Metamorphosis: Titian 2012

Raphael Lyne on the shape-shifting fascination to be found in the meeting of Greek myth, Roman and modern British verse and Titian’s indelible hues

July 12, 2012


Credit: Diana and Actaeon/Titian 1556–59Changed, changed utterly: Titian’s paintings capture definitive moments of tension and human vulnerability in Ovid’s stories

Metamorphosis: Titian 2012

National Gallery, London until 23 September

It’s Olympic year, and we’re celebrating culture as well as sport, so it’s natural that the National Gallery is at the heart of a collaboration with the Royal Ballet uniting painting, poetry, music and choreography. The Olympics were Greek first, so it’s natural too that these British artists are working with Greek myths. Yet it gets more international than that. Metamorphosis: Titian 2012 receives these myths in the form of three Italian paintings inspired by a Roman poem. Two of them were created by the 16th-century Venetian artist for the King of Spain and ended up in the hands of French aristocrats before coming to Britain after the Revolution.

One story within the story is that each of the Titian paintings was rescued for Britain by an appeal. The Death of Actaeon was secured in 1972 after donations from trusts and the public. Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto were bought for the National Gallery and the National Galleries of Scotland more recently (in 2009 and 2012, respectively), the new factor in the latter case being National Lottery funding. So rather than offering a multimedia spectacular for 2012 built around British classics such as Constable’s The Hay Wain or Stubbs’ Whistlejacket, we have a nuanced reflection on the inspiration caused by international artworks that look great on the wall here, but nearly weren’t here at all.

It is still spectacular, though. The Titians are magnificent, at once familiar and fresh. They manage to be both monumental and acute in meeting the challenge of the mythical stories they depict, and their direct source, Ovid’s Metamorphoses. This poem has constantly fascinated later artists: it organises Graeco-Roman mythology around the theme of change, focusing on stories in which one body turns into another. Actaeon, for example, sees the goddess Diana bathing so she turns him into a stag - he is then killed by his own hounds. Callisto is raped by Jupiter, but her mistress Diana (again) cares only that she has broken her vow of chastity. She is turned into a bear, but later into a constellation (Ursa Major). Because of the change of shape, the stories are vitally narrative in nature: they make a process of process. However, they also deliver moments of visual energy, leaving us to wonder what it looks like, what it feels like, at the second when Diana spots Callisto’s pregnant belly, or when Actaeon is half-transformed into a stag, tries to speak, but can’t. They strain against the bonds of visual and verbal art alike, requiring one to reach out to the other.

Ovid knew this - he had read other versions, and seen paintings and statues. Titian knew it, too: he called his mythical artworks poesie. His pictures focus on the sudden moment but they draw in the greater story, too, with shadowy images in the background, and the sense of movement leading into and out of the critical scene. Metamorphosis: Titian 2012 is predicated on the limitless potential, across the arts, of this tension between moment and movement. There will be ballet performances of the same name at the Royal Opera House (14-20 July, to be relayed live to a screen in Trafalgar Square and across the country on 16 July). These are the work of seven choreographers and three composers, with sets by three artists (Chris Ofili, Conrad Shawcross and Mark Wallinger). Their designs, preparatory studies and original pieces also form part of the exhibition.

The other main element is an accompanying collection of poems by a weighty 14-strong line-up. This places each poem opposite a detail from one of the paintings, and it’s striking how many of them dwell on such details. Appropriately enough, these short poems invest in fragments, finding their own way of seeing. Often the response is individual, exploring what the scene and the story mean to a figure on the edge. Patience Agbabi picks up the story of a black nymph next to Diana, who wishes Actaeon was looking at her. Wendy Cope discovers another background figure, who loves Actaeon and has been meeting him in secret.

Tony Harrison makes poised, intelligent use of a predictable angle, depicting the viewer as a voyeur like the young hero, urging “best beware/Of baying bloodhounds in Trafalgar Square”. Hugo Williams gives this tale a genial twist by replaying the intrusion as Actaeon stumbling into a room full of old girlfriends.

It’s not all about self-reflection: epoch-making possibilities of this unwitting loss of innocence are brought out. Sinead Morrissey dwells on the power in “the uplifted anvil of her [Diana’s] naked heel”, and makes it stand for a history of class division and subjection. She casts Actaeon as a servant offending his superiors, threatened with brutal punishment and exile to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania). Naming a place so far off the classical map gets across the disproportionate nature of his punishment and the resonance of the story.

A different geographical scope opens up more elliptically in George Szirtes’ poem, which echoes John Donne as the speaker sees “my America” through “as it seemed, a washing line”. This is a neat way of drawing attention to a piece of gratuitous (but beautiful, and virtuosically painted, and thus not really gratuitous at all) red drapery that Actaeon pushes aside. Other poets return the viewer again and again to the strange and thrilling details of Titian’s work. Christopher Reid draws us to Diana’s “killer gaze” as she fires an arrow in The Death of Actaeon. Turning back to Titian, we see how these eyes are side-on, shaded. The thing that stares brightly out is, disarmingly, a nipple.

Reid’s poem is a monologue as Titian mulls over the picture-in-progress. Other poets are drawn to an appreciation of the artistry in the paintings. Carol Ann Duffy dwells on Diana’s pointing finger, listing the grievances it denotes, but concluding that “it’s all about paint” - the execution of a representation of the gesture. Her poem is deferentially but sparkily complicit in this, with her line-ending words moving from “point” to “paint” - through “compliant/pant/spent/pint/repent” and others - as if to show that her poem is most fully discovered in a pattern of sounds and words.

Jo Shapcott’s poem is full of stars (separating each word like cosmic punctuation). As Callisto considers her change, she notes “my navel curved/like a gash and o so noticeable/among all the diagonals”. Lavinia Greenlaw’s Callisto poem starts “what was I in their story?” and ends “the gods turned the page”. The over-substantial nature of metamorphosis (two bodies for the price of one) comes to look like something fractured and unfathomable to the subject (who pays the price), though concretely placed on someone else’s page. Frances Leviston’s Actaeon poem reaches a similar point, pithily put: the young man finds “nothing left of him was in the picture she composed”.

One of the most lasting notes comes from Seamus Heaney’s poem, which pivots around the words “as if”. This seems to catch the sense of dynamic potential that the myth, paintings, poems and beyond all share. The founding myths see gods making something new out of humans, and artists follow in their wake with their own endeavours, making new things out of old, something for us out of our nothing.

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