Sunday, 1 July 2012

Titian: Metamorphosis

From 11 July onwards there is a terrific show of Titian at the National Gallery and, to go along with it, an anthology of poetry related to the show, Metamorphosis, with work by Patience Agbabi, Simon Armitage, Wendy Cope, Carol Ann Duffy, Lavinia Greenlaw, Tony Harrison, Seamus Heaney, Frances Leviston, Sinead Morrissey, Don Paterson, Christopher Reid, Jo Shapcott, myself, and Hugo Williams. The book is a sumptuous piece of production and carries an excellent introduction by the Director of the National Gallery, Nicholas Penny, referring particularly to Golding's translation of Ovid.

Each of us was commissioned to write a poem from the show. Many of us chose the above painting, as did I. I won't put the poem up here until the book is clear but perhaps I could talk a little about what the picture meant to me.


Titian is our greatest painter of the passions, both sexual and, later, religious. Paint is like flesh in his hands: the colour is voluptuous, the paint glows and is stirred, caressed, pinched, dabbed, blurred and  slapped into depiction. Michelangelo's passion and power - enormously ferocious divine power - is bounded in line, line being an extension of idea (there are no lines around objects, though objects have perceptible boundaries): in Titian there is no line and even boundary is close to collapse.

In this particular picture, one of seven late mythological works, referred to by Titian himself as poesie  (or poetry) painted for Philip II of Spain, we see the moment described in Ovid where Actaeon, a hunter, stumbles on Diana, the goddess of hunting, but also of the moon (she wears a moon-shaped brooch in her hair in the painting). She is a virgin and is bathing with her nymphs in a pool. Being offended by Actaeon she changes him into a stag and he is torn to pieces by his own hounds.

I have long been struck by the flimsiness of the red cloth Actaeon pushes aside. It is quite inadequate for the purpose. It is like a shower curtain of which there is little left. It seems to be hanging on something like a clothes-line that has wondered in from a suburban domestic scene, a Stanley Spencer back-garden for example. The point is that it is flimsy and inadequate: not a serious object.

But it is red, and red is a warning. Handsome young Actaeon has pushed it aside with his elbow and there are the women, some of whom would have been visible well before he moved that cloth. He starts back: they start back, but they are starting back only to recoil with fury. The water continues its gentle gurgling, the nymph with the towelling continues drying Diana's foot. Only a little dog barks back at the bigger hunting dog at Actaeon's heel.

It is an intrusion, an earnest of visual rape. It is the 'male gaze' rebuffed. And yet it is also a glimpse of a world on the edge of becoming a paradise of the senses, the first step in an erotic daydream.  I thought immediately of John Donne's cry in his 20th Elegy on seeing his naked beloved: O, my America, my Newfoundland. And what comes of that thought? Of the conquest of America, of colonialism, of the struggle over, and possession of, land.

But what is Actaeon to do? He comes upon the forbidden unwittingly. He is not like the Elders with Susanna. He has not gone there to spy, but is treated as if he had done so. He is dazzled and as his right hand tells us, guilty and tense. He knows he has crossed a boundary, one marked by that ridiculous flimsy red sheet or shirt.

Everything in that paradisal vignette must turn against him.  He who hunted has found the secret queen of hunting, the hunting principle itself, clad in brilliant, eroticised flesh.  These are the erotics of hunting. Never mind the warm delightful sky, never mind the garments, the trickle of water, the trees, the luxuriance. A glimpse is what we get.

In one respect it is an essentially male glimpse. Looking at the pictures we remember ourselves. It may be that we are not young hunters, that we have hunted and are now no longer hunting. We know our own flesh will be gradually torn from us: that time itself is an aspect of Diana. The memory of the glimpse remains. And that ridiculous red cloth remains, something so gestural you'd think it was an invitation rather than a taboo.

And yet it is not entirely a male experience. The goddess may not age but mortal women do. Here, within the precincts of the picture, the female principle is depicted as several women at once. Diana draws back, the moon rising like a pair of horns on her brow. That horned moon is an earnest of the horns the stag will wear. The mortal woman is also torn apart. That flimsy curtain is no barrier to decay. This moment will not come again for her either.

How can we hold these ideas together: our ideas of birth, youth, desire, punishment and decay? How far does the dog understand such things? How far are we animal? How do we deal with the pain of the encounter and then its loss, its fury, its punishment, its fading into memory? We cannot help being who we are and when we are. Suddenly there is a red sheet in front of us that hardly covers everything behind it. Just touch that red shimmer. How not to elbow it aside?

It's that red shirt, or red sheet, or red stage curtain, that terrible flimsy pretence we blame. And hovering about it, invested in it, the poem with its noise of flesh and paint.


I gave an interview to Corriere della Sera on this subject. To my astonishment the half an hour or so was actually about the poem. A big daily newspaper was interested enough in a poem to ring and talk for half an hour about it. I don't know when that will appear, or how much of it will appear, nor do I read Italian. It covered something of this ground but considerably more.


Sarah AB said...

I love this painting - and look forward to the exhibition, which I had not heard about until I read your post. (It might inspire me to write something for the rather neglected Harry's Place Arts section!)I have just been writing a paper about Ovid and contemporary poetry - Diana and Actaeon crops up more than once, and there is one very interesting poem, 'Quiver' by Deryn Rees-Jones (in a collection of the same name) which uses Titian's painting as a starting point.

George S said...

I do keep up with Harry's. It retains my sympathies though I no longer comment. I think it has become more learned than it once was, and certainly more focused on Israel, which too retains my sympathies though the debate, naturally, tends to be predictable. So it is nice to think of the arts section being active, Sarah.

I know Deryn and her book / poem. Very much interested in your paper. Diana and Actaeon remains a fascinating subject for many reasons, including the political. As for the exhibition: it will be stunning. Some of us are doing the press morning next Monday and there will be readings and a workshop associated with it in September. I'll be involved in those too.

Sarah AB said...

I'd love to know more about the workshop, if it's open to anyone, although September can be busy, even well before teaching starts. Yes, I was very intrigued by 'Quiver' and I'll be doing an MA session based round it next year too.