Metamorphosis@The National Gallery

“Stunning,” I heard an awed viewer mutter as he left one of the darkened rooms in the Sainsbury’s Wing of the National Gallery where Metamorphosis: Titian 2012 is currently on view. Amen to that, I say. The viewer was referring to a large screen showing of the background choreography work of the Royal Ballet project accompanying the exhibition, of which I know little, but from what I saw, would blow away even a ballet-virgin like myself. Every room here holds a golden nugget of pure awe.
Upon entering the shadowy basement space, the first display is, of course, of the three Titian paintings inspired by Ovid’s stories of the moon goddess Diana in his book Metamorphosis, brought together for the first time since the 18th century, thanks to the gallery’s recent acquisitions. You may or may not be an avid fan of Venetian Renaissance art, and I can’t say that I am, but I couldn’t help feeling privy to a moment in art history when I stood in front of an event that has happened, so far, only bi-centennially.
The first painting of the three, themselves part of a series of seven, is Diana and Callisto, showing Diana and her troop of chaste nymphs discovering the pregnancy of Callisto in a flurry of breasts and bellies. Diana is not the most lenient of deities, and if Callisto’s expulsion from the group as punishment seems harsh (the poor girl was raped by Zeus, with his penchant for ravaging virgins; it’s not as if she went trawling round bars to dig up a suitor), you ain’t seen nothing yet.

The second painting is Diana and Actaeon, depicting the moment when Actaeon, on a day’s hunt, unluckily stumbles upon a naked Diana bathing. The third painting, is titled, predictably, The Death of Actaeon; no prizes for guessing what became of him. Diana turned him into a stag, and he was torn apart by his own hounds in Ovid’s version, while Titian has him both mauled and shot down by Diana in her terrifying incarnation as bowed huntress (still flashing a tit). The adjacent rooms show the responses of contemporary artists Chris Ofili, Conrad Shawcross and Mark Wallinger to the detailed, beautifully painted originals.

The Death of Actaeon

Shawcross’s single piece, Trophy, filling its room, is a haunting vision of god and man. I don’t want to describe it in too much detail, in the hope that you will get to experience it as fully as I did, knowing nothing about it beforehand. Suffice to say his mechanised Diana, as truly alien as a true deity would be, examining her spoils with a tenderness both touching and repellant, took my breath away.

Turner Prize winner Ofili is an old favourite of mine, but he’s outdone himself here. Putting aside the bluster of the elephant dung detail that he is best known for (to be fair, there was a power to seeing the raw – I won’t say sewage – material in his work), Ofili shows again that he is a master of the craft of pure paint. Kaleidoscopic colours that you could bathe in saturate the linen onto which he has re-imagined and recharged Ovid’s already highly sexualised scenes in his native Trinidad, with less classical and more to-the-point titles – Desire, Lust, The Bather. Much like Titian’s for his era, Ofili’s response to Ovid is a luscious landscape, so erotic you wonder if you are allowed to look, yet so otherworldly that it seems touched by the divine. I know I’m waxing lyrical now, but hey. I say it as I see it.

Wallinger’s installation is a more of a one-trick pony. You may have heard about dirty old men descending on the gallery to leer. The viewer can circle an entrance-less room and peer through clouded windows, before finding the eye-level peepholes that allow a view of a real, live naked woman bathing in a contemporary bathroom. Momentarily titillating, perhaps more so if you’re a man, the point is obvious; we become Actaeon spying on Diana. That’s it. No, really, that’s it.  Where’s the deity? Where’s the danger? Where’s the punishment? I had a good look and I didn’t grow antlers. Wallinger guarantees himself headlines without actually creating anything particularly artful.

The costumes designed by the artists are on show, but the link between these and the art is tenuous at best. They are, quite rightly, more equipt to dress spaces than the human body. The set designs the  for the ballet, also by the artists, shown in miniature, are much more successful.  Shawcross’ Diana assumes a monstrous scale, Ofili’s lush tropical forest practically vibrates and Wallinger manages a mirrored lunar landscape of cold curves to reflect the moon as Diana’s own territory.

Where this exhibition accomplishes its aim, it does indeed reinvent, and so metamorphose, Ovid’s classical tale, and through his, Titian’s, into something as timelessly intriguing as trespass itself. What’s left to say? To put it simply, “Stunning.”

Metamorphosis: Titian 2012 runs until 23rd September

Keep up with my blog: follow me on Twitter @bitesizedmary

About Mary-Claire W

Writer, reader and art fiend View all posts by Mary-Claire W

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