Beyond Criticism (almost): Titian at the National Gallery

19 February, 2003
ART: Beyond criticism (almost)
Titian at the National Gallery

Difficult loves
Probably it says something important about Titian that it is so hard to write adequately about him — either that, or perhaps the critical language has simply been so profligate for so long in its expenditure of superlatives that, confronted with actual genius on this level, it has no choice but to retreat into a stunned and swoony silence.

Or so it seems to me, anyway. Although I’m confident that Tiziano Vecellio (late 1480s?-1576) was the greatest painter in oils who has ever lived, I not only realise that there are plenty of people out there who dislike his work, but indeed remember with some embarassment those far-off days when I, too, preferred the near-hallucinogenic verisimilitude of Van Eyck and Holbein, the suave good manners of Van Dyck or Vermeer or even the obsessive eccentricities of Uccello or Carpaccio to the more demanding pleasures that Titian offered instead. But perhaps, if we are being honest here, that is no small part of Titian’s greatness? After all, his core following has never been amongst the general public, with its taste for magic-trick literalism, local colour and good clear outlines — or, as far as that goes, amongst small children blessed with encyclopaedic knowledge of their parents’ Skira art books but of little else, which more or less sums up my pre-Titian days.

No, his work isn’t easy. Titian has always been an acquired taste — a taste awoken early amongst a few sophisticated patrons, and later also critics and connoisseurs, but always, first and foremost, evident amongst practicing painters. Vasari, El Greco, Tintoretto, Velasquez, Rubens, Van Dyck, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Poussin, Reynolds, Constable, Turner, Gainsborough, Manet, Sargent, Picasso, Balthus, de Kooning, Rothko — each learned a different lesson from Titian, and each was the stronger artist for it. Ultimately, then, one could argue (especially tempting, incidentally, if one has come to sixteenth century Venice via the critical language of mid-twentieth century New York) that Titian’s real importance boils down to the facts of oil as a medium — its qualities, its limitations, and what visual effects, in extremis, it can be made to achieve. Legend has it that Reynolds bought a Titian canvas for the sole purpose of scraping it down to discover the Old Master’s ‘secret’; Van Dyck owned a whole room full of Titians; several of Titian’s works are now known only through the meticulous copies made of them by Rubens. And by the same token, any amateur who has come to admire painterliness as a quality in the art of other ages eventually ends up back with Titian, and that extraordinary seven or eight decade long career of unparalleled innovation, experimentation and general unremitting brilliance. Not only painters, but photographers, cinematographers and graphic designers are still trading off his legacy. He still has the capacity to shock, seduce and silence whole rooms of critics. No wonder it is hard to find the words in which to encompass such pointedly non-verbal achievements.

History does not help
Nor do the facts of Titian’s life make writing about him any easier. On one level, a great deal is known about him — not least, in comparison with earlier generations of artists such as Giotto or Masacchio — but at the same time, even more remains unknown. Not only the date but indeed the decade of his birth remains the focus for some vicious scholarly debates; in his early working life it is very difficult to seperate his oeuvre from that of his master Bellini or the brilliant if short-lived Giorgione; certainty about the exact chronology of his work, especially in the 1530s and 1540s, rests on fairly arbitrary assumptions about stylistic development interleaved with educated guesswork rather than matters of fact; while there is no way of knowing whether some of the more loosely-painted late works were absolutely revolutionary in nature or simply sadly unfinished, this has not prevented the formation of some notably strong views on the subject, rarely expressed with anything other than the icy, colocynthian fury of a zealot in the presence of doubt.

Yet when facts fail us, it is human nature to collapse into the welcoming arms of creative analogy. Fancifully, we can compare Titian with Picasso (those long, productive lives; the women; the literary and musical friends; the early and lasting fame; the international reputation; the problematic late work) or even, in a coat-trailing sort of way, with Andy Warhol (the parties; the celebrity portraits; the workshop method; the devout if misunderstood Catholicism; the fascination with the connections between violence and eroticism). And there is doubtless something in this — can anyone deny that Titian, given the chance, would have contemplated becoming the world’s most high-profile multi-millionaire superstar Communist, or at the same time that he would have painted the late Shah of Iran if the price was right, no matter how much it annoyed more squeamish souls on the New York arts scene? Yet the end of the day, the collective efforts of Aretino, Vasari, Ridolfi and a few miserable scraps of documentary evidence can never even approach the texture and complexity of biographical information provided by Apollinaire or John Richardson, let alone the unmanageable mess of evidence out of which someone will someday concoct a satisfactory account of Warhol. And given how little, despite all that information, we can ever know about the motivations and intentions of these much more recent artists, it is easy to feel discouraged by sheer distance from Titian. It is possible to read thousands of pages about Titian and feel not the tiniest bit closer to the man whose fingerprints are so poignantly visible in many of those late works.

Back to the pictures
So perhaps the most important thing one can write about the National Gallery’s current Titian exhibition, sponsored by Barclays, is simply that it brings together something like 45 paintings by the artist himself. There are some astounding experiences to be had here. The National Gallery is understandably pleased with itself for managing to re-unite for the first time in centuries four of the five mythological panels commissioned by Alfonso d’Este — the fifth panel is, like much of Titian’s work, lost — with results that will not be forgotten quickly by anyone lucky enough to spend time amongst them. But in any event, whatever one thinks of Titian, and whatever one’s preferences amongst his vast, varied and unwieldy body of work, it is undeniable that there are some absolute masterpieces of Western painting here. In that sense, the exhibition is simply above criticism. The works say more than I am ever going to be able to write about them. Anyone with any interest in painting will already have realised the absolutely necessity of visiting the National Gallery over the next few months.

Inevitably, though, the experience of wandering amidst these marvellous paintings stirs up all sorts of thoughts — some of them obvious, some of them marginally less so.

Against basements
First amongst the obvious thoughts is the realisation — no less powerful for its lack of novelty — that the National Gallery is burdened with the most hideous, pokey, airless, charmless, uncharismatic exhibition space in the entire world. There may be something, somewhere, that would benefit from being hung under that low ceiling with all its strange spiky metal bits and distracting grilles, illuminated solely by artificial light, but whatever it is, I have yet to see it displayed in the Sainsbury Wing.

Obvious? Well, yes, but it must be said that this matters in more than simply formal or aesthetic terms. You’ll have noticed, perhaps, my boring adherence to the view that hanging Renaissance pictures as ‘art’ not only robs them of essential context, but forces upon them, as it were, an alien and illegitimate context, making it even harder for us to see anything in them that their makers might possibly have intended.

Boring or not, though, the problem has rarely been more strikingly illustrated as it is at this exhibition, not least because when it comes to Titian’s work, the alternative also exists. Titian’s Assunta, to choose the most extreme example, still hangs in the Frari exactly where it was meant to hang; not only is it still lit and framed exactly as Titian (and his patrons) wished it to be lit and framed, but it still functions, at least potentially, exactly as they meant it to function — as a working part of a more general iconographic and liturgical programme, drawing together everything from the Crucifix surmounting the choir screen to the reredos and the sacramental worship still carried on in front of it. It has managed to hold onto its devotional functionality. Likewise, a state portrait hung in the Escorial or the Pitti Palace, surrounded by high cornices and brocade and marble and arms and courtly gravitas, retains at least some vestige of the power and majesty it was once intended to project. Surroundings play a part in determining the scale of a work, not just visually but intellectually and psychologically, too. At Capodimonte, one still approaches the great Titians down the length of a long, high room at the top of an endless flight of stairs, for all the world as if one were approaching some very great monarch indeed.

So when compared with all that, there is something inescapably forlorn about the shabby, shameful exile into which Titian’s works are now being forced, all in the name of a concept of ‘art’ that would doubtless have surprised Titian had he lived the requisite extra centuries necessary to discover it. Squeezed in under that low ceiling in the National Gallery’s basement and surely hung far lower than it was ever meant to be, The Vendramin Family venerating a Relic of the True Cross not only looks silly — the figures are too big and the perspective doesn’t work — but also looks pointless, especially when compared, for instance, with the Madonna di Ca’ Pesaro, still surrounded by its intended architectural setting and still making its own set of doctrinal and dynastic points. The same holds true for the portraits, in which the hang seems to downgrade the sitter at the expense of the paint itself. And as for what Titian’s erotic works lose by being hung as they are, in mixed company in a grey asexual basement, one can scarcely begin to imagine.

So that’s one obvious complaint. The second is equally obvious, and perhaps equally inevitable in any monographic exhibition involving the National Gallery. It relates to conservation.

That cleaning question again
The old battles are the best ones. As mentioned, this amazing exhibition has gathered together the four extant major panels that once decorated Alfonso d’Este’s own study, as well as several of the smaller panels that once hung above them. Seeing these hanging next to each other is, for any Titian enthusiast, an unforgettable and (at the risk of sounding appallingly precious) a deeply moving experience. Given the condition of the paintings, it may also be a unique one. Giovanni Bellini’s Feast of the Gods (c. 1514), later modified by his pupil Titian, usually hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, in the United States of America; Bacchus and Ariadne (c. 1520-23) hangs in the National Gallery; The Andrians (c. 1523-24) hangs in the Prado, as does The Worship of Venus (c. 1518-20). Each canvas has experienced its own unique set of trials and tribulations over the centuries, including bad handling, injudicious overpainting and aggressive cleaning, and each bears its own distinctive scars. This is a near-inevitable feature of old paintings. And indeed, on one level it pales into insignificance before the thrill of seeing how convincingly the space of the four canvases intermingles, how the colours play off each other and how the theme of Dionysian abandon (one would almost think Titian had been reading his Nietzsche) is replayed in different keys, as it were, in each of the four canvases.

But at the same time, it would be impossible not to realise that Bacchus and Ariadne looks jarringly unlike its fellows in several different ways. The colours are far harsher; that distinctive softness, the fruit of so many layers of glazes, that was so central to Titian’s early technique is nowhere to be seen; Bacchus’ billowing drapery stands out against the dark blue sky with all the subtlety of a cardboard cut-out. Worst of all is that deeply nasty glaze with which the National Gallery insists on coating everything, sending the light beaming off from its hard surface with all the gravitas and tactile appeal of a plastic carrier-bag. If Titian had painted in acrylics, this is the sort of thing he might have produced, but since he didn’t paint with acrylics, it is hard to argue that his work has not been very badly mistreated indeed. And yes, I do realise that more ink has been spilled over the vexed issue of the cleaning of Bacchus and Ariadne than almost any other painting on earth, and I do see that it has a long history of damage — but if this is the only problem, why does every single National Gallery painting in the show (there are, I think, eleven) have similar problems? A comparison between the surface of the Uffizi’s Flora, or the Capodimonte Pope Paul III, or the Pitti Palace’s Piero Aretino, or the Escorial’s St Jerome in Penitence — and the list could be extended — with the surface of any National Gallery Titian should — and yes, I realise this is strong language — be a source of profound shame to anyone involved in any capacity with the National Gallery. It is extraordinary that the National Gallery still speaks of ‘saving’ art for the nation when this is what they end up doing to it.

Catalogue of errors?
A third obvious comment relates to the catalogue. In some ways, it is an impressive exercise — not least, given the very affordable price of the softback version. But in several cases, the printed text seems to have a rather uncertain relationship with the actual exhibition. Although The Flaying of Maryas is very much on show — indeed, by my reckoning it is one of the greatest masterpieces there — the catalogue makes only a glancing reference to it, rather than treating it as an exhibit; meanwhile that other great masterpiece, the so-called Sacred and Profane Love, is promised in the catalogue but was nowhere to be seen in the exhibition.

As for the writing itself, its strengths overshadow a number of annoying weaknesses. There is a good introductory essay by Charles Hope, that only deteriorates at the very end into a festival of axe-grinding on what this formidable Titian scholar takes to be the unfinished nature of some of Titian’s late work — and that is only slightly undermined by the active distancing from Professor Hope’s conclusions that goes on in some of the other essays. I would have liked to have read something about this exhibition by Paul Joannides, too, since his Titian to 1518 is one of the best books I have ever read about the painter. Perhaps, however, this was simply a scholarly fault-line to wide to cross?

The notes and bibliography are helpful. The quality of the plates is by no means bad. But when it comes to the list of individual pictures, I found myself missing some fairly basic information. Who had previously owned these works? Who had commissioned them, and why? Where were they originally hung? And have they always been assumed to be by Titian, or not? Again, I know that none of these are easy matters, and in some case they are highly contentious ones, but they are central to any attempt to make sense of Titian’s life and work, and hence to any monographic exhibition. Such information would also have improved the explanatory panels in the actual exhibition, which — with their faintly facile injunctions about where one ought to look, and their scatter-gun bits of history — are vulnerable to charges of dumbing-down. The virtue of didactic material is that one can turn to it if one wants; if one simply wants to look, then it does no harm. And as for the ‘Titian After Dark’ programme of events, of which the National Gallery seems to proud — well, I fail to see what watching a Woody Allen film has to do with understanding or even enjoying sixteenth century Venetian painting. As with the Bacchus and Ariadne desk clocks and commemorative plush cushions, there is something about this which makes me come over all priggish and uneasy. I can only hope there are financial imperatives afoot which, if successful, Titian himself would have been the last man on earth to criticise.

Of Romantic notions
But that is enough, and perhaps far too much, by way of complaint about what is, ultimately, one of the most stunning exhibitions I have ever seen. ‘Stunning’ is, I think, the right word. As with Picasso or Goya, there is a strong, indeed almost overwhelming sense of personality that asserts itself — forcibly and not always pleasantly, either — amidst these paintings, so that one feels (while all the time realising the feeling is, of course, a silly Romantic notion) that one has somehow been in the frankly overwhelming presence of the painter himself — not only discovering, painting by painting, his doctrinal beliefs and devotional preferences, his attitude towards political power, his experience of fame, his sexual predilections and his pride in his own craft, but increasingly feeling that one is becoming complicit with all of these things oneself, as if it were somehow necessary to see the world henceforth in a different way.

So what is the world of Titian like? Of course, as I wrote above, it is only a silly Romantic notion to pretend that any such thing is recoverable — and yet after a couple of hours amongst the paintings, its outlines seem clear enough. Titian was at least forty by the time the earliest portents of religious reformation began to make themselves felt across Catholic Europe; his faith may have been no less profound for appearing comfortable, confident and unproblematic; being (alas) modern, we tend to see in those late pictures a Christian reframing of richly human issues, whereas it is perfectly possible that Titian was much less arch and much more urgent when he inserted his aged, balding, infirm frame into painting after devotional painting. Titian adored, almost literally, political power, not only for its own sake but because it brought in its wake other things he adored, such as money and prestige. The compliments he paid it in portrait after portrait come across as entirely genuine, and have not cheapened as the years have gone by — indeed, they still make up the lingua franca of personal images, whether of third-world dictators, provincial brides or Tory leaders. And there’s a reason his language became the one we have all adopted. The Venetians may have worn their power elegantly — all those red and black robes, the gold chains and rich furs tightly regulated by sumptuary laws — but that was because Venetian power hierarchies were sufficiently internalised that only the most subtle of outward signs were necessary. This left much more scope for individualisation, gesture, a sort of personalisation rather grandly overriding the necessity to indicate rank or status. It is easy to forget how sub-heraldic portraiture was before Titian came to grips with it; it is easy to forget how shocking, even notorious, these pictures were in their own day.

But then Titian also adored his own fame, not only because it also brought to him money and prestige, but because he, like Arentino, was arrogant enough to enjoy the fact that princes and prelates eventually had to ask favours on more or less any terms he wished. What more could a Renaissance painter ask of life? He gloried in his own skill, his inventiveness, his facility and his visual wit, but he was also self-doubting, sometimes turning an unfinished painting to the wall for years and then glaring terribly at it when he saw it once again. He loved Venice, that most man-made of cities; he loved children and dogs; he loved dining and quarrelling and causing trouble with his friends; he loved doing his part to maintain the status of his family through making money and buying land. He loved the blue distant hills of Cadore as well as the brackishly reflective surface of the Lagoon; he loved classical antiquity only slightly less than he did actual, warm, damp, living flesh; he loved being the greatest artist since Appelles, which is undoubtedly what he felt himself to be. And yet in his greatest painting — the unfinished Pieta which perhaps was intended to rest over his own grave, but which now reposes in the Accademia in Venice — he referred to works including a wonder-working print from his early youth, the altar-pieces of his old master Bellini and the sculpture of his greatest rival Michelangelo. And if we could understand the constituent parts of this mixture of humility, pride and who knows what else, doubtless we would know all that is worth knowing about Titian — or at any rate, as much as he knew himself.

He was no Michelangelo, anyway
When it came to sex, Titian’s tastes are also fairly clear. Like many Venetians of his age and class (and also, incidentally, like Picasso) he took a relaxed attitude to homoerotic attraction and gave it a central place in several early works, including perhaps the enigmatic Bravo. Yet there can be little doubt that he was passionately, primarily interested in women.

An Englishman named Fynes Moryson, writing a travel guide at the beginning of the seventeenth century, wrote that the Venetians, when choosing a wife, ‘desire fat women with great dugs’. If this is true — and art history provides plenty of supporting evidence — here again, Titian was a typical Venetian, although perhaps more fascinated by womanly thighs and buttocks than in breasts per se. His girls are also, it must be said, a notably self-reliant lot, their fingers so often trailing purposefully deep into folds of fabric or vanishing mysteriously behind the horizon of an upraised leg — all of which will surprise no one cognisant of Venice’s reputation amongst early modern pornographers. Whatever else they may be, however, Titian presents them as strong, confident, highly individual and a good deal more than simply acquiescent in any erotic adventures that might be underway. All of which is unsurprising, for Titian probably based them on Venice’s notably able, resourceful courtesans rather than on virginal girls — or even on women blessed with the bodies of fourteen-year-old boys and the sexual appetites of gay men, which more or less sums up the publicly acceptable heterosexual tastes of our present-day, deeply weird West. The model for Flora, her frayed shift slipping down from one of the most electrifyingly erotic passages of painting in the history of art, was probably a courtesan, as was the model for the still-stirring Prado Danae — and as were, in a paradox that probably seems odder to us than it did to Titian, the models for any number of soft-eyed, red-lipped, tender-looking Virgins presiding over Titian’s devotional paintings. Successful Venetian courtesans might hope, after all, to grow rich, old and very comfortable in the grandest circles through an alchemical blend of aptitude, application and good luck. So perhaps it is a little more than Romantic fancy to assume some degree of fellow-feeling, verging on respect, existing between Titian and the women who were his models.

Uncomfortable truths
This is all very good, because it gives us a politically-correct, post-feminist, richly right-on Titian. Yet at the same time it risks turning a blind eye to one final quality that emerges, perhaps more strongly than any other, from Titian’s work — not least towards the end of his life, when his fame and wealth meant that he was able to paint more or less what he liked, taking only a moment out here and there to add a finishing brushstroke or two to some mass-produced studio offering. And here, in these late works, it is fairly obvious that Titian was deeply interested (as, incidentally, was Goya) in the relationship between beauty and horror, sexuality and suffering, tenderness and the starkest sort of terror.

In a way, it is otiose to set out to prove this. It emerges so naturally from the late paintings, indeed, that one need hardly mention it at all — were it not for the fact that in a world of 700-word art reviews and gallery PR people, a great artist needs also to be a likeable artist — a nice person, really, or if not exactly nice, at least bad (cf. Caravaggio, for instance) in an acceptable sort of way. But if you think I’m making this up, look at any number of Titian’s late autograph works (some of them on show at the National Gallery): St. Margaret and the Dragon (Prado), the magnificent Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto (Edinburgh), the sad battered wreck that is Perseus and Andromeda (Wallace Collection), The Rape of Europa (Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston), The Death of Acteon (National Gallery), all those Penitent Magdalenes with their blotched and tear-stained faces, even his Annunciation (San Salvador, Venice), the Martyrdom of St Lawrence (Escorial), The Crowning with Thorns (Munich), the three Tarquin and Lucretia paintings (assuming, as I think I probably do, that the Vienna one is by Titian), St Sebastian (Hermitage) — and, last but never conceivably least, The Flaying of Marsyas (Kromeriz, Czech Republic).

And this, I suspect, is another reason why so many people simply do not like Titian’s work, even if they have not exactly spelled out their uneasiness in exactly these terms. Titian can, really, be astoundingly unpleasant. The unpleasantness is in no way softened by the insistence on balancing, at least in the onlookers’ eyes, the physical and psychological aspects of someone else’s suffering. Or to put it another way, it isn’t the little dog lapping up the blood in The Flaying of Marsyas that’s really shocking — it’s Marsyas’ own complicity, his exhausted acquiescence in the inevitability of the scene that Midas, with his handsome bemused half-smile, is watching just as we do. Yet of course — Romantic notions aside — we cannot know why this theme surfaces in Titian’s work as often as it does. All we know is that it does surface, as familiar as a signature, throughout the late work, until it’s as much a part of what it means to be a ‘Titian’ as the brushwork or the handling of colour.

The beginning of the end?
But that, I suspect, is quite enough about a streak of sadism discerned in a painter who died nearly two hundred years before the term was even coined. After all, there is much more than cruelty in this exhibition. The National Gallery’s own Virgin and Child is so tender and intimate that one can’t help but wonder whether Titian painted it from memories of a long-dead lover and her (and his) own infant child. The Self-portrait from Berlin is a strange echo of Paul III in the compromises it reaches between the physical weakness and psychological acuity of old age, and remains inexpressibly moving. The portrait of the twelve-year old papal grandson Ranuccio Farnese (sent home to what one anachronistically hopes and, indeed, sentimentally insists must have been his anxious mother) still looks like a sweet, shy yet praeternaturally dignified little boy. In an astounding fit of generosity, given the recent behaviour of the National Gallery, the Duke of Northumberland has loaned the remarkable Georges d’Armagnac, Bishop of Rodez, with his secretary Guillaume Philandrier, where no amount of surface damage can obscure the mesmerising psychological drama played out between the beatific calm of the master and the poised energy of his servant, hanging on his every word. And then there are the streaked and haemorrhaging skies, the spiky blue bell-towers and distant pastures that were Venice’s enduring gift to Titian, and one of the quieter yet no less profound delights of this exhibition.

So why is it, then, despite this palpable genius, that so many people don’t like Titian — that I, for such a long time, didn’t like the very artist who now seems to me the greatest painter ever to work with oils? Ultimately, I suppose, it comes down to a strange sort of collision between illusionism, coercion and modernism. What, after all, do we want from painting? If it’s an accurate replication of the visible world, there is no need to fear the painter. Like Christopher Isherwood’s disingenuous but useful slogan, this would allow the painter simply to act as an eye, conveying what we were not there to see. And if the painter is simply an iconographer, that too is no threat, because in that case the painter is hardly a person at all, but simply a conduit for divine truths. But if, on the other hand, the painter is actually an individual, capable of all the same unpleasant quirks of personality and capacity for self-serving fibs as all the rest of us, what are we to do? Titian, with his later, freer style, seems to me to have been asserting two things, purposefully interlinked — first, that it was possible to see the most astounding things through the eye of the artist — but secondly, at the same time, that one would have to be brought up short at every turning, and reminded of one’s absolute dependence on the artist — on his vision, his skill, his mediation. Yes, it’s coercive. It actually verges on being a bit brutal. But in its violence, its coerciveness and its supreme self-consciousness lie the very deepest roots of modernism, expressionism, and individualism in art.

What’s it like to look at all of this? Of course there are moments of intensely personal communion, even of religious reflection of a very profound sort. Titian was, in that sense too, a very great painter. Yet I can only say that it is an experience not unlike digging one’s teeth into some luscious fruit and then being told that what one is eating is, in fact, a late-season apple from an old tree in the middle of a garden in a far-away place called Eden.

Am I suppose to pretend it does not taste sweet? Words fails me.

Titian, sponsored by Barclays, will be at the National Gallery from 19 February – 18 May 2003, and then at the Prado Museum in Madrid from 9 June – 7 September 2003. At the National Gallery, tickets cost £9 each (£7 concessions).

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