Tag Archives: Titian

In the ‘Metamorphosis’ show at the National Gallery in London, three artists (Conrad Shawcross, Chris Ofili, Mark Wallinger ) respond to three Titian paintings.

Mark Wallinger: ‘Diana’, 2012, multi media installation, view through keyhole.

Mark Wallinger in ‘Diana’, 2012, sets up a black box in a dark room and inside that box, brightly lit, is a bathroom. In that bathroom a young woman is taking a bath.

Titian: ‘Diana and Actaeon’ 1556, oil on canvas 184 x 202 cm. National Gallery, London

A direct reference to Titian’s ‘Diana and Actaeon’, we are now the young hunter and the retinue-less bather presumably the hunter goddess. Voyeurism is a theme that is often raised when discussing the painting, the keyholes and broken window viewpoint through which we see the bather in ‘Diana’, emphasise that way of seeing the original story.

Is that really the case? Is that really what ‘Diana and Actaeon’ is all about? The nudes are arranged as in a frieze, or rather we have horizontal emphasis in a shallow pictorial space, the rows of arches behind tending to further emphasise this notion of looking through. Diana herself lifting her arm to look through as it were (unfortunately it looks more like she is checking her armpits, doing the BO test) All three paintings are about looking and finding, but is that finding as sexual as the first sight and early reviews of Wallinger’s might imply?

Conrad Shawcross: ‘Trophy’, 2012. Multi media.

The Shawcross machine, ‘Trophy’, 2012, a large metal prosthetic limb moving in a huge vitrine in front of an antler on a pole, is an intriguing thing that is impossible not to think of anthropomorphically. The limb ends with a light on a stick, that arm/ body probes, strokes and almost caresses, but never actually touches, itself or the antler. Technically extraordinary, far more delicate and sensual than either ‘Diana and Actaeon’ or the Wallinger, it says I think, a great deal about the medicalised manner in which we approach the human body now.

Chris Ofili: ‘Ovid-Desire’, 2012. oil on canvas.

The Ofili paintings, ‘Ovid-Desire’, 2012 seem lost to me, somewhere between figuration and patter. They seem etiolated, enervated by heat and humidity; Douanier Rousseau meets 19th century yellow fever sufferer.

How we actually see paintings is also informative, in the exhibition set up the three Titians are arranged in a sort of dark vestibule where all the visitors congregate. This means that seeing the central painting (Diana and Actaeon) is difficult, you view her through people. One assumes that in the original setting we would be alone, hiding in the woods metaphorically speaking.

Titian: ‘Diana and Actaeon’ 1556, oil on canvas 184 x 202 cm. National Gallery, London

We look I suppose through the eyes of Actaeon. A figure within a painting (usually male) seen looking at something they shouldn’t and thereby exciting the (usually male) viewer; illustrating and creating titillation is something that artists have always been good at. It is a characteristic trope; all those Susannah and the Elders paintings for example. We can see some of that familiarity here, although the goddess hides herself from Actaeon, the way in which she holds up the white cloth succeeds in showing the viewer more of her naked body. But is this exciting? That awkward pose of Diana’s perhaps tells us something else might be going on.  The figure poking out behind the pillar to Diana’s right strikes me as the key to all this.

Titian: ‘Diana and Actaeon’ 1556, oil on canvas 184 x 202 cm. National Gallery, London. Detail: Peeping Girl

In the poems published by the National Gallery, Wendy Cope shows she has noticed this figure as well. Her poem ‘Actaeon’s Lover’ describes the hidden girl as his secret lover, horrified by her murdering mistress

“This moment: the last time I saw his face

Before the horror of the horns, the hide.

I rage and mourn. There can be no redress

Against divine Diana, murderess.”   

Voyeuristic seeing is aggressive, it is about power, the active male gaze. But look at Actaeon, our internal male viewer, he seems tentative, moving backwards out of the pictorial space. Where is he looking towards? His head is tilted and turning, he looks as much to the peeping figure from behind the pillar as he does to the goddess. As Cope points out, the girl seems separate, a contemporary figure whereas the rest live in the usual vague classical timelessness, ie the peeping girl is a figure from our ordinary world.

Perhaps that is where the link to Wallinger comes in, his installation is not particularly titillating either, certainly not erotic. It is a domestic setting as though a sister or partner has beaten you to the bathroom and has been there for hours. Notice the figure washing Diana’s foot, equivalently banal and ordinary. These are works about the disturbance of domestic privacy, a different sort of privileged viewing.

Titian: ‘Diana and Actaeon’ 1556, oil on canvas 184 x 202 cm. National Gallery, London. Detail: Actaeon

Actaeon is killed, not because he has seen the goddess naked, but because he has penetrated her private world. Pulling aside the curtain, he discovers that underneath the trappings we are all awkward and much the same. Like discovering that the Queen eats breakfast cereal out of Tupperware or that the Prime Minister doesn’t know how to use text speak, it is the sort of transgression that demands a horrible death.

The border though is slight, that curtain, red of course to link to Actaeon’s death, but as George Szirtes describes in his accompanying poem ‘Actaeon’

‘O, my America, discovered by slim chance,

Behind, as it seemed, a washing line’

It is not much of a boundary is it? Anyone would just push it aside, where is the security detail? Where is the man with clipboard, list and radio preventing access? Or did Diana outsource the job to G4S as well?

Jan van Eyck: 'The Arnolfini Portrait', 1434, oil on panel. National Gallery, London

I’m stood in front of Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait in the National Gallery, London, wondering why viewers queue so quietly to look at this image, and make such small gestures with their fingers, rather than run, talk loudly and wave as they do in front of others.

We, the viewers, seem to be caught in the doorway, or so the mirror tells us, although the composition might lead one to think that we are slightly closer to the couple. Are we, the internal spectators in our reflected complementaries, are we actually participating? Is there anything about the behaviour of the Arnolfini’s that makes any connection with us, apparently there in the room with them? They seem completely self-sufficient. We are anonymous witnesses, of the right social standing perhaps, but not active participants. Timeless witnesses perhaps with “a distinctive access to the content of the picture” as Richard Wollheim put it. Our access though is not to all areas. This is an, apparently, formal painting, as internal spectators we are not allowed through the velvet rope to the VIP area. The Arnolfini’s might defer to the court of Phillip the Good that is socially above them, but it doesn’t look as though they are going to let the future get away with too much familiarity. As far as they are concerned, they own the future, we will never be allowed beyond the door.

Our role in looking at this painting now, is not a passive one, (as Linda Siddel reminds us in, ‘Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait: Stories of an Icon’, Cambridge University Press, 1993) nor was it when it was made. Ultimately, this is a painting about relationships, between people of different ranks, of different genders, between people and things. It is a painting that stands at the beginning of capitalism, I’m sure that van Eyck was no more aware of social/ cultural/ political or economic change than any other literate and aware participant in the upper ranks of Northern European society. But, the relationship between these people tells us, at the end of capitalism, where we have come from. It doesn’t tell us through some complex arcane code known only to initiates, it tells us through the ways in which people and things interact. We understand these interactions by looking at them; something artists are good at doing.

Jan van Eyck: 'The Arnolfini Portrait' (detail), 1434, oil on panel. National Gallery, London

The figures in the doorway are clearly not a threat and they are known to the dog at least; it is not in guard dog mode. In the same way, the curled sleeping acceptance by the dog in Titian’s ‘Venus of Urbino’, tells us of the probable status of that viewer.

Titian: 'The Venus of Urbino', 1538, oil on canvas. The Uffizi. Florence.

The Brussels Griffon in the Arnofini painting, a small expensive breed, indicates the notions of defence and power that a larger dog might display without the actuality

Anthony Van Dyck: 'The Children of Charles 1', 1637, oil on canvas. The Royal Collection

(Van Dyck’s portrait of the young Charles the Second with his hand on an enormous mastiff springs to mind) . It is a contemporary and ironic reworking of theme of guard dog; it is quite literally a toy.

Look at the Arnolfini dog’s mouth, it has the semblance of a smile (Jack Thomas in ‘Arnolfini: Reflections in a Mirror’, one of the many fictionalisations of the painting, devotes chapter 27 to the dog, calling it Hendrik). That turning up of the left hand side of the dog’s mouth, makes the viewer aware of the other mouths on show.

Along with strong verticals, the other dominant compositional arrangement in this painting is the upward curve of their joined hands. In his analysis of pictorial composition at the Bauhaus, Paul Klee made much of this type of arrangement. Lines or forms moving upward in an image move from ‘very bad’ to ‘very good’, in an arc points ideally related in tension create equilibrium, therefore harmony. A general shape we could call, simply, a smile.

Look at her mouth, on her left, the side closest to us, there is a highlight where the cheek meets the lips. They are a very cute, pursed pair of lips, idealised like much of her face; the eyebrows in particular. But look further at that mouth, the highlight can also be read as a smirk, her eyes might be solemn, fixed on a blank middle distance, but that is not a solemn mouth, she is thinking about something less elevated. Look again at his expression, look at his mouth, surprisingly full and sensual when you really examine it closely. Look at his eyes, they are, like hers, staring blankly. But, there is a turn to his left, towards her, in the position of those eyes. He is trying unsuccessfully, not to look at her. If you look carefully, he is not as old as that pallor might make one think at first, a pallor emphasised by all that ultra-fashionable black clothing. They are both pale, presumably underlining that, although they make money through trade, they are not artisans. His face is clear and relatively youthful, no lines, or fat or jowls,

Jan van Eyck: 'Portrait of a Man' 1433, oil on panel. National Gallery, London

compare with the man in the red turban to your left to see evidence that van Eyck can paint older male faces with great accuracy. Despite the need for formality and solemnity the eyes, of the Arnolfinis his in particular, appear to be sliding towards each other. This is a couple who can’t wait for everyone to leave the room.

Craig Harbison champions such an approach (in Chapter 4 of the ‘The Play of Realism’), like most other academics he over-determines the exactitude of the iconography, although I think his basic point stands: that there is a keen personal as well as a legal and financial relationship here. Ffor confirmation, look at the red cloth on the edge of the bed, see how it echoes the diagonal folds of her green dress and makes the parallel vertical folds of the hanging, potent, thrusting red bolster that much more emphatic.

A visual image, these are not literary, textual mysteries. This painting is far more straightforward than the professionals give it credit for. The details you are looking for, are those you would expect to look for when seeing a painting of two people entering some sort of relationship. These representations have the mass, and presence of figures, this is after all one of the earliest, full figure, standing double portraits of ‘ordinary’ people, therefore they relate to each other in the ways we might expect.

We respond then to the content, two people, but to come back to my original point, why do we respond in this particular manner?

“The entirely eccentric position of the central vanishing point reinforces the impression of a representation determined not by the objective lawfulness of the architecture, but rather by the subjective standpoint of a beholder who has just now appeared; a representation that owes its especially “intimate” effect in large part to this very perspectival disposition” (Erwin Panoksky: Perspective as Symbolic Form’, page 69)

If you are still not sure, watch how viewers behave in front of it. They stand, usually in couples, their poses unconsciously mirror those represented, like people falling into step as they walk together, or more likely people starting to adopt the accent of those to whom they are talking, and this painting does talk to us.

Peter Paul Rubens: 'A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning', 1636. Oil on Oak. Oil on oak.131 x National Gallery, London

Whereas, watch viewers in front of that other personal favourite: Het Steen, a grand painting about land and reward. Viewers walk about in front of Het Steen, they make gestures they speak loudly, I can always hear what they say in front of Het Steen, never the quiet confidences, the whispered exchanges about what they are witnessing in front of the Arnolfini portrait.