“Gods don’t answer letters.” John Updike
Anyone looking for proof that we mortals are the playthings of the gods has two routes to stride down in the search for evidence. The first route, what we might call the brutal route, is to turn on the news. It’s like waking up in a piece of science fiction. Except that it isn’t science fiction.
The second way, what we might call the sophisticated or escapist way, would be to savour the remarkable Titian display at the National Gallery, which most of us lovers of Renaissance art never believed we would see in our lifetimes.
Between 1553 and 1562 Titian produced a series of paintings for Philip II of Spain, initially when Philip was still a prince, and then when he became king. The series, known as Titian’s Poesies, described various mythological escapades between gods and mortals in which the mortals invariably come off worst.
Most of the storylines come from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, so there’s lots of sex, nudity and desire. While out hunting, Actaeon glimpses the naked Diana at her bath, and dies. Venus falls in love with the handsome mortal Adonis, and Adonis dies. Zeus lusts after the Cretan princess Europa, and abducts her. He also lusts after the Greek princess Danae, and impregnates her, while disguised as a shower of gold. Cassiopeia annoys Poseidon, so Poseidon sends a sea monster to devour her beautiful daughter, Andromeda. In picture after picture, the gods can be seen exerting their terrible power over the rest of us, like an Olympus full of Harvey Weinsteins.
But you would have to be an especially insentient puritan, or a rock-hard Mary Beardist, to miss the larger and more noble truth that Titian is seeking to convey. Yes, there’s tons of nudity, but the big message — if you tamper with the divine order of things, you come off worst — is delivered with wisdom, not prurience; with the glow of genius, not the throb of lust.
Where to start? It’s all transfixing. Chief among Titian’s cornucopia of talents was a wonderful ambition to humanise the gods, to present them to us in a pictorial language that speaks to the hearts of mortals. You see it immediately in the beautifully observed half-turn of Venus as she tries to persuade the handsome Adonis not to go on the hunt that morning. She knows he is fated to die, attacked by a wild boar. So she clings to him with the desperate love of a mother whose son is going to war.
Actaeon has also been hunting when he accidentally stumbles across Diana’s secret bathing place and catches her naked. Diana is the goddess of the moon: moody, mercurial, prone to anger. The look she shoots across the glade at the unfortunate Actaeon could down an elephant at 100 paces. Her punishment for his trespass is to turn him into a deer. A couple of pictures along, in the last of the Poesies to be finished, she kills him while Actaeon’s dogs jump on their master to tear him apart.
It’s savage stuff. And there are times in the affairs of man when this much divine darkness may have appeared far-fetched. But this isn’t one of them. As an effort to paint the cracks in the pavement of fortune, to give the fickleness of fate a recognisable form, the Poesies are in a league of one.
Although they form a series, they were never intended for a single location. Philip was not yet settled in a particular palace, and what is certainly untrue is that they were intended for his private delectation and would have hung, for instance, in his bedroom. Delivered in dribs and drabs over more than 20 years, these magnificent Titians, widely recognised as among the most important of all Renaissance commissions, would never have hung together — until now. The fact that the National Gallery has somehow succeeded in getting them into one room is genuinely startling.
The Rape of Europa has come from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Venus and Adonis has come from the Prado in Madrid. Perseus and Andromeda has come from the Wallace Collection in London; this is the first time any painting from the Wallace has been loaned to anywhere. Three of the other pictures are either from the National’s collection, or part of the excellent time-share that was organised in 2009 with the Scottish National Gallery. This is a big deal. And the diplomacy involved in organising it would weigh in at many Henry Kissingers.
Philip was in his twenties when he commissioned the first of the paintings. Titian was in his sixties. So among the many extraordinary things that occur in the Poesies is a thunderous meeting of ages. A callow king, with notoriously libertine tastes, is being served by a venerable genius, one of the greatest of all painters, who is bringing his wisdom to bear on a set of subjects that could, in other hands, be considered mere titillation.
How these rich narratives are implied rather than described, the way the actions unfold, is a lesson from which every video artist in the world could profit. The storylines are developed with eloquent poses and brilliantly captured expressions, with inspired symbolic conflations and fabulous Renaissance details. We know from Venus’s nudity and the jumble around her feet that she and Adonis have spent the night making love as he sets off, so rashly, for his fatal hunt. We know from the miraculous shaft of light hitting the hillside beyond exactly where his death will occur. Great art does not require big lumps of time to complete its dramas.
And I urge you as well to notice what a skilled painter of flesh Titian is. Every nude here — and there are a lot of them, I grant you — has been recorded with beautifully observed precision. See how the morning light plays across the musculature of Venus’s naked back; how Andromeda, chained to a rock before the sea-monster, is as wispy and leggy as an Olympic high jumper; how Europa, carried off into the sea by Titian’s absurdly jolly bull, is so contrastingly fleshy, the cellulite on her thighs, recorded with a verisimilitude that is more Rubens than Raphael.
The Poesie commission was so lengthy that the artist who starts it is not the artist who finishes it. As he passes from 60 to 70 to 80, Titian can be seen changing tone. The first of the pictures to be delivered to Philip, Danae being pleasured by Zeus, is the most erotically charged. Sprawled on her back while the shower of gold sprinkles down on her thighs, Danae tugs at a kerchief as if looking for something with which to wipe herself. But how grim and reluctant is her mood. With what resignation she responds to the rape.
Interestingly, the National Gallery has decided that the version of picture from the Wellington Collection in Apsley House is the one that was sent to Philip, and not the one in the Prado, as is more usually assumed. At some point, the Wellington picture has been cut down and it is now the most battered of the images.
The last painting in the series, the Death of Actaeon, completed in 1575 when Titian was in his eighties, is endearingly wonky. Actaeon, half-man, half-deer, is being bitten cruelly by his dogs. Every atom of erotic charge has disappeared. All that’s left is fleeting shadows and dappled woods.
As I said, it’s all about humanity. The humanity of the gods. And Titian’s own.
Titian: Love, Desire, Death is at the National Gallery, London WC2, until January 17, 2021