National Gallery, London
11 July – 23 September 2012
by CELIA WHITE
Taking as its starting point the Renaissance painter Titian’s famous three works depicting scenes from the classical poem Metamorphoses, written in 15 books by Ovid between 43 BC and 17 AD, this exhibition explores the concept “to morph” through a complex set of cultural manifestations. Titian’s paintings, which themselves translate Ovid’s text into painterly form, hang in the central gallery space, and are in turn interpreted by three contemporary British artists – Chris Ofili, Mark Wallinger and Conrad Shawcross – each of whose unique take on both Titian’s paintings and Ovid’s original text breathe new life into both, transforming them aesthetically and metaphorically. But alongside the sculptures, paintings and installations created in response to Titian and Ovid, these artists have also designed stage sets and costumes for three new interpretive ballets based on the stories that Titian depicted. Finally, and bringing the whole affair back to its original incarnation in the written word, 14 contemporary writers have produced modern poetic responses to Titian’s paintings and to Ovid’s myths. The entire collaborative project is in part a celebration of the fact that, due to the recent acquisitions by the National Gallery and the National Galleries of Scotland of two of the three Titians, Diana and Callisto and Diana and Actaeon (both 1556-9), all three paintings can be seen hanging together for the first time in over 200 years.
This multi-layered network of cultural activities – sculptural, painterly, conceptual, choreographic, textual and musical – is revealed in a part-physical, part-digital exhibition at the National Gallery and on its website.1 Shown collectively, these diverse responses to the theme of metamorphosis erupt into a sea of references, the core being Titian’s much-lauded set of three paintings. Originally made to hang in the private rooms of King Philip II of Spain, and for the most part painted between 1556 and 1576,2 the scenes show a highly sensualised depiction of Ovid’s myths of Diana and Callisto and Diana and Actaeon. In the former, Callisto, one of the more wayward members of the group of virgin followers of Diana, goddess of the hunt, is preyed upon by Jupiter, who transforms himself into Diana and, in this guise, succeeds in seducing Callisto. Nine months later, Diana is suspicious of Callisto’s changing body, and forces her to strip naked to bathe alongside her companions; when Callisto’s shift from lithe nymph to swollen, fallen woman is revealed, she is banished from the entourage. The far more sinister tale of Diana and Actaeon is also one concerning the theft of female purity: the hunter Actaeon chances upon Diana and her nymphs as they bathe and, feasting his eyes upon Diana herself, calls his fellow huntsmen to join him. Diana, furious at having her dignity compromised by Actaeon’s prying eyes, transforms him into a stag; when his hounds arrive they fail to recognise him, and tear him to pieces.
Titian’s paintings show metamorphosis to be sexual, spiritual, psychological and physically violent. This was their central appeal when they were displayed in the original palatial setting (in fact, they were considered so explicit at the time that their surfaces were concealed with drapes when ladies entered the room). Yet among these different forms of metamorphosis, sexual transformation and its consequences are clearly the paintings’ most common preoccupation: in Diana and Callisto, the pregnant Callisto lies prostrate on the floor, her heavy womb betraying the corporeal and spiritual transformation that she has undergone that now necessarily excludes her from the entourage of virgins in Diana’s care. In Diana and Actaeon, the latter’s glance at Diana as she bathes transforms her modesty to shame, and that shame is consequently turned to vengeance, and eventually to triumph, when Diana gives Actaeon the form of a stag and he meets his end. Protecting her virginity from the sullying gaze of a hunter makes of Diana a murderess; her sexual power over Actaeon is turned into physical power; his gaze becomes his downfall. Further, the raised arm and look of surprise shown by Titian’s Actaeon betrays his knowledge that the crime itself of looking – of taking sexual pleasure in another’s appearance – may have dire consequences. By illustrating Actaeon’s death in a separate painting, The Death of Actaeon (1565-76), Titian could explore more sensationally the aesthetic possibilities of the connection between Actaeon’s pleasure and his demise: Actaeon’s form is shown mid-transformation – the head is that of a stag while the body is still human – yet is already being set upon by the ravenous canines.
The responses of Shawcross, Ofili and Wallinger to Titian’s paintings reveal a metamorphosis of another kind: they speak of a change both in attitudes to the myths and to the media through which they are articulated in the modern age. Shawcross’s sculpture, Trophy (2012), consisting of a repurposed industrial robot with a glowing bulb at the end of its arm, pays homage to Diana’s dualistic personality – one both seductive and destructive – through the visual contrast between hard machinery and the light’s soft, innocuous glow. Also alluded to is Diana’s role as the leading light of her group of nymphs, and beyond that, through the presence of a pair of antlers alongside the robot which act as a trophy to Actaeon’s defeat, Diana’s power to manipulate the nymphs’ movements and those of the men whose bodies and gazes trespass on her territory.
Shawcross’s sculpture responds not only to the symbolic continuities and contrasts between his own work and that of Titian. He also claims a certain kinship with Titian in a technical sense through their shared ability to produce a new visual language by experimenting with contemporary artistic processes, an experimentation that pushes the boundaries of art’s interpretive capabilities. For Titian, this was evident in his explorations with oil paint – which included painting with his fingers – in order to achieve the effect of highly convincing naturalism. In Shawcross’s robot, such experimental craftsmanship finds its equal in the artists’ recycling and refinement of a sleek piece of machinery. The sculpture’s beauty lies in the perfect physical and conceptual relationship it sets up between the precise movement of the metal, the pure light emanating from its tip, and the often dark, calculated actions and intentions of Diana, whose feminine allure blinds Actaeon so fatally. Shawcross takes this further, transposing his sculpture directly into the set design for his ballet, Machina, on a far grander scale. Presiding over the actions on the stage in Machina, this symbol of Diana’s ability to interrupt and change her surroundings looms ominously, meanwhile casting her glow in ever-shifting patterns over the dancing figures below.
Ofili’s artistic contribution to the exhibition – a series of seven large-scale paintings – is a far less convincingly contemporary portrayal of the ancient myth of Diana and Actaeon. Ofili has confessed to bypassing Titian’s interpretation altogether, supposedly in order to free himself from the shackles of art history and to produce a purer creative response to the original story. In doing so, he also forgoes the freedom that Titian enjoyed in interpreting such widely read and translated texts, and Ofili’s paintings are consequently far from fresh in their appearance. Bulbous, brightly coloured forms emerge from near-abstract patches of green and line; tumbling, tumescent bodies seem conjoined with wallpapered interiors; colour and form merge into one another, giving no clear delineation, so that the paintings constantly lean close to and then veer away from narrative possibility. Where Ofili’s metamorphoses recreate the foliage, the frolickery, the sexual intrigue of Ovid’s texts, transposing them into the artist’s current surroundings in Trinidad where he now lives and works, they fail to go further into the meat of the matter; in turning a blind eye to Titian, they side-step all that is sinister and glamorous about his Renaissance vision of the classical past.
This is perhaps why Ofili’s paintings, in a different way to Shawcross’s sculpture, are so effectively translated into the set and costume designs for the his ballet Diana & Actaeon, despite having little resonance as standalone pieces of contemporary art. Heavily organic and floral, Ofili’s sets provide fitting environs for the group of nymphs bathing in the glade. Similarly, the licks of fire that crawl up Diana’s body in the form of her costume, as well as the flowing, silvery drapery on the bodies of her entourage, extend this aesthetic schema, in which colour, the elements and natural paraphernalia restore the myths to the arcadian landscape of classical poetry, returning them there from their improper place in the hands of Renaissance painters and, still worse, contemporary culture.
Of the three artistic contributions, Wallinger’s is by far the most compelling precisely because it avoids creating a direct visual connection between his stage set and his installation. Instead, the connection is conceptual: both respond to a specific part in the story of Diana and Actaeon, namely the moment in which the act of voyeurism takes place. In the exhibition, Wallinger’s installation Diana (2012) is a dark room containing a blackened box, the contents of which can only be seen through a set of peep holes, a window with its blinds mostly drawn, and a frosted pane of glass with a barely accessible crack in its corner. Within lies a mock-bathroom in which reclines Diana (or a series of actresses, each of whom really is named Diana), deep under the water and soap in the tub but with head and arms emerging into the viewer’s narrow line of sight. In Wallinger’s ballet Trespass, the virgins bathe against a curved, reflective backdrop; at the moment in which Actaeon discovers them, the supposed mirrors turn into windows, and as the men watch, the women retreat into a corner, covering their own and each others’ bodies, faces, eyes. In their embarrassment, they refuse to be seen, nor to see themselves be seen.
In both pieces, Wallinger extracts from the myth of Diana and Actaeon the source both of Actaeon’s pleasure and of Diana’s rage: that short moment in which Diana bathes with abandon, unaware of the gaze of an onlooker. The transformative power of the gaze is one that has intrigued artists throughout history and, more recently, has been the subject of intense debate in feminist approaches to the history of culture. Wallinger reveals that if voyeurism as a practice and as the subject of psychological and social enquiry is a phenomenon that has endured, it is arguably the central thread in these stories that connects Ovid to Titian and Titian to contemporary culture. But he also shows that while the intrigue and pleasure that voyeurism offers transcends time, the medium through which it is practiced – the modern frosted window, for example, in place of the natural screen provided by trees – is specific to a moment, a place, a perpetrator.
Despite the innovative power of Wallinger’s work, the most daring re-interpretations of both Ovid and Titian that this project has inspired are in fact the 14 specially commissioned poems, many of which are unafraid to engage with these two greats while throwing modern themes into the mix. This is perhaps unsurprising given Titian’s intention, in illustrating the classical poems, to imbue them with what he termed “poesie” – poetry in visual form. Hugo Williams’ Actaeon envisages the group of bathing nymphs, with their sour glances (“shy and resentful”), as those of a hoard of ex-girlfriends to whom he must now explain himself.3 Their angry looks bestow upon him the guilt and nostalgia which, in the form of hungry hounds, destroy him mentally as opposed to physically:
I fled the scene,
dogged by indecision and regret,
torn apart by my imaginings.4
Callisto’s Song by Jo Shapcott takes a far more contemporary poetic form. It looks ahead to the point in the myth of Callisto in which, having been transformed into a bear by Jupiter’s jealous wife Juno, Callisto is finally made into a consellation. In Callisto’s Song, the words on the page are littered with asterisks that replicate Callisto’s new celestial guise, while the words between them speak of the damage she has suffered at the hands of Diana. Titian is also implicated here: his paint makes eternal the painful moment from which her downfall escalates:
* gods *
* arriving * and * doing * what * gods* do * upstairs * and *
* the * artist’s * finger * loaded * and * the * paint* alive *
* alive * with * stars * stars * stars * stars * stars *5
Wendy Cope’s Actaeon’s Lover gives voice to the more marginal characters in the myth, and likewise responds directly to Titian’s rendering of them in paint: her poem imagines the nymph cowering behind the pillar in the centre-right of Titian’s Diana and Actaeon to be Actaeon’s secret, nameless lover. In Titian’s painting, Actaeon’s gaze seems to fall on this obscured figure by chance as he averts his eye from Diana, but Cope interprets this as the look of a “secret love, who loved me too”, and the lover’s expression as a look of horror at the death that awaits Actaeon (“the last time I saw his face / Before the horror of the horns, the hide”).6 Through these poems, both the protagonists and the peripheral characters are given greater emotional depth and narrative involvement than the original myths and Titian’s paintings permit.
Taken together, the elements of this multimedia display of interpretations show not only that ancient myths can be understood and enjoyed by contemporary audiences, but also that the thematic and aesthetic possibilities buried within them are unlimited – that they are not closed down to new meanings as a result of heavy academic analysis and the weight of the centuries. There is nonetheless a sense that the show, seen in the gallery setting as distinct from the ballets, is really all about the Titians: their majestic provenance, their new proximity, the power and prowess with which the National Gallery has acquired and displayed them as if they were in their original home. Despite this, the success of the newly commissioned artworks, ballets and poems lies in the way in which they highlight the stilted nature of the Renaissance tableaux; meanwhile, the classical myths, with all their fantasy and controversy, seem more alive than ever.
1. The exhibition includes the three paintings by Titian, three separate rooms in which the contemporary artists’ works are shown, maquettes of the stage sets accompanied by videos showing each being installed, a display of posed manikins wearing some of the costumes designed by the artists, and a ‘Choreographic Room’, in which is screened behind-the-scenes footage of the dancers learning and developing their movements in response to the paintings. On the website, videos show the writers reading their poems and short excerpts from the ballets. See http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/whats-on/exhibitions/metamorphosis-titian-2012. The ballets were performed live by The Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, London, on 16 July 2012. A book of the 14 poems has been published entitled Metamorphosis: Poems Inspired by Titian, London: The National Gallery Company, 2012.