting and Diana and Actaeon depict.

Philip II can have had no inkling Titian was sending him portraits of sex workers under a mythical guise. And they truly are portraits, full of character. The model posing as Venus begging her lover to stay, in Venus and Adonis, is a great actor. Titian casts her face in shadow, which draws us inward, away from the light that glistens on her skin. She gazes at her lover with an intensely dramatic expression.





The Rape of Europa, 1559–62.



Overpowering … The Rape of Europa, 1559–62. Photograph: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston

Titian mines Ovid’s myths for every last ounce of humanity. There’s a longing, a sadness in their subtle colours. And that is what makes the most staggering canvas of the series, The Rape of Europa, so overpowering. In Ovid’s telling, the princess Europa was on a beach on the shores of Asia when she was carried off across the sea by the god Jupiter in the shape of a bull. Titian sets this against an epic sky, lowering with deep blue and bronze intimations of great import and symbolism – the smokiest, fieriest sky in art. When you can stop staring at it, Europa floats into view, twisting on her swimming mount. Her feelings are in her flesh – she is the most real of all Titian’s women. Her naked feet are mottled, marked and raw. Her left hand is on the bull’s horn. And the bull is massive, sinister, a wall of rippling power rising from the waves. Its brown eyes are completely inhuman. That is because they are the eyes of a god.

It is a strange, troubling, unforgettable masterpiece. Near it hangs The Death of Actaeon, begun for Philip but still unfinished in Titian’s workshop when he died. Here it seems to be his own life of looking that he regrets. Actaeon is savaged by his dogs, leaping lithely on the stag-headed man in a brown and olive autumnal woodland. The very essence of Ovid’s Metamorphoses is summed up in this expressive misty reverie on a world where everything and everyone is changed by the gods and we never know when our reality will be transformed utterly.

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