Poems in Painting: Titian at the Gardner Museum

By Sam Ben Meir

Sam ben meir

Boston, Massachusetts – Titian: Women, myth and power at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum consists of just six paintings, but this one-room exhibit is more like a six-course banquet. The monumental canvases are so overwhelming, immense and bewitching that when entering the room, you literally have to catch your breath. Titian, the greatest of the masters of the Venetian Renaissance, referred to these paintings, commissioned by King Philip II of Spain, as poetry (poems) and each depicts a different scene from Ovid’s Metamorphosis stories.

Danaë (1551-1553) was the first that Titian completed for Philip II, and it was the only place one could start – compositional, it is the least complex of the six, the seductive start to Titian’s feast. Much of what fascinates us about this painting is Danaë’s reclining pose as she receives Jupiter in the form of a golden shower, which a shriveled old maid tries to catch with her shawl. There is here a play between concealment and revelation that runs through the six masterpieces.

On the one hand, Danaë seems to be inconspicuously concealing herself by bringing her right leg slightly to the left – but of course, in doing so, she precisely catches our attention there. Giorgio Vasari writes that he and Michelangelo visited Titian’s studio one day in 1546 where they saw an earlier interpretation of Danaë. After their departure, Buonarroti “did not congratulate him a little”, but lamented the shame that the Venetians did not learn to “draw well from the start”. Titian’s wives are certainly not Michelangelo’s wives, who, as John Berger points out, look more like men in transvestites. Titian is perhaps the first great painter of flesh as flesh, in all its insanely elusive and unfathomable carnality.

In the first painting, we see the female nude from the front – but in the second, we see her, in this case Venus, from the back. Venus and Adonis (1554) also deal with hiding and showing, having and not having, and how these intermingle dialectically. Venus tries to prevent Adonis from leaving her and going on a hunt where he will be killed – gored in the privacy by a boar. But in the end, she is powerless to stop his departure – Cupid slumbers aside from the lovers, and Adonis is already on the move, presumably giving Venus one last look. But in his expression, we do not read love, nor impatience, but a kind of indifference: the gaze of a man whose mind is already elsewhere. At the same time, an otherworldly light shines from the sky above them and illuminates the distant woods where Adonis will meet his end. Maybe the light beckons him to leave, and the dogs he’s literally attached to – but it’s more likely a warning ignored.

The third painting in the series is Actaeon and Diana (1556-1559). The hapless hunter Actaeon accidentally discovered the celibate goddess Diana and her nymphs while bathing, the punishment for which he will soon be turned into a deer and hunted down, and as Ovid says, “His own dogs were sated with his blood.” (Iii, 176) The surprised Acteon has dropped her bow – an indication of her helplessness – and stands dazzled by the goddess whose icy gaze alone is worth the price of admission. finds the skull of a deer, while at Diana’s feet a pocket dog growls at the intruder; finally, in the branches above the head of the goddess hang the skins of ancient prey – together, they sum up the dark fate of Actaeon.

His accompanying painting, hanging on the right, is Diana and Callisto (1556-1559) – the curving stream that ends in the lower right corner of Actaeon and Diana continues from the lower left corner. Like the others in the series, this painting also plays with the dynamic between cover-up and reveal – in this case, it’s Callisto’s illicit pregnancy, the result of a violation by Jupiter who took on the disguise of Diana herself to put the nymph off guard. Nine months have passed, and as the chaste Diana and her nymphs undress to bathe, Callisto can no longer hide her swollen belly. This is the moment that Titian chose to represent, when Diana points an imperious finger at the ‘stunned girl’ and says, ” Get out of here! ‘ /… ‘Don’t defile this spring.’ / And with that drove her out of their company ”(II, 639-41).

Perseus and Andromeda (1554-1556) is the first of the last pair of paintings and although it has generally received less attention from critics than the others, this is an extraordinary addition one could even say of an essential element of the series. It is also the only one to present a real physical conflict, in this case between Perseus – the son of Danae and the killer of Medusa – and a formidable sea monster who will soon devour the beautiful Andromeda. In Ovid, his powerless parents consider that they have “no help to offer him, except / to cry …” (IV, 948-49). Titian chooses not to include them in the composition – instead focusing on the counterpoint between the sculptural but strangely precarious Andromeda that spans the full height of the painting, and the dynamism of Perseus that hovers above right. Obviously, the pose in the air of Perseus caused some difficulty for Titian – in his right hand he carries the “hooked sword” that Ovid relates, in his left he holds a silver shield and, according to blood on the huge mouth of the beast, the hero has already dealt a terrible blow.

The Abduction of Europe (1560-1562) is the finishing course and despite, or perhaps because of its astonishing qualities, it has come under fierce criticism in recent years. To many, it will seem arguably the most relevant today, with its themes of kidnapping, sexual violence, power and male domination. For the critics, it eroticizes and celebrates rape, and therefore has an irremediable moral vice that spoils the work as a whole. It is certainly one way of interpreting painting, but above all, far from being the only one. A great work of art is great only insofar as it can remain interpretatively open, resists finalization – and Titian was a master of aesthetic ambiguity.

The action we are witnessing is the abduction or abduction of Europe by Jupiter who took the form of a snow-white bull and takes Europe through the sea to the island of Crete. There they will establish the Minoan civilization – the ancestor of all European civilization. Europe is carried away, she does not ride the bull, but hangs on by grabbing one of its horns. Does she squeeze the phallic horn suggesting her active participation in her abduction? Even more problematic is the way it is irregularly located on the bull’s back. Her pose, awkward as it may sound, is also deeply sexualized and if it is true that “Titian laughed at the theoretical conventions of decorum in the name of erotic expression” it certainly wouldn’t come as a surprise. He is part of a long line of artists who transgress social and aesthetic conventions and thus transform painting.

Titian broke with the rules and conventions regarding composition, shaping the unity of his images instead through the use of light, air, and color. In doing so, he not only paves the way for the emergence of a new type of painting, but he creates these timeless masterpieces, these poems in painting. Their subjects may be of pagan origin, but I would dare say that only a Christian could have created them, that is, only someone who believed that God had become flesh. Because at Titian poetry the flesh is divine, something elementary and from another world, the driving force of history, the very source of love and death.

Sam Ben-Meir is professor of philosophy and world religions at Mercy College in New York.

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