Titian was nearly 70 when Philip II of Spain commissioned for his bedroom a group of paintings based on Ovid’s “Metamorphoses”. Famous across Europe for the overt sensuality with which he portrayed the female nude – he was the first person to use living, breathing women as models – Titian was left to choose the narratives, and he did not disappoint. Among the paintings shipped from Venice to the Habsburg ruler were “Venus and Adonis”, “The Rape of Europa” and “Diana and Callisto”, depicting the discovery of the nymph’s pregnancy – Callisto is suddenly abashed and clumsy in her nakedness, in contrast to the resplendent nude goddess of chastity, whose graceful figure recalls antique sculpture.
Titian called these works his “poesie”, aspiring to Ovid’s poetic imagery and psychological depths. Greatest of them all are “Diana and Actaeon”, a pendant to “Diana and Callisto” and never separated from it – the pair was bought for the nation, for £95m, between 2009 and 2012 – and its sequel “The Death of Actaeon”, which Titian refused to allow to leave his studio, struggling with it for more than a decade.
Between these three paintings – not seen together since the 18th century and now spectacularly reunited at the National Gallery – we see Titian’s supreme mature manner of loose brushstrokes, translucent light effects, bursts of rich colour and dynamic figural arrangements evolve into the most extraordinary late style of any artist: spare, abstracting, draining colour away, deeply pessimistic.
When “Diana and Actaeon” began its countrywide tour earlier this year, National Gallery curator Carol Plazzotta described the painting as “a car crash moment where everything suddenly goes into slow motion”. The young, gallant hunter Actaeon stumbles across Diana, nude, bathing at a ruined temple and in that instant his destiny is fixed. Diana’s eyes flash fury at this violation of her modesty; Actaeon raises his hand in shock, but simultaneously a blush rises to his cheeks and there is pleasure in the glance he exchanges with a nymph hiding behind a column. Seconds later – the subject of the next painting – hunter becomes hunted: Diana transforms Actaeon into a stag and he is torn to death by his own hounds.
Excitement, suspense, danger, cruelty, repression and the grief of loss animate these canvases in moment-by-moment transitions of feeling and understanding that convey in paint the uncontrollable force of sexual passion, how it governs our lives and changes our fate. Titian brought his intense rendering of landscape, atmosphere, texture – especially the physicality of flesh, its softness and warmth contrasted with the cool, flowing water, the cold stone of the temple, the drapes with which Diana and her nymphs seek to cover themselves – to bear on this complex tale of desire and death, lust and perversity, and so initiated the long European tradition of epic history painting. Both Velazquez and Rubens saw “Diana and Actaeon” at the Spanish court.
And today? In an epoch dominated by contemporary art, and ever more of it consisting of performance pieces in crossover genres, the National Gallery in Metamorphosis: Titian 2012 has taken the risk of commissioning a trio of very different British artists – painter Chris Ofili, mathematician-sculptor Conrad Shawcross, and playful conceptualist Mark Wallinger – to make new work responding to the Titians. Each artist has also created sets for a Royal Ballet piece inspired by the paintings, opening tonight; the models and designs are on display too.
What is riveting and moving about this unusual, sensitively choreographed show is that Ofili, Shawcross and Wallinger have all turned their attention, in ways that are resonant with society today, to the paintings’ key element of male pathos – surely the theme that drove the ageing Titian to consider the “Actaeon” myth for so long.
There are many metamorphoses here. Ovid himself adapted a Greek myth in which Actaeon is punished for daring to vie with the hunting goddess Artemis; banished from Rome,
the poet saw in Actaeon’s unlucky fate a mirror of his own, and added the melancholy and erotic charge that have since defined the story.
This is Ofili’s starting point: in seven large, dramatic oil paintings called “Metamorphoses”, vertically orientated to suggest stage panels, he has transposed the classical world to the landscape of Trinidad, where he lives.
Almost alone of his generation, Ofili is a painter unembarrassed by beauty, confident in exploring it through line, form, shape, and in lush, intoxicating colours. His work is mostly about surface: in stunning sunburst yellow and deep purple harmonies, “Ovid-Actaeon” and “Ovid-Stag” depict giant, simplified, dancing figures on flattened grounds. “Ovid-Lust” portrays a curvaceous form beneath a crescent moon – Diana’s symbol – and an enormous green phallus; “the male burden of desire”, Ofili says, drives the myth. “Ovid-Desire”, a pink-green interior with tumbling bulbous forms resembling breasts and buttocks, and “Ovid-Death”, both contain jewel-like paintings-within-paintings and ornamental abstract patchworks; they form a pair and particularly announce Ofili’s debt to Matisse.
Inevitably, all three contemporaries ponder art history. Shawcross is placing on stage a silvery robot that will initially seduce by casting patterns of light, then turn predatory. For “Trophy”, his exhibition piece, Shawcross constructed a smaller version of this icy, sleek creature, and used it to fashion a single antler carved from a dozen woods – walnut, teak, apple, iroko. The anthropomorphic robot, Shawcross says, “represents Diana in a modern way”; with legs suggestively splayed out, it/she swings around menacingly, illuminating the antler-trophy that is the remains of Actaeon. At once recalling Epstein’s “Rock Drill” and Louise Bourgeois’ “Spider”, the robot suggests many threats – technological, sexual, especially the 21st-century empowerment of women – but the work feels thin nevertheless.
I laughed out loud at Mark Wallinger’s “Diana” – then noticed people grin at my response, and in turn watched others laugh. Skip the next paragraph if you intend to visit the exhibition, because “Diana” depends for maximum effect on a moment of surprise.
In a typical piece of Wallinger democratic wit, the artist advertised for performers called Diana to pose naked, reclining in a bath, washing, looking in a mirror; each does so in turn for two hours. We, like Actaeon, are peeping Toms arrived at an unfamiliar place – a dark gallery containing an enclosed modern bathroom visible on various sides through a keyhole, a cracked window, a gap in a Venetian blind (yes, the Venetian reference is deliberate). We queue to gawp, not knowing what to expect, and are ridiculed as voyeurs.
It is funny, lightly allusive – Marcel Duchamp’s final work was the sculpture “Etantdonnes”, a peephole-tableau of a nude – and breathtakingly shallow. It sent me, in flight from our lightweight age, straight back to the Titians.
‘Metamorphosis: Titian 2012’, National Gallery, London, to September 23