Monday, 15 September 2008

Heretical Titian

I put in a day's work at the National Gallery this weekend, preparing a free Podtour of the early Italian masters. I finished that survey with an hour to go till I needed to catch my bus - so I played my little game of wandering around and just seeing what caught my eye.

First - Douanier Rousseau's marvellous jungle painting, 'Surprised!' I wonder who it is that is meant to be surprised - the tiger, caught in the vegetation, or ourselves? This is a wonderful painting that you don't appreciate from a small image, because it's full of movement. First of all, over the whole painting is a shimmer, created by diagonal stripes of darker and lighter shade, representing (I suppose) the tropical rain. Then, the  movement of the leaves, the grass, and the striking diagonals of grass and branches counterpointing each other.  And in the middle of this, the tiger, who seems to be going tiptoe on the very points of the grass, suspended in the air, clearly an impossibility.

(I  must have stared at this painting for five minutes. Then I noticed  there was a little painting of sunflowers quite near by.  And then I looked back at the tiger. No competition.)

Another couple of paintings in one of the Impressionist rooms by two artists I had never heard of; Gallen-Kallela and Alfred William Finch. They're both water subjects - a Finnish lake, and a set of breakwaters. They're stunning in the cold colours, the simplicity and austerity of the subjects. There's a Zen like spirituality here, concentration on the essences of things , a meditative feeling.

But the painting I really hadn't expected to love was Titian's Noli me tangere.  I have continually been amazed by Titians - they look like nothing in books; somehow, all the masterpiece exists in the brushwork, in the detail,  the actual incarnation of the idea in oil and varnish. And in an entire room of paintings by different artists, a Titian will often flash at you like a  beacon - it's so alive, so individual, so desirous of being seen.

So it was here. The painting that first attracted my eye was a portrait by Palma Vecchio -  a plump blond woman, just the kind Titian liked, falling out of her bodice, lit dramatically. But though it looked good from a distance, closer to, it seemed blowsy and flabby. Just along the wall, though, was this jewel-like Titian.

It's a stunning work. Slightly dark colours, as so often in Venetian painting, but tinged with turquoise and red, particularly the sky and the stunning velvet of the Magdalen's dress. (They look awfully muted in the jpeg.)

Then something that really doesn't come out in the photo - the incredible brushwork of Christ's loincloth. Here, Titian is at his most painterly; there is transparent material, there are jags of bright white paint creating thick, opaque highlights; there is a vortex of material caught up in  what should realistically be a knot, but is more of a whirlpool. And there is the contrast with the much more staid painting of the loop of mantle that Jesus holds up in between him and Mary Magdalen.

Now when you get these loops and folds in a loincloth on a Spanish Christ, it's usually on the hip. Not here; it's focused on the groin. And then you have a diagonal, starting with Mary's arm, through the two knots. To my heretical mind, Titian has included an overtly sexual meaning in this painting.

Then look at the two trees. One tall tree -  but brown, dark, falling; and behind Magdalen is a wonderful, flourishing bush of bright green. I could read quite a lot into that... if I cared to. Because what for me this painting is all about is not a spiritual meeting, but sexual invitation and refusal. Look at the Magdalen; unusually, though her hair is uncovered, she is quite primly dressed - the focus is all on the wonderful light folds of her chemise, not on a flash of cleavage.  But she takes the risk - she extends her hand forward.

And Christ, for all his nakedness and exposure, is refusing, doubly guarded behind the folds of white fabric. But it's the openness, the invitation, that Titian seems to sympathise with. And while his Christ is shadowed, the Magdalen is lit, is luminous.

You might agree or disagree with this reading. But one thing is sure; there's always more going on in one of Titian's paintings than meets the eye. And there's always more than you will see in a photographic image, however good.

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