Visual Arts Review: “Titian: Women, Myth & Power” — The Furious Force of Transcendent Artistry
By Franklin Einspruch
It’s hard to adequately describe what a momentous exhibition this is.
Titian: Women, Myth & Power in the Hostetter Gallery, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, through January 2, 2022.
It is a reunion the likes of which neither you nor your progeny of several generations are likely to see again: a cycle of paintings by Renaissance master Titian commissioned by Prince, then King, Philip II of Spain on themes drawn from antiquity via Ovid. One of these is a central canvas in the collection of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, The Rape of Europa, freshly emerged from a year of conservation by the Gardner’s own Gianfranco Pocobene. The other five paintings are the Danaë from the Wellington Collection at Apsley House in London, Venus and Adonis from the Prado in Madrid, Perseus and Andromeda from the Wallace Collection in London, and Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto from the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh. (All were painted in the 1550s or thereabouts.) The Wallace has never before loaned any work, ever, to anyone, to say nothing of its Titian. Having visited London and Madrid, the grouping arrives in Boston for its only appearance in the United States and its final one anywhere. It’s hard to adequately describe what a momentous exhibition this is.
Titian conceived of these works as poesie, poems, albeit in painted form. This implies that he thought of them not as illustrations, or not merely as illustrations, but as free-standing works, as acts of ekphrasis, though usually ekphrasis proceeds from plastic to literary art.
The paintings can be relished on their own terms, and I intend to demonstrate as much after dispensing with some unpleasantness. Here is what one writer had to say about the Rape of Europa, in which the mortal woman is carried off by Zeus in the form of a bull:
The image is powerful. But is it “beautiful?” It is when you approach it up close…. Then you step back and get the whole painting, the big picture, and it’s a harsh one, a narrative of victimized innocence, but also — even primarily? — of erotic display, detailed in Europa’s flailing limbs; in the bull Jupiter’s avid eyes; and in the figure of a dolphin-riding putto who playfully mimics Europa’s agonized pose. Add to all this the purpose of the cycle’s making — for the delectation of a world-conquering ruler who spoke of himself in Olympian terms — and you have art with a fair share of unbeautiful features.
That was written not during the Victorian era by an Anglican prelate, but this very month by Holland Cotter, one of the art critics of record at the New York Times. We have not seen the likes of this passage since John Ruskin, the 19th-century critic who — legend has it — was so prissy that the sight of his new wife’s mons veneris left him permanently unable to consummate their marriage, disdained Caravaggio’s work as “horror and ugliness and filthiness of sin” and counted him “among the worshipers of the depraved.” Pace Cotter, who betrays a similar lack of familiarity with real female bodies, Europa’s pose is about as agonized as that of Bernini’s Blessed Ludovica Albertoni.
What aroused this moralizing? The painting’s title in English. Here’s the germane Ovid in my old translation by Rolfe Humphries:
Coitus takes place proverbially off-camera. Ovid can and does rise to judgment — he attributes Apollo’s far crueler pursuit of Daphne to “Cupid’s malice,” and their story ends with her virtue intact. A different sort of situation is being described in Europa’s case. (Clinging tight to one horn, indeed — she got three sons from Zeus and was made Queen of Crete.) Alas, Latin raptus means both “rape” and “abduction,” so when the museum matter-of-factly claims that “the painting depicts the titular character’s abduction and (eventual) rape,” the former comes to us straight from Ovid. The latter only takes place in some modern person’s troubled thoughts. “Why would the Gardner present exhibitions centered around Titian’s Rape of Europa and its story of sexual violence?” the museum asks itself preemptively, before Cotter and similar types pose the question. It answers,
In presenting these exhibitions, the Gardner does not condone this violence, nor suggest that gender discrimination and sexual assault live in the annals of history alone. Rather, we ask audiences to consider what Titian’s paintings meant in their time and what they mean today, and to confront the persistent issue of sexual assault.
Cotter is appalled, more than anything else, that some powerful European man enjoyed this painting, aesthetically, heterosexually, and otherwise. He implies the same condemnation for any straight male child of Europe in the present. In that he is emblematic of the progressive culture warrior, and the museum is responding in the only way it can, knowing that it is surrounded by such people. This brings me to the curveball that I would now like to pitch at you: though sexual assault is undoubtedly a “persistent issue,” to put it meekly, the painting in this cycle that truly bears on our time is Diana and Actaeon. Ovid:
Actaeon, grandchild of the Phoenician king Agenor and nephew of Europa, innocently stumbled upon the bathing Diana. She looked around for a weapon with which to slay him. Finding none nearby — she was as unarmed as unclothed — she splashed him with water. “Those drops had vengeance in them,” sang Ovid. They transformed Actaeon into a stag, and he was ripped to pieces by his own hunting dogs. This is described in a harrowing five dozen lines of the Metamorphoses. Ovid then continues:
Ladies and gentlemen and sundry unclassifiable: I present to you the “successor ideology.” Its coiner sums it up as “authoritarian Utopianism that masquerades as liberal humanism while usurping it from within.” It includes Marcusian intolerance, cancel culture, woke activism, and racial and other identity politics as a postmodern grift. It is enforced by social media paladins, institutional bureaucrats, and infernal Departments of Human Resources around the country. The preservation of maidenhood does not adequately explain why the unintentional glimpse of Diana’s boobs warrants the death penalty. Merely, the goddess says so. It’s just how things are; you act accordingly or risk destruction. So it is with what passes for contemporary social justice. Imagine trying to explain to someone as removed from our time as ancient Greece is from ours — the year 4521, let’s say — why the University of Massachusetts-Lowell Dean of Nursing should be fired for saying that everyone’s life matters. The listener would lament your small-mindedness, and pity the victims of your “justice” just as Ovid pitied Actaeon.
Even minding your own business may bring about your doom. Silence is violence, as it is said. After hundreds of years of mens rea as a legal norm, the successor ideology has revived the idea that judgment need not account for intentions. Robin DiAngelo says as much, and Ibram X. Kendi has built a lucrative academic career on the childish notion that any marked difference in outcomes by race is evidence of racism.
Our media environment is nothing if not a large-scale argument about power, conducted via the sorry medium of gossip. All the while, cynics in positions of privilege, like Juno, let the destruction to individuals and society go on unchecked so long as they gain from it.
This atmosphere of illiberalism and terror explains the presentation of this show, rechristened from Titian: Love, Desire, Death to Titian: Women, Myth & Power upon its arrival here, so as to frame it in terms of identity. It explains why the exhibition is accompanied by a film by Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley in which “Europa is given agency and voice using sexually explicit language and imagery that purposely contrast with Titian’s erotic depictions of the female body,” and an utterly phoned-in banner designed by Barbara Kruger hanging on the exterior of the building. (It’s sad to see Kruger, a core figure of conceptual art in the 1980s and ’90s, look so washed up.) It explains why the audio guides are narrated by a smorgasbord of Not White Men. (Credit where it’s due: Steve Locke, an artist of whom I am no great fan, provided a fine commentary about the Danaë. The rest I can’t recommend.) It explains why the museum’s discussion of the exhibition includes links to the (eminently worthy, for the record) Boston Area Rape Crisis Center. The museum is trying to forestall the deadly wrath of Diana in its current form. But its striving may finally fail. As Actaeon found out the hard way, intentions are irrelevant. Purity must be preserved and no cost is too high, especially if someone else can be made to pay it.
Such efforts are presented, typically, as “contextualization.” But contextualization such as is exercised above cuts off the realm of the imagination that enabled Greek genius to begin with, the very genius with which figures like Philip and Titian longed to connect, for the sake of a project that ultimately gave us the idea that people have rights. This is not just beautiful paint hung on ugly ideas, as Cotter would have you believe. Oil painting was still a new science, humanism a new culture, and nature a newly rediscovered muse when Titian was bringing these works into existence. He was practicing a new way of living that would have been considered criminal and blasphemous only a couple of centuries earlier. Cotter claims that the cycle “raises doubts about whether any art, however ‘great,’ can be considered exempt from moral scrutiny.” But does anyone think otherwise? The question is only whether we should follow the New York Times critic as he tries to return us to an earlier age when moral scrutiny superseded aesthetic scrutiny, the former allowing the latter only in short bursts. This is art criticism for religious zealots, complete with its own ideas of blasphemy. The difference is that the Church at least has repentance and redemption in Christ, whereas the successor ideology has only dreary self-examination unto death.
Titian’s technique was a gateway to that imaginative realm. Pocobene remarks how thin the painting is. This reflects artistic surety, born not of having everything drawn out in advance — in the way that was typical of painters at the time — but of improvisational mastery and concision of execution. (You might look at these paintings in the same spirit that you might listen to Keith Jarrett.) Titian translated his vision into paint with an economy that transformed European painting thereafter. Up close, many passages appear sketchy or indistinct. But at a distance they cohere with a freshness that cannot be obtained with other methods. This is what you see when you step back to take in the whole picture, unless you have the temperament of a schoolmarm. If Titian had lived another 50 years he might have invented Impressionism, more than two centuries before the birth of Monet.
The style was controversial and patrons were not accustomed to it. For the purpose of this exhibition the Gardner has hung its Antonis Mor portrait of Mary Tudor next to a Titian portrait of Philip II, to whom she was wed, on loan from the Prado. This picture of Mary is not the finest work in the Gardner but it is one of my favorites, as a character study. She is a queen down to the marrow, with a demeanor of sharpened steel. The artist has given her a flower to hold in an attempt to soften her. She looks like she’s ready to stuff it in the viewer’s eye. At any rate, there are letters advising Mary to look at these Titians from a distance, from where they could be appreciated. Poring over every detail rendered them incomprehensible. This is hardly the only early example of artistic practice diverging from official taste — first stirrings of avant-garde consciousness — but I don’t know of an earlier one as far as European painting is concerned.
While the Europa will likely remain at the Gardner forevermore, you’ll probably never again have a chance to see it hung this low. From here you can examine the difference in edge tension between the crispness of the subject’s left calf and the orpiment drape beneath it. The resulting space between them is cavernous despite their being inches apart. This painting was widely copied, notably by Rubens, in repeated attempts to reverse-engineer the magic. The whole cycle is full of such passages. There is a dog in Diana and Callisto in which the dark outline of his head is surrounded by a lighter outline, again in a powerful space-making maneuver. The steps from dark to light to full color, in isolation, are so abstract as to evoke Charles Burchfield. As an artist friend of mine once said, it’s good that these masters finally die so that something is left for the rest of us.
Venus and Adonis from the Prado is an utter machine of composition. Venus’s thigh and the right-hand hunting dog’s foreleg form a grand triangle that peaks at Adonis’s shoulder. The tree, the spear, and the shafts of light from heaven invite the gaze upward from there. Venus’s pose is stretched beyond what you would ask a model to hold for more than 10 seconds. This too is a bold act of expression, the imminent breakage of her heart captured in the suggested breakage of her body.
Such greatness of artistic power is like water to those of us who need it. One thinks of the story of wandering Latona, who approached a pond of the Lycians to slake her thirst. “But they were churlish people,” writes Ovid, “they tried to keep her off.” The goddess begged, and asked them to consider her supplicating children — Apollo and Diana, as babes.
Latona’s curse is my curse as well. Its recipients know who they are.
While maintaining a studio practice as an artist in Boston, Franklin Einspruch is also active in art criticism, comics, and alternative publishing. His art has appeared in 19 solo exhibitions and 41 group exhibitions. He has been a resident artist at programs in Italy, Greece, Taiwan, and around the United States, and was the Fulbright-Q21/MuseumsQuartier Wien Artist-In-Residence for 2019. He has authored 223 essays and art reviews for many publications including The New Criterion and Art in America. He produces one of the longest-running blogs about visual art, Artblog.net.