Art: Catch him if you can

    Like most laws, however, the law of immutable dips in fortune has some exceptions. I can think of two, and only two, artistic giants who have never suffered any meaningful interruption in their esteem. The first is Michelangelo, a force of nature so crashingly great that you can no more ignore him than an island in the Pacific can ignore a hurricane. It’s undoable. The second is Titian. During his own lifetime, kings and emperors begged for his work. He was the most widely fêted and internationally prominent artist in Europe. Since his death, in 1576, his great glow has remained entirely untarnished. Why is that? To find out, hurry to the National Gallery. The spectacular array of Titians unveiled here this week is, picture for picture, touch for touch, the highest quality selection of old masters to arrive in Britain for two decades, since The Genius of Venice at the Royal Academy in 1983. In truth, it’s probably a finer selection than that. There are only 42 paintings in it. But 30 of these are Titian blue chips; as good as Titian gets.

    The selection spans his entire career and functions, therefore, as a divine précis of a life that was not only one of art’s best, but also one of its longest. Titian survived to be 90 or so. Only Michelangelo and, more recently, Picasso have matched his great age. The gods singled him out to keep going and going and going, and he repaid them by never ceasing to progress. A man who lives this long, armed with this much multivalent talent, leaves others behind. To this day, we have not caught up with all of him. His late art, in particular, remains ahead of the field.

    By attempting to represent the whole of Titian with just two score paintings, this show has the interesting effect of appearing to be racing ahead with its finger on the fast- forward button. In the space of half a dozen small rooms, one of the longest careers in art has been concertinaed into compactness. Somehow Titian’s outsized achievement has been squeezed into the stoopy cellars that the National Gallery calls its basement galleries. I am usually very forgiving of exhibition spaces: art must make do with what it gets. But on this occasion I do so wish that the show courts of the National were larger, grander, less poky. His art appears often to be scraping its head on the ceiling. The big pictures, which form a surprising percentage of this display, could so clearly have done with more elbow room. But cramped or not, these are wonders.

    We start off, in about 1506, with the handiwork of a gifted teenager, a small, swarthy, typically sweet Venetian Madonna, clutching one of those impossibly cherubic infant Christs that only someone too young to have had kids of their own could imagine. She’s balancing him on a parapet, Michael Jackson style. Parapets in Renaissance art are usually there to separate the divine realm beyond from our realm. But this one is intent on signalling more than separation. Christ’s precariousness as he balances on it feels as if it prefigures his preordained downfall. Giving the parapet such an active role to play in the story line is a small act of imaginative genius. The show is packed with them.

    Some 70 years later, at the other end of Titian’s career, we travel also to the far side of Christ’s life with an image of Pontius Pilate pushing Jesus forwards to his death in a scene that flickers on and off in the gloom like a spluttering candle. They say it is an unfinished picture. But finish seems to have no part to play in the ambitions of this fearless paintwork. A shame-free octogenarian is ignoring the old rules and making up new ones, trusting to instinct, in an act of dark and wilful painterly abandonment.

    In between these two far-flung poles of his career, Titian’s art darts hither and thither, defying logic, dullness, systems, categories and orthodoxy. A lesser artist might have suffered from such brutal encapsulation. But not Titian. On the whole, his journey was towards seriousness. But the biggest arrow in his quiver was his range. He could do small and sweet or huge and bold. Reality was his thing in his portraits. Fantasy was his thing in his mythologies. Near its end, the show contains some of the starkest, darkest, tautest effects in Renaissance art. Near its beginning, Titian’s command of delightful Venetian poetry seems utterly effortless.

    The backgrounds of most of the early pictures invariably feature gorgeously sensuous stretching blue vistas of the Veneto, with little hilltop towns perched on azure mountains, in which he displays the observational talents of a real landscapist. I had a lot of fun examining his horizons and trying to spot which tiny stretches of minute spikiness in his far distance specifically and magically evoked Venice, miles away, on the other side of the lagoon. I found a couple of minuscule silhouettes that were unmistakable.

    Yet this same specialist in tiny effects could, at the centre of the show, plunge us recurrently into unreasonable oceans of flesh. The Prado has sent over its spectacular Worship of Venus, thereby exporting from Madrid to London a huge portion of the Spanish cherub mountain. How many of them are in there? Has anyone ever succeeded in counting? In other people’s art, cherubs are invariably bit players: Venus’s pink pets. Titian has given them their own unique picture to star in as what is intended to be an ablution ceremony devoted to Venus is taken over by hundreds of the little pink bleeders, gathering apples, fighting, dancing, kissing, chasing rabbits, overrunning Titian’s art like mice in a granary. What a fabulously unlikely image.

    As a portraitist, this great orchestrator of mass cinematic effects could achieve great things in entirely the opposite direction, by involving you in intimate one-on-ones with a fine array of unusually tangible sitters. I suppose he was a flatterer. Otherwise, all those kings and emperors would not have employed him. But he flattered by intensification rather than prettification. He exaggerates human presences, including his own. A couple of implacable self-portraits confront us with a bearded grouch, wiry and unsmiling, so stern I can only imagine him disapproving of his own art.

    What all this proves is that Titian had enough branches to his central talent, and lived for long enough, to offer something for everybody. He cannot go out of fashion because there is always enough left over for the next audience. Even his weaknesses have won him admirers. Michelangelo was correct to criticise Titian’s grasp of anatomy. There are, indeed, awkward figures and twists. But perfect anatomy is a clerk’s ambition. And when the recentish rediscovery of Titian’s late style ushered in a fondness for his sketchiest and bravest effects, even the occasional awkwardness of his figures felt truthful. However, as a child of today, I nominate the Danaë that has come over from Naples as the show’s most stupendous image. Okay, it’s the sexiest; these are cheap times we’re living through. A naked Danaë lies on her back, on a bed, while Zeus comes down to her as a shower of gold coins. She receives him without protest. Her fingers have tightened around a handful of sheet, and her other hand has dipped out of sight between her legs.

    All this is obviously titillatory. So my next claim will surprise you: this is an unusually liberated image of womanhood. Examine her stomach. Titian’s Danaë has lived long enough around us mortals to have developed a convincing pasta tummy. She’s fantastic. As is almost everything in this rare show.