Metamorphosis Titian 2012 is a unique collaboration between National Gallery and the Royal Ballet that celebrates British creativity across art forms like painting, sculpture, conceptual art, dance and poetry.
The body of work of contemporary artists like Chris Offily, Conrad Showcross and Mark Walling, together with a group of choreographers, composers and poets have been invited to take part and respond to three paintings by Titian: Diana and Callisto, Diana and Actaeon and the Death of Actaeon.
In his visualization of these mythological subjects, Titian was inspired by the Roman poet Ovid’s epic work Metamorphosis. This is Ovid most ambitious book compared with the works of Virgil and Homer with the only difference in his writing style being that he doesn’t just tell the stories of his heroes but moreover he uses a theme that ties up all these different stories together..the theme here is transformation, change, metamorphosis.
As you enter the exhibition, one is overwhelmed by the three impressive works of Titian that are caressed and protected by a low, dimmed light. I found it interesting that the curator have chosen to exhibit them in the first room..usually you place the piece-de-resistance at a later stage, after the viewer is led into the theme progressively throughout.
Diana and Actaeon is a wonderful visualization of an ancient story, that is about interaction between humans and gods and in the story the humans are transformed into something else as punishment. What happened is that he hunter Actaeon has been out with his dogs and on his path he has stumbled onto the bath of goddess Diana. She is recognizable in the painting by the half moon crown she is wearing. It’s quite interesting to observe that the reaction of each character in the painting is quite different. Diana is pulling back but not so much in bidding her body but definitely in hiding her face; some nymphs are looking curiously, others are going about their task in hand..but the whole scene interaction works very well together. Every character tells a story and has a distinctive reaction. The huge contrast is Actaeon, the only male in the painting that also is dressed up. This is an appealing contrast for a commission of a private room of the court of the Spanish king. There are some wonderful details with symbolism in the painting such as the skulk that helps to foretell the faith of Actaeon. Also the face of the base of the fountain is believed to be a self portrait of the painter.
The next painting is The death of Actaeon. In this painting Actaeon is still half man and half beast, the lower body is a stag and the upper body we can still recognize Actaeon. His own dogs are chasing him and started to tear him apart, he is no longer their master, he is now their victim.
The Death of Actaeon is a terrible painting–and a beautiful one, too..it fascinates, and every closer look is rewarded. Diana’s athletic body, powerful and graceful, appears to spring across the canvas like a runner caught in motion by a camera’s eye. There are wonderful small details: the jeweled bracelet on the goddess’s wrist that carries the wavy contour of the tree through her outstretched arm; the vine climbing up the tree at right, a complex symbol of life in this world of death; the way the curve of Diana’s right arm is echoed in the cloud formation above her, and the way her killing stance is nearly mirrored by Actaeon’s dying pose. And so beauty leads us once more to terror. Even Titian’s most lyrical brushwork sings the dark poetry of death.
The third painting is Diana and Callisto that portrays the moment in which Diana is discovering that one of her nymphs, Callisto has become pregnant by Jupiter. Diana’s companions where the nymphs who were known for their chastity so when Diana discovers her pregnancy she is expelled from her entourage.
The adjacent room is occupied by Conrad Showcross depiction of Diana in a modern way..so in his view she becomes an industrial robot that showing both power and vulnerability just like Diana’s dual nature that of a goddess of hunting and her condition of a beautiful female. In a glass case we see the robot with a light on the end of its wand. She is moving seductively, presiding over a single antler that she carved out of wood, a reference of the forest in which Actaeon was lost and the stag into which he was transformed.
In the next two rooms there are sets designed displayed and costumes that have been used by the Royal Opera house for their Metamorphosis ballet, and woks by artists Chris Ofili, Conrad Shawcross and Mark Wallinger.
The scale and energy of Ofili’s paintings made him a natural choice for the artistic pictorial response to Titians masterpieces.
Chris Ofili, inspired by Titian’s eroticism yet replacing the lustrous white flesh with a carnival of tropical color, has painted seven semi-abstract canvases, in which one can make out various phalluses amid the lush landscapes. Perhaps wisely, he resisted the urge to take on Titian toe-to-toe with fully figurative work.
Chris Ofili makes paintings that are unsettling, beautiful, psychedelic and jam-packed – with ideas, objects, faces, references and rhythms. I found his works bold, well balanced chromatically and full of symbolism.
The wild card of the exhibition is in the form of the unpredictable conceptual artist Mark Wallinger.
Turner Prize-winning artist Mark Wallinger took to Twitter to find six women, all called Diana, willing to take turns to be spied upon by the public while they sit naked in a mocked-up bathroom.
His room is in complete darkness. As you fumble your way around, eventually you become aware that at the centre of the space is a room within a room, a second structure. You feel your way around it, and finally you find a window. The glass is opaque, but a corner of it is broken, and you place your eye against it. You can see into a bathroom. Draped in an armchair, or soaping herself in the bath, or cleaning her face at the mirror, is a naked woman caught in a live act. As you move around the outside of the room, you find other apertures: you stoop down to look through a keyhole, or peer through a chink in Venetian blinds. It is an utterly strange experience that turns the visitor into a voyeur.
Wallinger cutely updates the Actaeon tale for a 21st-century society of Big Brother voyeurism.
Wallinger said: “Diana is about watching and being caught in the act and evolved out of my desire to find a way of representing Diana bathing in a contemporary way.”
“The myth of Diana and Actaeon is the ultimate fable about voyeurism,” said Wallinger. “There is an extraordinary savagery with which Actaeon is dispatched and given a deadly metamorphosis. My purpose was to make that contemporary in the context of Titian and the National Gallery. This building, after all, is all about the history of the male gaze and the female nude.”
The responds of the contemporary artists do pretty well under the circumstances. But traditionalists will lament why an institution blessed with unrivalled painterly riches from the 13th to 19th centuries thinks it needs gimmicky projects like Metamorphosis: Titian 2012 to make it relevant in the 21st.