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Six paintings in search of an audience – on Titian’s poesie at the National Gallery

26 March 2020

Great artworks collapse the time between then and now. To me, one of the revelations from the gathering at the National Gallery of Titian’s six great poesie paintings – made for Philip II of Spain in the 1550s and early 1560s – has been just how vividly, as a set, they evoke man’s embeddedness in nature. Titian painted the elements to synaesthetic effect: the moistness of the air, the coolness of a brook, the roiling sea, the warmth of dawn. Fascinated by the irrational forces that drive us, in these pictures he realised more clearly than ever before that the mutability of natural form – a central concern in his main literary source, Ovid’s Metamorphoses – is mirrored in the mercurial nature of our emotional lives.

Installation view of ‘Titian: Love Desire Death’ at the National Gallery, London. Photo: © National Gallery, London

This, I think, helped me to accept that the exhibition would soon be shut, even as we were hanging the pictures. Parts of Italy were closing down to combat the Covid-19 outbreak and the predictions of exponential, worldwide contagion were already crowding our bandwidth. Several years of delicate diplomacy, scholarly enquiry and complex logistics – and many more of dreaming that this reunion might happen one day, for the first time in centuries – were coming to fruition just as they were about to be dashed by a force beyond our control. Prepared by the fatalism of the poesie – their empathetic visualisations of the dramatic twists of fortune – it almost felt natural that things were happening as they did.

Installation view of ‘Titian: Love Desire Death’ at the National Gallery, London.

Installation view of ‘Titian: Love Desire Death’ at the National Gallery, London. Photo: © National Gallery, London

The pandemic is the very definition of force majeure, and a reminder of our ever-fought and ever-losing battle with nature. To this point, as I sit in self-imposed quarantine in Copenhagen, I had not given much thought to the closure of the exhibition last week, just three days after it had opened to the public. More immediate concerns immediately took over: health, family, community. Now, however, the sad reality that we have suffered a serious setback to one of our core responsibilities as a museum – to share great art with the public – is sinking in. It is deeply disappointing, but there is some comfort in the thought that the pictures are now at least together again, for a brief moment in their history, sitting in that quiet gallery space. Plus I can take some heart in the fact that this project is a partnership and that the exhibition has a fighting chance of reaching a wider public in Edinburgh, Madrid and Boston in the year to come. And in the meantime, we are going to do our damnedest to share the poesie and what we have learned about them through the digital platforms available to us.

The Death of Actaeon

The Death of Actaeon (c. 1559–75), Titian. Photo: © National Gallery, London

Adding to the sense, at this particular moment, that time may be suspended in the encounter with art is the fact that Titian, by then an old man, died during the great plague in Venice in 1576. His son Orazio followed him within a week or so. Among the pictures left behind in the studio may have been the Death of Actaeon, the seventh poesia – a painting conceived for, but never sent to Philip and included as a kind of coda to the display at the National Gallery. It is the only picture in which Titian actually depicts one of the metamorphoses described by Ovid, showing as it does the moment when Diana, the goddess of the hunt, transforms the young hunter Actaeon into a stag and leaves him to be torn apart by his own hounds. In Titian’s rendition, the youth’s form dissolves into his sylvan surroundings, the life force of his flailing body extending through the turbulent landscape: the vitality of nature as personal oblivion.

The National Gallery, London is temporarily closed to the public due to the Covid-19 outbreak. For more information on ‘Titian: Love, Desire, Death’ (scheduled to run until 14 June) and associated digital projects, visit the institution’s website

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