Monday, 17 September 2012

Metamorphosis: Titian 2012 – A Review

by Louisa Stark

Having seen a BBC programme chronicling the collaborative efforts of the National Gallery and Royal Opera House, which resulted in three new ballets and an exhibition, I was excited to see the work on display at ‘Metamorphosis: Titian 2012’.  Alongside three paintings by Titian, which inspired the whole event, were the responses of three contemporary artists commissioned to bring a story from Ovid’s Metamorphosis into the twenty-first century, through set and costume design as well as their own artwork. Although I only saw excerpts from the ballet on the television, my real interest was the art.

Everything centred on the work of one great master: Titian.  Displayed almost in the entrance of the exhibit, his three paintings ‘Diana and Castillo’, ‘Diana and Actaeon’ and the newly acquired ‘The Death of Actaeon’ were interposed by glimpses into the other responses; a mechanical arm waved mesmerizingly in the distance, vivid tropical colour flashed through a doorway.  Yet, it was the three paintings I couldn’t help but be drawn to.  In response to a story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Titian's work depicted the transformation of Actaeon in a stag after witnessing the goddess Diana, bathing. Extraordinarily detailed and highly illustrative in their narrative power, they were anything but traditional. 

The bravest work was by Chris Ofili, who chose to paint.  Naturally, exhibiting paintings alongside Titian would draw a direct comparison and most probably come out second best.  Inspired by his native Trinidad, he looked right back to Titian’s own source material: Ovid’s writing.  The bright colour, applied in fluid, luscious strokes evoked the sensual setting of Titian’s nymphs.  But rather than telling a coherent story, looking at his paintings only evoked an emotion, a splash of exotic paint with no real substance.
I stepped out of this blaze of colour into the darkness.  For Mark Wallinger had created an installation, consisting of a black box inside a darkened room.  In order to view what lay inside, you had to peer through the letter box, venetian blinds and carefully drilled spy-holes; in other words you had to become the voyeur.  Within, Wallinger had constructed a modern day bathroom, in which a modern day Diana was bathing.  I felt guilty as I circled the room, but I did not feel like Actaeon.  Returning to Titian at the end, I looked at the second painting again and saw that Actaeon’s poise was not that of a predator watching its prey; with his hands held up in surrender, he looked as if he had accidently stumbled across the scene, and was aware of the terrible punishment he would have to suffer for it.  But perhaps his biggest mistake of all was casting the vengeful Diana as a victim, trapped and vulnerable within the confines of the box, subject to the watchful eyes of visitors.  He made the whole thing an uncomfortably creepy experience for both the viewer and, I suspect, the poor woman playing Diana.

For me the most interesting, and far-removed, response to the paintings was displayed in the form of Conrad Shawcross’s sculptural installation, ‘The Trophy’.  As soon as I entered the exhibition, its ominous presence had been felt and now, standing in front of this machine, which had been programmed to carve the wooden antlers beside it, I was intrigued.  Although highly conceptual, with a machine representing the cold goddess and the antlers her souvenir of Actaeon, it was also strangely beautiful to watch.  For something so mechanical, its cycle of movement seemed almost human at times – Diana licking her wounds, Diana surveying her prize.  It could not be more distant from the narrative style of Titian, yet it managed to distil the character of Diana down to a haunting essence.

Finally, having come full circle, my appreciation of Titian’s work was increased. Although he really was the star of the show, the other work was interesting and, at times enlightening, hopefully proving that the works of old-masters are still fertile ground for many more future projects like this.

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