LOVE DEATH AND DESIRE
Titian’s Six Masterpieces reunited after over 400 years
In early March this year, I was looking forward to going to see the National Gallery’s much anticipated Titian exhibition Love Death and Desire. The great Italian Renaissance painter’s six masterpieces painted for King Philip II’s private pleasure were sold off after his death and this exhibition was set to reunite them in one room for the first time in over 400 years.
Before I got there, pandemic hit and the exhibition closed after only three days. Thanks no doubt to a lot of anxious and dedicated arts curators and galleries, the paintings were allowed to wait together until we could go back in. This has now happened and the show will remain at the National Gallery until January 2021. After then it will travel to Boston and Madrid. Don’t miss it.
I booked tickets for 10th August and joined nine other people for our own very exclusive social-distanced viewing. We were honorary Kings of Spain, alone for a couple of delicious hours with these magnificent paintings. I hope, or do I, that the, not always very cheerful monarch who ordered the Spanish Armada got as much pleasure from them as we did.
Titian, or Tiziano Vecelli (c.1488/90 – 1576), was a favourite painter of Charles V (1500 – 1558) Holy Roman Emperor, King of Spain, and Philip’s father. When the old Habsburg emperor retired to a monastery and then died, the relationship between great artist and Europe’s most powerful monarch continued as young Prince Philip became King Philip II of Spain.
These rather grumpy portraits of Charles and Philip, show them as surprising enthusiasts for one of the most erotically-charged painters not only of the Renaissance but of any period. Titian, who looks pretty grumpy too in his self-portrait, had an instinct for putting sensuality into his work.
The National Gallery isn’t being sensationalist calling the show Love Death and Desire. All of these words are writ large in these late, so-called Poesie (poems) .
Titian was the master sensualist painter. Charles and Philip must have enjoyed having his provocative, but also philosophical work, hanging in their private rooms. Titian called the set of paintings for Philip, Poesie because he wanted to use painting as a visual form of poetry, expressing emotion and meaning through image and colour – sometimes verging on early predictions of abstract art and even Cubism.
In the self-portrait of himself as the old man who painted these works, we see the image of the profound artist, the famous man who was, to his mind, the equal of kings as well as his fellow artists. He was, as we can see in the Poesie paintings, exploring his own mature originality rather than merely following royal fashion.
His younger self-portrait gives us a clue to his intense sensitivity and, yes, sensuality. This is a young man who had felt the pleasures and pain of love and desire and possibly death too. We are lucky that this young man lived into his eighties or even nineties, his birth date is uncertain, still at work developing his inspiration and adding new levels of subtlety and ambiguity to his art. He was still at work when he and his son succumbed to the plague in 1576.
King Philip II (1527 – 1598) looks all too human in the troubled portrait of him in his early twenties. He’s a young Actaeon, perhaps, who sees more than he understands. Here is the young prince known for his passionate and voluptuous interest in women. The elderly Titian knew Philip well and understood his desires and frustrations.
The Poesie paintings were, lavish studies of the nude, designed for Philip’s private apartments. They were not exactly the kind of soft porn posters seen on the walls of modern adolescent males, but, amongst their many meanings, their sexual allure is unmissable. The king’s prudish descendants were responsible for selling off the paintings separately after his death. It is only this year that they have been brought back together again so that we, like Philip, can enjoy them in the same room, as they were intended.
The six paintings, based on stories from classical mythology were conceived as a set with underlying themes of, as the National Gallery, calls them, love, death and desire, and also, of course, about the impact of the gods on their playthings, human beings. Maybe there were lessons here for the King. Royal power, uncontrolled, includes the power to destroy, Titian warns. The crown should be worn with wisdom and compassion.
The first of the Poesie is Danaë, the story, like most of the six, is based on one from the Roman poet Ovid (born 43 BC) in his Metamorphoses, where the princess is locked in a tower by her father, Arcas, the King of Argos, to prevent her having a child. The famously randy god Jupiter can’t be kept out. He appears as a shower of gold which descend from heaven and impregnate her with the baby who would become the hero, Perseus. It is quite clear what Danaë thinks about this. Her face is a mix of fear, anticipation and desire as the gold descends into her opened thighs and her fingers and toes tighten on her silky sheets. She has become one of the most famous and influential nudes in art history., reappearing in, for example, the work of Goya and Manet.
Danaë’s maid, an older woman, tries to catch some of the gold in her shawl – maybe because they are gold or, possibly, because they are the god’s potent juices which might have the power to restore her own youthful beauty.
The picture is smaller than the others because the top part was cut off after Philip’s time. Luckily there is a Netherlandish copy showing that in the original painting Jupiter was seen in the sky with his symbol, the eagle, also a symbol of the Habsburg empire. The eagle may have appealed to Philip, but it looks awkwardly stuck on and, thus, maybe, the next owners of the painting made an aesthetic decision to cut it. Certainly, without the god, the golden shower has an abstract subtlety that, like Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, holds more power, rather than less, in its truncation.
The second painting, Venus and Adonis, is also a tale from Ovid and it also tells of the dangers of love between gods and humans. Venus, the goddess of love, has sustained an accidental injury when she was grazed by one of Cupid’s darts. The result was her falling in love with the handsome young huntsman, Adonis, who, even in his own opinion, was more handsome than the gods. Cupid is seen sleeping idly under a tree while Venus pleads with her lover not to go hunting.
He is bursting with confidence and pulls away from her as she swivels her body to pull him back. We can tell by his hunting dogs that danger is afield. The dog on the right can smell blood – it will be Adonis’ – as darkening clouds begin to blot out the blue sky.
Adonis has the muscular body of a young man but also the innocently arrogant face of a child. He pulls one way while Venus pulls the other in Titian’s version of a tug-of-love. Her naked body is displayed, almost both front and back, simultaneously, pre-echoing Cubism, and challenging the limitations of a two-dimensional canvas. Her pose, swivelling provocatively on her seat, legs splayed, buttocks squeezed, is the very image of frustrated passion after what appears to have been an equally impassioned sexual encounter.
There is another innocent young man in the next picture, Diana and Actaeon, which is also taken from a story by Ovid. Diana is the goddess of chastity as well as being goddess of hunting. Actaeon is another of those handsome young huntsmen whose bodies have grown up quicker than their brains. He is out hunting for stags when he is separated from his friends and stumbles onto the scene of the naked goddess bathing with her equally nude ladies-in-waiting. The young man’s expression shows his amazement, his confusion but, also, his fear. If you study Diana’s expression, you can see why. Never has the female nude shown such imperious anger. His fate is sealed in this brief but dramatic moment. He is about to be turned into a stag and then devoured by his own hunting dogs. A punishment much too severe for the young man’s accidental act of trespass. Monarchs beware, Titian says, one day you too will be judged for your acts of cruelty. The brutal reality of being torn apart by hounds, would not have been lost on hunt-loving King Philip II.
Diana is at it again in the next painting, Diana and Callisto, usually seen as the second half of a pair with the Actaeon picture. It shows one of the dramatic highlights from Ovid’s tale of the unfortunate nymph Callisto. She is another of Diana’s ladies-in-waiting. She has been raped and impregnated by the god Jupiter. Yes, him again. Her pregnancy is exposed in the most demeaning and cruel manner when she is stripped and forced to join the other bathers in their nudity before Diana expels her from her court.
The painting has suffered over time and, unfortunately Callisto’s face is the most damaged, but not so much that we can’t identify her agony as she is stripped and exposed in front of her cruel judge.
Callisto’s child by Jupiter grew up to be Arcas, King of Argos, the same king, as in the first picture, who locked up his daughter Danaë where she too was to experience Jupiter’s sexual passion. Arcas, like Actaeon and Adonis, was also an enthusiastic huntsman and when Callisto is turned into a bear, she became the oblivious King Arcas’ intended prey before Jupiter relents and turns them both into constellations of stars – Ursa Major ( the Great Bear) and Arctophylax (The Herdsman).
The drama of the scene, as in many of Titian’s works is not lessened by the use of the nude figures as a variety of innovative experiments in depictions of the human body that will have consequences later in the works of, amongst others, Rubens, Cézanne and even Picasso.
The next picture, Perseus and Andromeda, also draws on a story from Ovid. This time it is Perseus, the son of Danaë and Jupiter begotten in that golden shower, who is also therefore the grandson of Arcas, King of Argos and nephew of poor Callisto, who, by now, is shining from the night sky as a constellation of stars and, believe it or not, he was also the grandfather of Hercules.. Titian portrays him as a youthful hero with superhero characteristics as he plunges from the sky to free a damsel in distress and to kill the threatening monster.
Andromeda had the same problem with the gods as unfortunate Adonis. Her mother claimed that her daughter was more beautiful than the already very beautiful Nereids (the sea nymphs) and being more beautiful than the gods is never a good thing. Andromeda, naked, of course, is chained to a rock as a tasty morsel for the local sea monster. Perseus happens to be passing and sees this beautiful woman and, as in all such stories, immediately falls in love with her and kills the monster. He became one of the superstar monster-slayers of classical myth after his famous killing of Medusa, she of the serpent hair and the killing look. Perseus’ polished shield, that mirrored Medusa’s death look back on her, is here used to in the attack on the monster.
Monsters, threatening clouds, rough seas and chains are combined as dark contrasts to the highly vulnerable Andromeda’s white skin. She shines out from her background of black rock. She dominates one side of the canvas. The other side is bisected by the diving hero who is as over-dressed in yellow and pink, as Andromeda is naked. He is also as athletically active as she is passively helpless. The world of classical gods, as Titian tells us, our world, is a dangerous place when the elements turn nasty.
Andromeda demonstrates that Titian never tires of finding interesting and provocative ways of posing his nudes. She is allowed to turn her captivity into a sensuous dance of seduction, even a table dance, for her young rescuer’s benefit. Perseus has the look of another Adonis or Actaeon, an impetuous and muscled youth. His fate was brighter than their’s. He actually got to marry Andromeda and live happily with her, if not ever after, for a very long time.
In the last of these six pantings, The Rape of Europa, Titian gives us frolicking cherubs who are even more airborne than Perseus. They are excited to see the fun going on beneath them in the sea. Another mischievous cherub is riding a dolphin in imitation of the main action. Jupiter, yes, him, disguised as a bull, abducts the princess, Europa. The cherubic observers might find it fun in the way that Cupid enjoys playing with human emotions, but this is serious business. The bull is stealing the alarmed princess and taking her across the sea to Crete where her rape will lead to the birth of a baby, Minos.
He will become the first king of Crete. Thus founding the long and often bloody history of Europe, the continent named after the unfortunate Europa. In Titian’s time, and so often since, Europe was a turbulent place dominated by its most powerful monarch, Philip, King of Spain.
Jupiter’s bull is a beautiful garlanded creature who beguiles Europa and persuades her to go for a ride on his back. She is expecting the kind of pleasure that I used to enjoy on a seaside donkey-ride. Once she mounts the beautiful beast, the awful truth dawns and she clings onto the bull for her life as she’s carried away, followed by a menacing sea monster, reminiscent of the one in the Perseus and Andromeda painting.
To suit Titian’s plan for all six paintings, Europa is wearing the loosest of revealing dresses which offers her body very little cover. This is the kind of clothing you could call the new naked. While the cherubs frolic, Jupiter looks round. We see just one of his eyes. It shows the god’s ambivalent emotions. Is that look lustful and yet fearful? Is he looking at us, incriminating us, and, maybe Philip too?
These ambiguities are exactly why the paintings were designed as poetry where not everything is as it seems. If King Philip II was meant to learn lessons from the Poesie, then maybe he was meant to recognise the moral as well as political responsibilities and dangers in ruling an empire. We too can see ourselves in the writhing body of Europa as she is dragged against her will into what looks like chaos.
A seventh painting, The Death of Actaeon, was never a part of the six Poesie. It is included in the exhibition because there is documentary evidence that Titian had planned to include it in the series but then either changed his mind or never got round to it in time before his career took him elsewhere. The ageing and increasingly experimental artist produced one of his most memorable works in this weirdly disturbing picture with its muted brown and burnt orange tones and the extreme economy of the brushwork.
The hunting dog behind Diana, if it is Diana, has blurred legs which highlight the speed of its movement. Merely hinted at too is the shadowy figure of the disappearing horseman seen in the distance through silhouetted tree trunks and the shimmering abstractions of foliage. Actaeon himself, in mid-transformation from living human into dead stag, is at the moment of his gruesome death, is painted in an almost sketchy style. His legs, sprouting fur are merely hinted at in a scene that is a minimalist paraphrase of a catastrophe in a moment of flashing imagery.
Diana, the goddess of hunting, is deprived of the string for her bow and even an arrow. Has it already sped away towards her prey? She is over-dressed compared to the female forms in the other pictures but her right breast is revealed. Maybe is was because the picture was meant for Philip’s private rooms, or just because this is a Titian. The exposed breast is made the centre of attention, a symbol, as in Europa’s picture, of the nude barely hidden beneath a dress that ripples with the speed of the action. That breast is a reminder of what Actaeon has seen and what the sight has cost him.
The ferocious goddess of chastity is also a relentless hunter and here, she is sending one last and redundant arrow into the savaged body of hapless Actaeon. We are all warned, I think. Beware of the gods and other powers-that-be in a world where danger is real and life itself can be lost in a flickering moment.
We will probably never know what Philip thought as he gazed at these paintings in his private room. I wonder if he understood Titian’s implied messages in these painted poems.
As the king grew older, maybe pressures of state weighed him down with anxiety and disappointment. Ageing may have led to the realisation that his youthful passion and hope for the love of a woman had been left unfulfilled by dead wives and dethroned mistresses. He may have taken some comfort from Titian’s great parade of nudes, but he would also have seen their warnings. No matter how great the ruler, under the trappings of state, and no matter how who thrilling the passions of youth, we are all as vulnerable as Actaeon and Callisto – whoever we are, our destiny is not in our own hands and our lives share the same ending.