Let our Titians go — they don’t need “saving”

Titian, 'Diana and Actaeon', 1556-9, National Galleries of Scotland, Bridgewater Collection Loan 1945. Photo © The National Galleries of Scotland.

Titian, 'Diana and Actaeon', 1556-9, National Galleries of Scotland, Bridgewater Collection Loan 1945. Photo © The National Galleries of Scotland.

Would it matter much if those two great masterpieces of the Bridgewater Collection, Titian’s Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto, having been on loan to the National Gallery of Scotland since 1945, were soon to be sold abroad?

Ever since the Duke of Sutherland announced his intention to sell the two paintings — offering them to the National Galleries of England and Scotland for a mere £100 million, if such a sum can be raised by the start of 2009 — much fuss has been made about saving them for the nation.

Personally, however, I remain unconvinced.

True, these two paintings stand at the absolute zenith of Titian’s late-career style. The compositions invite more or less endless analysis. The colour is elegant beyond measure. The paint is almost too alive — flesh, velvet and stone all triumphantly illusory, the artistry as evident as the cruelty of the eroticism, the artist’s fingerprints visible here and there amid these twin tales of physicality, perception and death. Probably there are other paintings in Britain which are as great as these, but one struggles to think of one that’s unarguably greater. It amazes me when friends pass through Edinburgh and don’t make a point of visiting the National Gallery there, as much for these two paintings as for the masterpieces by Rembrandt, Velazquez, Poussin and others surrounding them.

Nor is £100 million much money at all, at least in the context of our ongoing nationalisation of the financial sector — even less, when one takes into account the deferral of inheritance tax while the works remain on public loan, the costs of guarding and insuring them, or indeed the near-certainty that they’ll only continue to rise in value. Indeed, compared with the billions of pounds disbursed yearly, reinforcing the epic and evident failures of our so-called public services, it’s almost nothing.

Finally, in the spirit of unabashed selfishness, it would of course be pleasant to contemplate the prospect of two magnificent paintings by my own very favourite painter being domiciled from time to time, amid dozens of comparable treasures, a mere ten minutes’ leisurely walk from my own front door.

Yet if someone’s spending money on ‘saving’ these Titians, why save them for Britain?

Painted by an erstwhile subject of the Holy Roman Empire who spent much of his life labouring in the service of a republic which is now, alas, at least temporarily dormant, commissioned by the King of Spain, probably hung in the Alcazar from 1561 until 1704, thereafter owned by the Duc d’Orleans until soon after the Revolution, at which point they were acquired by an English aristocrat grown extraordinarily wealthy from the construction of canals, and displayed since the end of the Second World War in Scotland, these pictures seem destined to a peripatetic existence, nudged here and there by the unpredictable tides of geopolitical catastrophe, ever ready, or so it might appear, to bear their tales of sensuality and violence to yet more distant shores.

For while Nicholas Penny, speaking up for the pro-salvation interest, reminds us of the impact these two pictures have already had on British painting, is that not equally an argument for the benefit of sending them abroad once more, to enact their strange magic by the humid and curious shores of the Persian Gulf, or amongst the flunkies, girlfriends and mendicant politicians attendent on some boorish Russian oligarch, or indeed in one of those Chinese cities, far from the coast, with a population numbering in the millions and name-recognition amongst Westerners of, oh, maybe one in ten thousand souls?

Are all these people not also men and brothers, as deserving of Titian’s greatness as the rest of us are — or do we truly wish to live in a world where art, once made, never crosses borders? Are we really so insecure on the matter of our national greatness that we cling to some duke’s old paintings like tribal fetishes, perhaps dreaming that if we claw these back from attempts to send them abroad, however artificially and arbitrarily, then the significance of Great Britain on the eve of the nineteenth century will somehow be recaptured — mass sufferage, the debasement of the upper house with time-serving placemen, some modest advances for secularism, some modest diminuitions in social deference, the enormities of income tax, annual parliaments and the welfare state all notwithstanding?

But it won’t, of course. For if British buyers can no longer win the paintings they want at open auction, then fixing the auction — which is, in effect, what this whole nonsense of export licences, special prices for UK institutions and ‘saved for the nation’ entails — is the equivalent of scrambling around for a sticking-plaster in the wake of an amputation. The sad truth is that art follows power and money, not vice versa, no matter how many interviews Nicholas Penny may give to the media about it.

Of course, if a British buyer for the paintings comes forward, I shall be — admittedly, out of nothing more elevated than the selfishness mentioned above — entirely delighted. And here, surely, is the answer for those, including Tracey Emin and Lucian Freud, who profess to care so deeply whether these two Titians remain in the UK — why not put their money where their public declamations are? Ms Emin has pointed out that if everyone in Britain contributed the price of a packet of biscuits, it would be easy to purchase the paintings. What she doesn’t seem to grasp is that many people would, simply and perhaps even rationally, rather have the biscuits. Meanwhile, if Ms Emin contributed the price of a designer frock, let alone the price of an early Emin quilt, she’d be compensating for rather a lot of those philistines jealously cradling their shop-brand jaffa cakes. Nor does she explain what she thinks that the biscuit-eaters would gain from this change in their spending-patterns.

A large Freud canvas recently sold for more than £17 million, which is to say, about one third of the price of one of the Bridgewater Titians. (The payment for each painting could, by the Duke’s own initial offer, be spread over three years, meaning that this sum is extremely significant.) So how much has Mr Freud contributed to the Titian appeal? Or would he prefer to believe that legions of taxpayers, their own imaginative needs quite possibly satisfied by a satellite television subscription augmented with the odd weekend sojourn into online pornography and possibly fast food, are in effect subsidising an interest they will never, themselves, come to share? And conversely, if sixty leading British artists are so sure that the paintings will in some way benefit the British public, would it not be interesting to learn how much each of these artists has individually contributed to the appeal, let alone what he or she hopes the public might notionally gain from it? Are they to be improved, or encouraged, or amused, or reformed by these Titians? How do we know at what point the investment has worked? What is art meant to do? Wisely, perhaps, on this point the artists stay silent.

For with whatever patronising disaffection one might regard those earnest, self-made industrial types who in the nineteenth century erected handsome, well-stocked municipal galleries as secular shrines to all that they’d learned from reading Ruskin, at least they didn’t generally expect the still-unenlightened labourer to fund the means of his own potential, but as yet unfulfilled, enlightenment. All of which sounds unbecomingly elitist, I suppose, in a world where a semi-staged version of Bach’s St John Passion, stray episodes of Sex in the City, the Royal Academy’s magisterial Byzantium exhibition, a Matthew Barney film and a bubblegum-coloured cynical supermarket paperback titled in girly-swirly type are all to be filed under ‘entertainment’ — a world where ‘accessible’ vies with ‘relevant’ as the ultimate cultural accolade — and a world in which Matthew Collings, for so long the village idiot housed in the dumbed-down rump of Modern Painters, grows daily both in grumpiness and gravitas, saying many wise things. And this is why I suppose I ought to stress, in all seriousness, that however much I admire these astonishing paintings, I don’t for a moment believe that seeing them makes me a better person, any more than I believe that disliking them, or simply finding them boring, is in itself a sign of stupidity, wickedness or worse. They weren’t, after all, painted for everyone. Why on earth should everyone come to love them now?

Ultimately, for all the letters and campaigns and self-aggrandising celebrity appeals, it does seem possible that absolutely no one will come forward to keep the two Titian masterpieces here in Britain. Part of this, perhaps, has to do with what the paintings symbolise. Which is — what, exactly?

The imaginings here are dark ones. At a purely narrative level, Diana and Actaeon depicts the moment when a young hunter accidentally happens to glimpse the virgin huntress Diana as she’s bathing. Later, she’ll compel his own beloved hounds to rip him limb from limb. Diana and Callisto is, if anything, even darker. Here, Jupiter has seduced — ‘raped’ would be the more clinically accurate verb — one of Diana’s handmaidens, having (rather weirdly) assumed the form of Diana herself to do so. The painting itself — another bathing scene — focuses on the instant at which Diana exposes Callisto’s pregnant belly for all to see. Later, divine interventions transform Callisto into a bear.

The shared theme of sexualised voyeurism entwines in its tendrils images of surprise, violation, cruelty both psychological and physical, and the sort of cold-hearted terminal judgement that will never be reconsidered or revoked — because, for all their astonishing brilliance, these are terrible pictures, icily godless in sensibility, as callous as they are erotic, melting and hard at once.

Append to all this dubious stuff the pictures’ origins amidst in the rarefied diversions of a foreign aristocratic elite, within the grandest traditions of Old Master painting. What would an all-out effort to purchase these two works say about the person, company or public body that secured them? Might it not be smarter to wait until a good portrait of a good person — Olaudah Equiano, say, or Mary Seacole — comes up at auction? Or something by Lowry, redolent of Salford, or maybe some box-fresh, post-Banksy street art? At least the Madonna of the Pinks showed a pretty girl holding a baby — or what about a portrait of a war hero?

For the avoidance of doubt, I’m actually being serious here. For while I adore these two Titian paintings — their cruelty is, at least, set back at some distance from life by the plain fact of their man-made beauty, natura potentior ars, all of which can, in a certain sort of light, seem almost consoling — I’m at least under no illusion that my own enthusiasm should automatically translate into someone else’s unwilling expenditure. All of which is at least part of the reason why I don’t think that public funds ought to be spent in order to secure them for me, let alone ‘for the nation’.

This isn’t, for what it’s worth, a standpoint achieved by way of ‘doctrinaire libertarianism’ — such an easy phrase to use, yet in its lazily incurious inaccuracy, so hard to forget — any more than it’s the gratingly demi-socialist populism of a Kelvin MacKenzie, insisting ‘I don’t want a plug nickel to be spent on anything until my house price is secure, my job secure, my children’s education secure’.

Of course — and here’s a quick blast of libertarianism for those who enjoy spotting that sort of thing, although others may simply see it as a statement of fact — if the state took to selecting the art available to us, the art that was good and proper for us, it would doubtless make as spectacular a success of the project as it’s done with the economy, education, or indeed pretty much everything else it undertakes.

But at the same time — and admittedly, this isn’t a very libertarian argument — I fail to see what benefit to the state itself could possibly result from keeping these paintings in the UK. It isn’t, after all, as if exposure to Titian’s greatest poesies is likely to produce a generation of citizens notable for their patriotism, or particularly skilled in economically useful pursuits, or impressively alert to threats against liberal, democratic and otherwise right-on cultural desiderata. Titian won’t make people work harder, pay their taxes more freely, or go to war more gladly. As I suggested above, I don’t even think that keeping these paintings will somehow convince an uncertain world that Britain is, indeed, a formidable global power, more than capable of defending the bridgeheads of Christie’s (King Street) and Sotheby’s (Bond Street) against onrushing hordes of foreign — hence, almost certainly, thuggish and barbaric — lovers of Baroque painting in oils. For even starting to fight that battle is, alas, pretty much tantamount to admitting that it’s lost.

More to the point, though, I’m also deeply unsure that Titian’s greatest paintings need ‘saving’ for anyone, from anyone, by anyone.

Titian has always been something of an acquired taste, the painter’s painter par excellence. His power, however, even now, really ought to be a matter beyond dispute. Back in the mid 1990s, when I first started reading about his work, and then started looking at it both in reproduction and real life, there were nights when all my dreams took place in the palette of Titian’s last, most lusciously gestural work, with that viscerally personal mark-making somehow giving shape to whatever my unconscious mind offered up, images flickering in and out of intelligibility in a manner both lavishly seductive and frankly nightmarish. This was, after all, more intimacy than one really wants with a man who’s been dead for nearly 400 years — an unsanctioned cohabitation within my sleeping consciousness — and I was glad when that phase of our relationship ended.

But, at the same time, this experience left me with the conviction that there was still something almost frighteningly vital in Titian’s stronger, better-preserved works, which deserves caution as much as it does admiration. Indeed, on the one occasion when I managed to spend a few moments alone in the room with his great Pieta, I ended up leaving in a hurry, feeling overwhelmed — experiencing that sense one gets when, swimming in the sea, one suddenly finds that there’s no longer any sand underfoot — nothing but waves, ice-cold cross-cutting currents and, somewhere behind, the distant outline of the receding shore.

If familiarity breeds contempt, impending loss breeds something different. The Bridgewater Titians have just begun a one-month residency at London’s own National Gallery, a few minutes’ walk away from my house, in the interest of stirring up wider enthusiasm for their retention within our Britannic shores. Over the next few weeks, I hope to see them often.

And then after that, quite possibly I’ll never see them again. We live in a world where permanent collections languish neglected while over-hyped blockbusters draw massive, cash-generative crowds, eager for novelty and sensation, the quick scanning glance and the thrill of the vanishing moment. During the Second World War, when most of the National Gallery’s collection had been consigned to the depths of Manod Quarry, a slate mine covered by 200 feet of solid rock in the mountains above the village of Ffestiniog in Wales, Kenneth Clark instituted the practice of hanging a single painting in place of all the rest. Oddly, perhaps, more or less everyone who commented on this scheme suggested it ought to go on forever, as the experience of that single, isolated, potentially doomed painting was invariably more powerful than whole closely-hung rooms had been in the years before.

And that, I suppose, is the spirit in which I’ll look once more at the Bridgewater Titians. By all means let them drift away, overseas if they must — I can think of no very good reason to keep them here. Paintings come and go. That’s the nature of material things. Intensity of experience is, of course, another matter. It can charm or shape or scar for a lifetime. It’s exactly the fact of Titian’s greatness — his ability to make marks even now — that, above every other consideration, makes this scrapping over a few good pictures seem such a bizarre irrelevance.

Let the pictures go. For if someone’s ever truly seen a Titian painting, no matter where it ends up, that person will never stop seeing it — and if not, well then, it probably doesn’t matter that much anyway.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Let our Titians go — they don’t need “saving”

  1. TH

    You can’t fairly describe the process of trying to sell the pictures as “fixing the auction”: export licenses are granted for objects sold abroad on the sale price given by the vendor, and that is the price a British museum or gallery would have to pay. If the museum can’t raise the money within a set period of time, the object is exported. Tax breaks etc are related to the sale value, whether realized at auction or set by mutual consent by vendor and purchaser in a private sale.

    In mainland Europe, however, countries can permanently forbid an object’s export and then set a price at which it can be acquired by a museum. That’s fixing the auction twice over.

    I’ll definitely go to see them in London this month, and hope they’ll stay in Britain.

  2. fugitive ink

    Thanks for a thoughtful comment, TH. What I suppose I was trying to say is that as long as a government can forbid export — and thus effectively preclude anyone other than a UK buyer from exercising a full spectrum of ownership rights over a work — government action is distorting the market, and what’s more, doing so in a way that is likely to drag down the sale price, if only by limiting the number of potential buyers. The very relevant point you make about mainland Europe does, of course, put all this in perspective.

    Anyway, I’m sure that seeing the Bridgewater Titians here in London will be a memorable experience. I wonder where the National Gallery will hang them? Personally I’d love to see them in the same room as the Death of Actaeon