Can we ever look at Titian's paintings the same way?

BOSTON – With his little show supernova, “Titian: Women, myth and power”, The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum here achieves a coup in t...


BOSTON – With his little show supernova, “Titian: Women, myth and power”, The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum here achieves a coup in the history of art that institutions several times its size should envy, and the public, eager to dazzle the old masters, may consider themselves lucky to see . Yet the same exhibition raises troubling questions about how, in art from the distant past viewed through the prism of the political present, aesthetics and ethics may collide.

The exhibition first appeared at the National Gallery in London, moved to the Museo del Prado in Madrid, and made its last and only American stopover at the Gardner. At its heart is a cycle of six monumental oil paintings of mythological scenes that Titian, who died in Venice in 1576, made, at the end of his career, for the King of Spain, Philip II.

Originally displayed in a single room in the Imperial Palace in Madrid, the images gradually dispersed. One stayed in Spain; four went to England; and, in 1896, we found ourselves in Boston, first in the Beacon Street living room of local art collector Isabella Stewart Gardner, then in her faux-palazzo on the Fenway. His arrival sparked an explosion of buzz. It was widely advertised as the most expensive painting in the United States (Gardner bought it for what was then around $ 100,000, or about $ 3.2 million today), making it automatically makes, for some, the largest painting in the world.

It was titled “The Rape of Europe” and its theme – a young woman, a Phoenician princess, is kidnapped and forcibly pregnant by a god in disguise – can’t help but put us on red alert today, when accusations and verified reports of sexual assault on women appear almost daily in the news. In fact, the entire cycle, with its repeated images of gender-based power play and female flesh on display, invites #MeToo assessment and raises doubts as to whether even a ‘large’ art, can be regarded as exempt from any moral examination.

And purely in terms of formal innovation and historical influence, this art is great. In 1550, when Titian first received the commission from Philippe, then an aspiring leader, he was renowned throughout Europe as the most daring and expressive brush-man in the industry. Unlike his Florentine peers, he lets painting, line by line, have a material and emotional life of its own. In this he was the non-Michelangelo, the contemporary he considered his only real rival.

In Philip, Titian found a patron willing to give him high fees and creative carte blanche. And Philip found in Titian an artist prestigious enough to restore his image as the world conqueror of an empire that controlled much of Western Europe and had staked out territories in Africa, Southeast Asia and the Americas. . And he found a painter who was both experimental and brand-conscious enough to generate a distinctive, forward-looking courting style.

What was new in this style was summed up in the term that Titian himself used to refer to the images of the cycle: “poetry” – paintings resembling poems, in which the images were also imaginative metaphors. Indeed, the cycle itself was based on a poem, “The Metamorphoses”, an episodic narrative epic by the Roman poet Ovid around 8 AD.

It is a wild and mad book, a dystopian chronicle of the interactions between gods and humans in a world which, far beyond any golden age, settles into a state of moral chaos. There are moments of uplifting and humor, but violence is the norm, and rape a form that violence commonly takes.

It is there in the first painting in the cycle, “Danae”, dated 1551-1553 and on loan from the Wellington Collection in London. The photo tells the story of a young woman, Danae, who was locked in a high tower by her father to keep her away from predatory males. But the god Jupiter, a serial abuser, found a way from above. It has transformed into a heavenly shower of sparkling gold dust and, in this form, descends on Danae’s reclining naked body.

The naked female form, or almost naked, is the repeated motif of the cycle, the erotic emblem, as bright as a beam of light, that we see wherever we are. We see it from the back in “Venus and Adonis” (Prado collection); extended frontally and tied with strings in “Perseus and Andromeda” (from the Wallace Collection, London); and turned into a multi-figure entanglement in two pendant paintings, “Diana and Actaeon” and “Diana and Callisto” (jointly owned by the National Gallery in London and the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh).

Only one female character, the virgin goddess Diana, is portrayed as bossy and bossy, but her actions are arbitrary and cruel. She attacks the young follower, the nymph Callisto, for getting pregnant and hiding it. (Jupiter was, again, the seducer.) And in a fit of spite, she condemns the young hunter Actaeon, who has fallen on his outdoor swimming spot, to a terrible fate: he will be transformed into a deer and chased by his own dogs.

In each scene, Titian reveals himself to be an ingenious playwright, telescoping past, present and future events into a single incident. And he is particularly adept at showing a world that is physically and psychologically unbalanced, with characters who tilt, twist, recede. This dynamic is particularly pronounced in “Rape of Europa”, the last painting, and in some ways, the most violent of the group.

As Ovid puts it, in a story Titian follows closely, Europe is at a seaside party with friends when Jupiter creeps in in the form of a snow-white bull. He is so docile that Europe crowns itself with flowers and rides on its back. Suddenly, and this is what we see, the shore is far away and the bull rushes into the deep waters. Europa, her dress slipping, her legs awkwardly parted, clings to her horn for balance. She turns to her friends who are waving frantically at her, but there is no escape.

The image is powerful. But is it “beautiful?” It is when you get close to it that you can do wonderfully in the exhibition as installed by Nathaniel Silver, the curator of the museum’s collection. Titian was one of the magician paint movers in history. Others later, Velázquez, Rubens, Manet, worshiped him for it. A few inches from the surface of the image, you see why: his magician’s hand is right there in touches, strokes, swirls that barely blend into images, but do.

Then you step back and get the whole picture, the big picture, and it’s a harsh tale, a tale of victimized innocence, but also – even mostly? – erotic display, detailed in the restless limbs of Europe; in the eager eyes of the bull Jupiter; and in the figure of a putto riding dolphins that playfully mimics the anguished pose of Europe. Add to all that the purpose of cycle making – to the delight of a sovereign conqueror who spoke of himself in Olympian terms – and you have an art with a fair share of unappealing characteristics.

Increasingly, a lot of old art, if it is to be alive for a new audience, will have to be presented from these dual perspectives, as formally superlative creations, but also as a container of difficult, often negative stories. .

The Gardner understood this well, as evidenced by the printed texts and audio interviews that place the 16th century works in the exhibition in the context of current cultural thought, and in two contemporary works commissioned for the occasion. One, Barbara Kruger’s “Body Language”, hangs from the front of the museum: a large vertical banner with enlarged detail, lifted from “Diana and Actaeon,” of a muscular, tanned male leg stretched over a woman. pale and naked as if pinning it.

The other new piece is a nine-minute black-and-white film titled “Rape of Europe” by this year’s Gardner artist-in-residence team of Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley. Carefully thought out, it presents Europa, post-abduction and newly pregnant, as a lime-green 21st century feminist who intends to assert a creative story for women, past and present. The play is crazy surreal, as Ovid can be, and politically sharp as he can be too.

But it’s for Titian that you’re really there, and the flurry of paintings that, unless you’ve seen the exhibitions in London or Madrid, you will never have seen together before and almost certainly will never see together again. These are difficult prices, for the excitement they generate and for the moral doubts they raise. And they are invaluable for the lessons they teach: we can love art for its beauties and call it for its blindness. We can exalt him to the heavens, while fighting him to the ground. Old or new, art is us at our best and at our worst, and it really is is us, with all that it means, and useful beyond fashion or price.

Titian: Women, myth and power

Until January 2 at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, (617) 566-1401, gardnermuseum.org.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Can we ever look at Titian's paintings the same way?
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