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Titian: Love, Desire, Death review – wild at heart | Art and design


Titian – painter of kings, king of painters – was carried off by the virulent pandemic that devastated Venice in 1576. He was working at home in Cannaregio when a fever overtook him in the last days of August. His body was buried in the church of the Frari, for which he was painting his gravely beautiful Pietà, accompanied by a written plea for mercy for himself and his son Orazio. Orazio died too, not many weeks later.

Among the works left in the studio, it seems, was a painting called The Death of Actaeon, one of seven pictures commissioned by Philip II of Spain. Titian had an open brief; he chose to depict scenes from classical mythology, mainly drawn from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Actaeon has, alas, stumbled on a naked goddess, completely by accident, while out hunting with his friend in a wood. He is now being punished for his glance.

The painting is a one-two shock of realisation. On the left, Diana the huntress draws her bow to catch and kill some at first unseen prey. Her action sends the eye across the canvas – which is itself a deep forest of brushstrokes – to discover the identity of her victim. Actaeon is by now half-man and half-stag. His faithful hounds, so sympathetically painted by the dog-loving Titian, are already flying to attack.





Titian’s The Death of Actaeon (1559-75).



‘A one-two shock of realisation’: The Death of Actaeon, 1559-75 by Titian. Photograph: The National Gallery, London

Actaeon topples in the brown undergrowth, his head already resembling a stuffed hunting-lodge trophy. The sky is heavy, the trees losing their leaves, the ground thick with damp mulch. Nobody knows whether the painting is completely finished; there is no string to Diana’s bow, and no signature on the canvas, though Titian did not always sign his works. The scene is less dramatic than tragic, sorrowful, immensely subtle in its contrast of the pointlessly vengeful Diana, just performing her automatic vengeance, and poor, hapless Actaeon, whose only flaw was to have looked when he shouldn’t. The story, for Titian, is always more complex than the myth.

The seven paintings in what Titian called his “poesie” – visual equivalents to poetry – have never been displayed together before (a sight to be seen when our own plague ends and the National Gallery reopens). They are monumental images, made to startle and absorb, and their reunion – or quite possibly union, given that they were painted over more than ten years, and Titian himself may never have seen them all together – is a theatre of climactic emotion and sensational incident.

Europa is dragged away by the bull that will rape her. Perseus swoops down from the skies straight into the jaws of the monster he will kill to rescue Andromeda. Venus, toppling backwards, tries to stop Adonis from going on a fatal hunting trip. Andromeda, in chains, struggles to break free of her rock in a pose closer to classical ballet than myth. Women are paramount, the central figures in every scene.

And nowhere more than the sumptuous, ravishingly seductive Danaë, the first painting in the series. Danaë was the mythical princess of Argos, impregnated by Jupiter in the form of a shower of coins. Titian depicts her reclining nude on a bed, legs slightly parted to receive the scintillating mirage. Her body is caressed by warm light, her face in gentle shadow, just out of reach, eyes gazing upwards in what might be desire or release.





Titian’s The Rape of Europa (1559–62).



Titian’s The Rape of Europa, 1559–62. Photograph: © Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston

Michelangelo, in one of the most notorious barbs in art history, said of Titian (to paraphrase) that he’d be quite good if he only learned to draw. He was referring to a version of Danaë seen on a visit to Titian’s house, accompanied by Vasari. It may not have been this particular picture, but the criticism speaks to the qualities of Titian’s late painting that we so revere now – the way he thought, and felt, so directly with his brush.

In the case of Danaë, he makes the consummation real with soft strokes of light and colour. Her body seems to glow; the coins are numinous, easily understood as something magical, inexplicable. And this extraordinary gift is apparent all through the poesie. There are passages where it is almost impossible to comprehend, for instance, how Titian has painted the eyes of the bull in The Rape of Europa so that they appear both alarming and bewildered, as any animal might be, involved in this appalling act of miscegeny; how Titian has managed to make Perseus appear both determined and flailing, attacking from mid-air, in Perseus and Andromeda. How, indeed, he can paint a single red line, meandering like an idle thought, that somehow describes a strand of hard coral.

Nothing as easily defined as form or substance: that is the mystery of these paintings. A cascade of water glitters from a fountain and you can’t discern its motion just by getting up close, any more than you can catch the spume on the waves that flow through these paintings. The skies are transcendently beautiful, especially in Europa where an expanse of cobalt burns through golden clouds, here and there, with a veiled and thus even more exhilarating promise.

Ideas transmit so directly from mind to hand that you can almost see the point where Titian leaves off to work on something else, or think of someone else (he was a great lover of women). The strange irresolution of Diana and Actaeon, prequel to the death hunt, might at the very least have something to do with distraction.

Saved for the nation in 2008, this picture remains perturbing. Actaeon is nearly off balance in his commedia dell’arte astonishment at the sight of Diana, her limbs of unequal lengths, head mismatched with body. The space is oddly indeterminate, and it feels as if the glassy pond, a grimacing statue and the odd little flocks of marks that resolve into fronds have mattered more to him at certain stages.





Titian’s Diana and Actaeon (1556-9).



Diana and Actaeon, 1556-9 by Titian. Photograph: © The National Gallery, London/The National Galleries of Scotland

All of Titian’s breathtaking details, visible online, are condensed as sonnets. And these are set against a staggering theatre of poses – flailing, falling, dancing, recoiling – that break free of their source in Ovid into a perpetual motion, and emotion. Racing clouds, briny spray, fluttering garments – a hand desperately grasping a departing arm, or gesturing for help, or ripping a veil to expose the pregnant body of poor Callisto, humiliated by Diana: the series is a miracle of expression. Five of these paintings are permanently in London – at the Wallace Collection, Apsley House and the National Gallery itself – for anyone unlikely to see this show; and the catalogue is a marvel of reproductions, magnifications and essays.

“I am never satisfied with my works,” Titian wrote to Philip II about this cycle, and it would be hard to think of a greater spur to aspiration. The proximity of love and lust, hope and fear, the artist’s compassion for victims, and humanity towards oppressors: all are made palpable with unprecedented freedom of style, “painted more with his fingers than his brushes”, it was said, in the end. With the poesie, Titian discovered the full power of oil painting to reveal the invisible – the wild truths of the heart.

Titian: Love, Desire, Death tours to Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, 11 July to 27 September, then Madrid and Boston

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