Metamorphosis: Titian 2012

Metamorphosis: Titian

(National Gallery, London, until today)

Sometimes I get it wrong. Sometimes I jump to conclusions about what I will or won’t like and almost do myself out of the chance to see something interesting. This exhibition has been on since July, as an Olympic-related arts collaboration, and yet I hadn’t troubled to take a short bus journey to Trafalgar Square to see it. This is largely because I thought the point of the show was to reinterpret Titian’s paintings and, to be honest, I like Titian just as he is. In fact, having done my MA on Titian, I was rather annoyed at the implication that contemporary artists were somehow making him more relevant by transforming his works. However, I hold up my hands: I misunderstood.

Titian is the excuse for the exhibition, in the form of his reunited trio of poesie: the Diana and Actaeon, the Diana and Callisto and the later, perhaps unfinished Death of Actaeon. Having recently purchased the pair of Diana paintings for the nation, the Gallery no doubt wants to show them off to the world, and rightly so. But it isn’t Titian who is reinterpreted by the artists, choreographers and poets who’ve taken part in this show. It’s his source-material: Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

The exhibition is cleverly laid out. The three Titians hang in a central hall, which is the first room you enter and which is connected to the other rooms around its circumference. While exploring the modern art and dance, you can constantly drift back in, comparing these interpretations with Titian’s. The paintings are very well lit, so that the figures have an added weight and three-dimensionality; and to see them in a relatively small space gives a feel for what Philip II’s cabinet might have been like: a tumult of blue and red and burnished golden skin. Striking off into the surrounding rooms, you find the contemporary artists’ interpretations of the same story (the artists and choreographers stuck to the theme of Diana and Actaeon, although at least one of the poets explored Callisto’s metamorphosis).

Wallinger: Diana

Mark Wallinger, Diana, art installation (detail)

The installation that has caused the most controversy (or anticipation?) is Mark Wallinger’s Diana. You enter a pitch-black room with a boxed-in area in the centre. Moving around the perimeter of this box, you see sudden openings – a frosted glass window with a broken pane at the upper right corner, which was too high for me to look through; another frosted panel; and then two tiny pin-holes, pierced invitingly at eye-level. Of course you’re meant to look inside. Nevertheless, the darkness all around means that you feel the sense of trespass, very keenly. If another visitor suddenly comes round the corner, you have to fight the urge to jump away, as if caught in the act. Peering through the tiny holes, you begin to piece together fragments: the interior of this large box has been set up as a bathroom, and there’s a woman – a nude woman – in the room, oblivious to your presence (that’s the conceit, anyway). Wallinger’s idea is playful, even more so when you realise that all the women taking part in this installation are allegedly called Diana. My Diana was engaged in the satisfying mundane task of painting her nails.

Chris Ofili has contributed a cycle of vividly colourful paintings which explore different themes within the Metamorphoses. His compositions, which melt and blend and transform, are based around Ovid’s central argument that all metamorphoses grow out of ungovernable lust. In Ofili’s vibrant world, men are undone by their desire and triumphal female figures brandish severed phalli on high. I enjoyed his paintings more than I’d expected to, mainly because I understood the stories they were trying to tell. In the end, though, I actually liked his costume designs more – each of the three contemporary artists was also invited to contribute costumes and set designs for one of the three new pieces being commissioned for the Royal Ballet. Ofili’s costume for Diana was a startling red bodysuit, with an over-mantle of bristling petal shapes which darkened from white to dark blue. It looked super on the mannequin in the exhibition – when I saw it on a ballerina on film, later, it made her look like some bizarre, androgynous blend of Titania and the Queen of the Night.

Shawcross: Trophy

Conrad Shawcross, Trophy, art installation, 2012

Anyway, I digress. The third contemporary artist in the show was Conrad Shawcross. His Trophy is a large articulated robot, whose arm gyrates languidly within its case, a piercing light beaming from the tip of its arm. Opposite is an antler carved from wood, over which the beam of light plays. I can frankly say that I’d expected to dislike this piece. And yet, standing in front of it, I found that it made sense. Diana is represented by this intricate, elegant, inhuman mass of metal, looming over the fragile antler which represents Actaeon. She is a primal, eternal force, too detached from petty mortality for her actions to be malevolent or benevolent; she simply is. Her light – her gaze? – moves over the antler. At first it seems to be a gentle exploration, a caress; but then you think that, if this light were a laser, it could equally gently be stripping the antler into pieces. It was a surprisingly moving interpretation of the myth and the robot’s movements are hypnotic; you find yourself staring at it for much longer than you’d expected to.

Films and models in the other rooms report the development of the three ballets, although I wasn’t always able to tell which of the choreographers was working on which project. A film of rehearsals gave us snippets of beautiful images – a group of bathing nymphs suddenly transfixed on tiptoe at the sound of an intruder; Diana overpowering Actaeon in a gender inversion of the usual pas de deux; and, which I found most impressive, Actaeon’s pack of hounds turning on him as he falls beneath Diana’s spell. I’d hoped there might be more footage of the final ballets so that I could see how the rehearsals and designs had come together and, although there were a few clips in the exhibition cinema, it still didn’t convey the full power of the performances. In a way, I’m surprised there wasn’t a DVD in the shop (maybe there had been; maybe they’d all sold out). Also showing in the little cinema were some clips of the poets reading their work. Of those I saw, Patience Agbabi’s was the most affecting. She tells the story of Actaeon from the point of view of Diana’s black attendant, crouching behind the goddess in Titian’s painting, but her poem is also a very clever structural play on ideas of metamorphosis and reconfiguration.

It was certainly something a little different for the National Gallery and, considering it was free to enter, there was plenty of food for thought. I’m glad I had the chance to see it, and I’d be interested to hear your thoughts if you managed to go along.

Diana and Actaeon

A glimpse of the final ballet, Diana and Actaeon, with choreography by Scarlett/Tuckett/Watkins, at The Royal Ballet © Johan Persson

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