Titian 'Metamorphosis' at the National - review

July 9 2012

Image of Titian 'Metamorphosis' at the National - review

Picture: BG

I'm not sure what to make of this new exhibition at the National Gallery, but here goes. The show begins with the Gallery’s two newly acquired Titians, Diana & Actaeon, and Diana & Callisto, together with the Gallery’s Death of Actaeon, also by Titian. This is the first time all three paintings have been hung together since the 18th Century. The pictures are beautifully lit, and look every penny’s worth of their £95m price. The specially constructed room is a triumph – one feels like a Spanish grandee at the court of Philip II, seeing the paintings for the first time. 

To help us understand what the rest of the exhibition is all about, here’s what the Gallery's blurb says:

‘Metamorphosis: Titian 2012’ – featuring new work by contemporary artists Chris Ofili, Conrad Shawcross and Mark Wallinger in a unique collaboration with The Royal Ballet.

This multi-arts project, part of the Cultural Olympiad's London 2012 Festival, will draw on the powerful stories of change found in Titian’s masterpieces, revealing how these spectacular paintings continue to inspire living artists.

A multi-faceted experience celebrating British creativity across the arts, ‘Metamorphosis: Titian 2012’ brings together a group of specially commissioned works responding to three of Titian’s paintings – Diana and Actaeon, The Death of Actaeon and the recently acquired Diana and Callisto – which depict stories from Ovid’s epic poem ‘Metamorphoses’.

If you think this reads as if someone wrote the exhibition proposal by cramming in as many creative buzzwords they could think of, and then tried to make it relevant to the Olympics, you’d probably be right. The exhibition feels like that too. I bet it sounded great on paper, all those years ago when people were wondering what the hell a ‘Cultural Olympiad’ actually was. 

But in practice the exhibition doesn’t entirely work; like Churchill’s famous pudding, it has no theme. For a start it’s in the wrong place. It just isn’t possible to achieve a ‘multi-faceted arts experience’ in the Sainsbury Wing exhibition space, which is designed to show paintings, and that’s all. Much of the exhibition is supposed to be about the relationship between the Titians and the new performances. But since the performances are mainly over in Covent Garden we’re reduced instead to mere snippets. You get a few costumes from the shows, some curious footage from the dance rehearsals (such that you can’t see any of the dancing, only close-ups of as many ballerina buttocks and breasts the director thought he could get away with), three very small models of the stage designs, and three equally small screens that repeat the Covent Garden performances. Really, the exhibition should have been put on at Covent Garden itself, and the Titians left upstairs in the National's main galleries. 

The additional exhibits include a series of large paintings by Chris Ofili . These I liked very much, with their obvious neo, neo-classical inspiration. That man can really paint, and (rarest of all these days) also draw. Then there’s a robot with a light that wiggles around a wooden antler (this is by Conrad Shawcross)*. And finally there is an exceedingly dark room, in which is placed a small cubicle with a door and a window. You are invited to look into the cubicle through either a keyhole in the door or a tiny slit in the window. Inside is a naked woman having a bath. This is an installation by Mark Wallinger, and the idea is that the viewer feels like Actaeon surprising Diana in her bath. To be honest, it makes you feel like a bit of a pervert. But perhaps Actaeon was a pervert, and that’s why Diana had him killed.

Broken down into its constituent parts, the exhibition is entertaining enough. Its saving grace is that it is free; nobody will emerge feeling underwhelmed by what has been billed as the National Gallery’s major event of the year. I’m sure the Titian-inspired performances at the Royal Ballet will be a great success, and it is to be applauded that the National Gallery (and their sponsor Credit Suisse) has commissioned them. But these could still have happened without this slightly laborious exhibition. After all, if the National Gallery had really wanted to do its bit for London during the Olympics, it should simply have put on one of its regular first-class exhibitions.

Closes 23rd September. See images from the exhibition here

* I'm told this is called a 'kinetic sculpture'.

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