Human Passion – in extremis. “Titian – Behind Closed Doors” BBC4 documentary review

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There’s nothing quite like a major Renaissance heavyweight, not to say the weighty themes of sex and death, to have people thronging into the London galleries. Just three days into its run, however, the doors closed on this intimate spectacle, Titian: Love, Desire, Death. Thankfully though, the Director of the National Gallery, Dr Gabriele Finaldi, and his curatorial team let the BBC cameras in to linger fondly over Titian’s fleshy masterpieces.

Titian wasby far the most famous artist in the world’ in his time, and the documentary tells of his commission by then Prince Philip of Spain to create a series of paintings for his forth-coming coronation in 1556. The two men met once only and Titian never received the substantial payment he was due, not least because the King had, by then, accrued huge debts running his empire.

This programme is structured around the paintings themselves, and also an introduction to a host of commentators, mainly curators, academics, and art historians; including some eccentric characters who give the documentary an entertaining flavour. European aristocratic banker, Count Alexander Fugga (whose forebears financed Philip II) – out-takes show him smoothing down his hair; American socialite, Julia Panama, who now owns Titian’s old Venetian home with her wealthy husband. She wistfully shows us her cover-shot for the first edition of Cosmopolitan, “They wanted cleavage; I had cleavage!” whilst admitting that she would only pose for Titian if she could keep her clothes on. A touching, if somewhat ahistorical fancy.

The paintings:

Between 1553 and 1559 Titian delivered a series of six erotic masterpieces to Philip II, all based on stories from the Roman writer Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Art historian Sheila Hale describes the first, Danae receiving the Golden Shower, as “one of the sexiest paintings ever painted.” The second painting, completed the following year, Venus & Adonis (1554), is described as “the most famous picture in the world” in sixteenth-century Europe. Comment follows about the contours of Venus’ famously cushioned bottom. Hale then adds delicately that Titian was quite open about his desire to make money from prints of his own paintings (indeed, our modern squeamishness about art and money is an often-unacknowledged Romantic legacy). And with no money coming from the King, who can blame him?

Detail from Diana & Actaeon (nymph): © Copyright The National Gallery, London 2020

Titian delivered his third painting, Perseus & Andromeda two years later in 1556. Then, in an extraordinary year, he completed both Diana & Actaeon, and Diana & Callisto (1559). In the first painting, Actaeon interrupts the goddess Diana bathing with her nymphs and Titan brilliantly dramatises the forbidden moment. (In a companion piece, Actaeon is torn apart by his own hounds having been transformed into a stag). In an exquisite detail, one nymph looks out from behind a stone pillar with unguarded desire at young Actaeon, caught in a moment of mutual surprise (Diana & Actaeon – above). In the second of these two paintings, Diana & Callisto, Diana discovers her nymph, Callisto, pregnant, having been raped by Jove. Titian focuses on the heart-rending moment of Callisto’s discovery before she is unjustly punished (below). “A rape victim ostracised by her peers,” is how curator Matthias Wivel describes it. But, again, the small detail of a young woman’s face suggests that Titian’s depiction of women (like Shakespeare’s) might be more complex than it seems at first glance.   

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Detail, ‘Diana and Callisto’, 1556-9 © Copyright The National Gallery London 2020

Several years later, Titian then completes the final painting in the series, The Rape of Europa in 1562. This attracts the most debate among commentators on the documentary. Mary Beard considers Ovid’s source text, and emphasises the reality of sexual assault. Europa is carried off – her right breast exposed – on the back of Jove in the shape of a young bull with a surprisingly innocent-looking face. He looks straight at us. In this painting, Europa’s own face is turned away, as though blind (see title image, above). “There is something we need to look at, see, and recognise here,” Mary Beard says, “something that will make us think harder and better and more productively about what sexual violence is.” Curator Matthias Wivel urges caution, “To demand that art be morally pure is to demand that art not do what it has always done. Art is there to make us ask questions of ourselves.”  

In his English-language version of The Metamorphoses, Tales from Ovid, the poet Ted Hughes (himself no stranger to controversy), suggests that an affinity between Shakespeare and Ovid arose from “their common taste for a tortured subjectivity and catastrophic extremes of passion that border on the grotesque.” “Ovid,” he goes on, was interested in “human passion in extremis” that “mutates into an experience of the supernatural.” So with Titian. This splendid documentary of an exhibition cruelly cut off (in a way Ovid himself might have understood), shows us Titian’s passions, 450 years on, from which we somehow can’t quite look away.       

Links, acknowledgements and references:        

“Titian – Behind Closed Doors,” BBC4: first broadcast Saturday 4 April 2020.

Ted Hughes, Tales from Ovid (Faber & Faber, 1997), Introduction, pp. viii-ix

The copyright to images used belong to the National Gallery, London. The promotional image for the exhibition Titian: Love, Desire, Death belongs to the National Gallery; the painting: Danae Receiving the Golden Rain is owned by The Museo Prado, Madrid.

Links to the paintings :

Blog content: © Benedict Gilbert 2020

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‘The darkess within; or else the light: Normal People – Television Review (May 2020):

“Pass Crow” – ‘Ted Hughes: Stronger than Death’ – documentary review (BBC4)

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