RMS Titianic: A review of The National Gallery’s Titian: Love, Desire, Death.

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In the shadow of 2020 and bang in the middle of a world on fire, a highly publicised exhibit of select works by an Italian master can’t help but feel slightly redundant. The National Gallery’s Titian: Love, Desire, Death opened in July this year to a world torn open at the seams by illness, recession and burning inequalities, to a world where our priorities are focused now on a polarising existence and charged a £12 entry fee for it.

When you look at it like this, art can feel like an indulgence enjoyed and curated by people oblivious to the struggles of those around them. I don’t particularly feel this is always the case. Art has always been there for us in times of struggle; throughout illness, recession and burning inequalities, yes, and constantly offers us either an opportunity for escape or new perspective. Art has historically been the backbone of the people in times like this — but we’re in 21st century Britain, not revolutionary France, and this is a show that has been funded by lords and ladies and curated by men in suits earning more money than most of us will ever see in our lives. For that reason, Titian: Love, Desire, Death leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.

Image: Adrian McDonald – Painting by Titian – ‘Diana and Actaeon’ c.1559 (left); ‘Diana and Callisto’ c.1559 (right)

Titian was an artist active in Venice during the Italian Renaissance, relentlessly versatile and skilled in portraits, landscapes, the biblical and the mythological. He became known for his painting methods and impressive use of colour, that most historians agree has had a profound influence on western art.

The exhibition reunites Titian’s poesiesa series of mythological works commissioned by Prince Philip of Spain; the paintings are a retelling of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and other classical Greek and Roman works. The six paintings were produced over eleven years from 1551 to 1562, and the exhibition at the National Gallery is the first time the paintings have been shown together in over 440 years. 

The word “poesie in Italian translates to ‘poem’; Titian felt his paintings to be a visual poetry and assumed the role of storyteller, putting beautiful faces to fables and myths like a mother telling fairytales to her children. The National Gallery encourages this angle on their website and said: We see gods and goddesses, yet their faces show very human, and very relatable, emotions: guilt, surprise, shame, desperation, and regret.”

I personally didn’t feel that when I went to see it. I paid my concession, walked around slowly, acknowledged I was in the presence of perhaps one of the most influential artists in the world, and then I went to the gift shop. I saw Achillean men compelled by little else than animalistic sexual urges, I saw naked women both aroused and frightened by them, I saw the exaggerated, dramatic expressions but I could not see a shred of humanity in them. They felt entirely decorative to me, because that’s what they were made for, and I feel like it’d be ridiculous to pretend they were made for anything else.

Image: Adrian McDonald – Painting by Titian – ‘The Death of Actaeon’ c 1575 (left); ‘Danaë’ c 1556 (right)

Then again, as a student, perhaps I was not the target demographic. I was unable to leave my anxieties and anger at the world in the cloakroom with my umbrella. I felt then as I feel now — that this exhibition was not for the likes of me.

Similarly, Titian: Love, Desire, Death is showing currently alongside Artemisia, an exhibition of works by Italian baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi. Gentileschi was an accomplished female painter in a field that was at the time almost entirely male dominated, and her work consistently featured strong heroines violently slaying men like beasts in the beds they sleep in. Gentileschi’s background casts a permanent shadow over her work, however; raped by her father’s colleague in the early seventeenth century, she pressed charges and took him to trial, and her work is celebrated by feminist scholars who praise the themes of revenge in her paintings. 

On display beside Artemisia, Titian’s asinine depictions of sex-starved men chasing naked nymphs seem… well, awkward and insensitive and, in my opinion, clumsily curated; I almost want to say, like, read the room. Artemisia provides an extra perspective on debates that, unfortunately, are still topical, particularly in the wake of the MeToo movement, and a few rooms over on display is The Rape of Europa by Titian, depicting the rape of Phoenician princess Europa by the Roman God Jupiter. It feels tone-deaf.

Outside of the aforementioned fleeting whimsy, I can’t see what else Titian’s poesies have to offer us. They can be appreciated for what they are; works by an accomplished Italian master, half a millennium old, antique and aesthetically beautiful. Perhaps that’s what The National Gallery are offering us here: escapism encased in a golden engraved frame rather than served on a silver platter, something beautiful to look at when everything else in your line of sight is remarkably ugly. However, even that depends on whether the beauty of the pictures are worth clinging to as everything around us burns, and the conclusion I came to as I left was that it wasn’t.