Saturday, 9 May 2020

Azure skies and inhuman horrors: Titian's Poesie

Beneath the ground-lapis blue, a man catches a goddess at her toilet and will be transformed into a stag, to be ripped apart by his own hounds, while women are penetrated by a shower of gold (some think that's lovely, I'd still call it rape), chained to a rock to be devoured by a sea-monster until a hero arrives, carried off in a 'rape' by Jupiter/Zeus in bull form.  There's still such sensuousnss and beauty in some of Titian's richest canvases for Philip II, who clearly wanted quite a lot of female flesh. The series is a counterpart to the earlier canvases Titian painted for Alfonso d'Este's Camerino. Back in 2003, we doubted if the National Gallery could ever excel itself in its reuniting of the three canvases Bacchus and Ariadne - of course one of the glories of the NG's collection - The Andrians and The Worship of Venus from the Prado; plus Giovanni Bellini's The Feast of the Gods with additions by Titian, courtesy of Washington's National Gallery of Art). But it just has, in another once-in-a-lifetime (or once-ever). All six paintings which may never have graced a single palace room of Philip's are in one splendid gallery, with the earlier masterpiece plus others visible beyond.

Actually there are seven, and I'm a bit confused as to which is the odd one out: the late Death of Actaeon with its very free brushwork, another National Gallery fixture, or Danae from Apsley House? There's also a lot of confusion around whether this is the most 'real' of the many versions, but I'll take it from my great pal Claudia Pritchard, writing in The New European with splendid reproductions gracing her article, that it is, since she's read the catalogue and I haven't. Certainly looks much better for the clean, though apparently it's not the full canvas.

My own pics will have told you that I did get to see the miracle - in fact, on the last day before the National Gallery closed indefinitely, 18 March. I cycled into town and out; J took the tube.Most rooms were empty and we weren't expecting many folk in the exhibition, but there were. Not so many as to make it impossible to avoid the two-metre distancing which we were already taking on board then. I nearly forgot in the thrill (unanticipated, because I hadn't done my homewortk) of seeing the one I'd never encountered 'live' before, The Rape of Europa (1560-2), normally to be seen in the neo-Renaissance setting of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.

The eye first hits on the best azure sky of the lot - valuable crushed lapis lazuli the pigment, of course - and then to the pink drape that Europe clutches as the bull spirits her away from the shore. I didn't know this when I visited, but the painting had a major restoration in Boston; our friend Jill, picture restorer at the NG, spent three blissful days at the Museum where she was able to see work in progress (for her own most remarkable recent work, see the post on the Mantegna-Bellini exhibition). The sea-life along the bottom part of the picture is wonderful when you get up close, too. It couldn't be more of a contras to the sombre hues of The Death of Actaeon.

I like it that the picture, given one of the two widest unbroken walls to itself, is complemented by the most damaged work of the seven, the earlier (1554-60) Perseus and Andromeda, always a welcome site in the sumptuously revamped long gallery of the Wallace Collection.

We did have an earlier chance to see the two great mythologies with obvious symmetries markig them out to be hung alongside each other, Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto, before they were rotated between the National Galleries of Scotland and London, but there was fresh cause to wonder here.

And finally, the original Venus and Adonis (on the right below and up top) is, of course, infinitely superior to the National Gallery copy, which can be seen next door.

We've seen the perspective down to the top Titians with Parmigianinos to the left; here's another great masterpiece, The Vedramin Family venerating a Relic of the True Cross (1540-5, possibly reworked in 1555), hanging on the wall the other side of the exhibition room next to the late Tribute Money.

We also wanted to pay homage to Holbein as J had read, and I had just embarked on, the final instalment of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall trilogy, The Mirror and the Light. In which Master Hans appears again to work on the quadruple full-length portrait mural for Whitehall Palace; destroyed, but here was half of it in cartoon form (Henrys VIII and VII), on loan from the National Portrait Gallery while it undergoes renovation.

Well, all galleries are shut now; who knows when they might reopen? But imagination and a good collection of art books at home are sustaing us now. As for Mantel's crowning glory, what a masterpiece, and praise be to this period for the time to take over savouring it. I'm glad The Arts Desk was patient with my slow reading of it; this is the result.

Outside the Gallery, central London felt all wrong. Some have rejoiced in the empty spaces, and Trafalgar Square as a landscape with few figures is certainly unusual,

but the West End is made to teem with life; never again will I curse those crowded narrow pavements of St Martin's Lane and Charing Cross Road. There were still a few tourists about - the Chinese were the first we saw to wear facemasks -

and 'pavement artists' had chalked in expectation of offerings - not great art, of course, yet topical - but were nowhere to be seen.

We quickly gave up; I had a coffee and a bun in Ole & Steen - handwash at the door and on the counters, all cakes carefully covered - and then cycled home. Haven't been into the centre of town since then, and not been on anything more than two wheels for seven weeks. Oddly, I don't mind for now. And the distancing must be maintained for a good while yet, though our disastrous government has once sent out weak signals which will up the death count again.


JohnG said...

As an aside, David, have you read Suzannah Lipscomb's excellent book on Henry VIII's annus horribilis, 1536? The Holbein takes something of a star role, and it's fascinating on the evolution of characteristics which allowed posterity to turn the king into the Big Bad Henry of notoriety - not, of course, that Mantel falls into that trap.

David said...

I haven't, JohnG, but I shall now. Truth to tell, reading has been much slowed down by laboriously working my way through Diarmaid MacCullogh's Cromwell biography; ah, the minutiae of history - not really my thing. Makes you realise what selection and imagination can do in the Wolf Hall trilogy. In a way, the King does come out of the novels as big and bad, but more fine-tuned as treacherous, feckless, clever, sometimes charming. Human, all the same. But I quoted one of Mantel's similes in the review: 'like the shrike or butcher bird, who sings in imitation of a harmless seed-eater to lure his prey, then impales it on a thorn and digests it at his leisure'.

David Damant said...

I suggest that you are a bit unfair to Philip II - a great connoisseur and if there was a certain amount of female flesh around that was a widespread fact about painting at that time ( and though lust was always with us Freud was not) It is not easy, but we must not judge people in the past with the moral outlook of today, and this true of Henry VIII. The present pictures of an empty London ( such a yours) look rather like a print of the `18th century ( OK I know that was pre-Trafalgar)

David said...

Trust you to home in on a throwaway comment. It was meant lightly. Note that 'Bacchus and Ariadne' for the Camerino is much more covered up...

Susan said...

So poignant to think back on visiting a fine exhibit like the one you write about here. I was delighted to see you were able to stop by the cartoon of Henry VIII, having myself just recently finished The Mirror and the Light. Your Arts Desk Review captures the magnificence of the book beautifully. So many brilliant passages. One that struck me strongly was this:

Can you make a new England? You can write a new story. You can write new texts and destroy the old ones, set the torn leaves of Duns Scotus sailing about the quadrangles, and place the gospels in every church. You can write on England, but what was written before keeps showing through, inscribed on the rocks and carried on floodwater, surfacing from deep cold wells. It's not just the saints and martyrs who claim the country, it's those who came before them: the dwarves dug into ditches, the sprites who sing in the breeze, the demons bricked into culverts and buried under bridges; the bones under your floor. You cannot tax them or count them. They have lasted ten thousand years and ten thousand before that. They are not easily dispossessed by farmers with fresh leases and law clerks who adduce proof of title. They bubble out of the ground, wear away the shoreline, sow weeds among the crops and erode the workings of mines.

David said...

Yes, that evocation of a mythical past that somehow has life for the Tudors - and perhaps even now, as embodied by Rooster Byron in Jez Butterworth's masterly play Jerusalem - is another aspect of genius in British writing. Did you love the book as a whole as much as I did? I miss it, much as it reappears through the walls of the MacCullogh Cromwell biography (which I fear may temporarily smother a part of it).

David said...

Even as I pressed 'publish' I was reminded of how American writing can do the same thing - how amazing is George Saunders' Lincoln in the Bardo, and in a different way the best works of Donna Tartt or A M Homes.

Willym said...

Thank you for the gallery visit and also for the review on Mirror and the Light. Just finishing up The Mercies and A Journal of the plague year - not quite the lightest of reading for our time. Will turn to something a bit lighter for this week which will heighten the anticipation for the Mantel.

Hope you are all well and taking care?

David said...

I'm trying to dilute the hardcore Cromwell biography with nightly episodes of 'Upstart Crow' - not literature but highly literate Shakespeare sitcom. Right up your street, I imagine. All three episodes of the third series so far have been consummate. By which you see I come late to Master William.

We are very well, insh'allah, and determined not to change our care-taking at the whim of a disastrous government. I grow ever more ashamed of incontinent Little England, though proud of Sturgeon and Scotland.

Susan said...

She is a marvelous writer, and that she can take a surfeit of historical material and not only not get bogged down in it, but absorb it all and tell a riveting tale is rare indeed. It will be hard to find a good read to equal it . . . until she decides to tackle something else.

David said...

Yes, as I wrote in the review that should take us all by surprise again. During the years of writing the second and third volumes of the trilogy, she told us what to expect. But all her novels are so vastly different from each other that anything is possible. Lately she's been writing on Marie Antoinette, but in a review of sorts.