Titian in time: art as experience

The art of the special exhibition may be to create a special and otherwise unobtainable experience, offering in a single event, such as Titian: Love, Desire, Death at London’s National Gallery, something which would otherwise take time and travel to experience. While such exhibitions often bring together new combinations of artworks, they can also involve the recreation of a past arrangement, normally unattainable. The National Gallery’s exhibition brings together a small group of paintings originally intended to be shown together but long since scattered into separate collections. The paintings, known as the ‘Poesie’ because they respond to scenes from classical poems, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, were supplied to Philip II of Spain to decorate his private apartments. They were delivered to Philip in Spain by Titian from his workshop in Venice between 1551 and 1562, but separated soon afterwards, eventually finding homes in major collections across Europe and the USA. The exhibition would provide the visitor with a glimpse of something private and rare, in a short moment in time recreated in the present.

Titian (1490-1576) – Diana and Actaeon, 1556-9, National Galleries of Scotland/National Gallery. One of the six Poesie paintings displayed at the National Gallery.

But what is at stake in such an act of recreation? Whose view is being recreated, that of Philip or those visiting his apartments? It is not that of Titian himself. Only Philip and his courtiers had access to these paintings as a group, and even then not for long. Titian himself never saw this specific group of paintings as they are presented here, assembled together in matching frames; the canvases were dispatched piecemeal on completion (payment was far from prompt). Possibly Titian and his team could have assembled a display from studio copies and derivative renderings of the same scenes – and identification of these particular canvases, rather than other versions, as the Poesie series is fairly recent. It seems that we are looking at an act of collection rather than an act of creation, and that what is being re-created is the display of Philip’s monarchical power as much as Titian’s creative brilliance.   

Can the contemporary viewer recreate those original acts of viewing, or has Philip’s power and Titian’s message leached away to leave only an aesthetic experience? Viewing and decoding the details of the scenes might require a knowledge of classical texts and mythology, such as an educated sixteenth-century prince and his courtiers might well have had, but many modern visitors will need to consult the website, the catalogue, or listen to Mary Beard’s informed classicist take. On the other hand, a modern viewer sensitised to the depiction of power in human relations might appreciate the interactions of Titian’s characters, divine and human, male and female, without possessing a detailed knowledge of Ovid’s Metamorphoses

Titian, The Death of Actaeon, 1559-75, begun as part of the Poesie series but not delivered to Philip.

The paintings themselves explore critical moments of danger and change, encounters between divine and mortal, male and female, mediated through sexual desire and the exercise of power, which are fateful to the weaker party. Jupiter appears to Danae as a shower of gold, setting in motion future events which are illustrated in another painting in which their son the hero Perseus rescues Andromeda. The power of goddesses is less certain. Diana will take revenge on Actaeon, the hunter who sees her bathing, as well as on the nymph Callisto, whose pregnancy by Jupiter is revealed. Venus clings to her beloved, the hunter Adonis, but cannot prevent his departure or death. In the final completed painting Jupiter, in the form of a bull, carries off Europa; a related but unfinished picture, shown here although never delivered to Philip, shows the death of Actaeon, at the moment at which Diana transforms him into a stag and his own hounds attack him. Titian simultaneously valorises the display of power and questions its impact on humans: his message to the court is not an entirely comfortable one. 

Recreating historical collections for private display is a familiar organising principle for art exhibitions. Some recent examples include the Royal Academy’s Charles I: King and Collector (2018) and Houghton Revisited at Houghton Hall in Norfolk (2013), which took the format to another level by redisplaying the collection, now at the Hermitage in St Petersburg, in its original site, where it was displayed before Robert Walpole sold his collection to Catherine the Great in 1779. These shows, while providing insights into the eye of the historical collector, also contained implicit questions about the transience of wealth and power. But more could be said, both about the way such displays risk, without careful curation and contextualisation, a bleaching  of the politics involved in the acquisition of the collections and the power wielded by their owners, and about the use of such acts of recreation as an organising principle. While not precisely commemorations, these recreated exhibitions are suggestive of the ‘regime of heritage’ outlined by François Hartog in his Regimes of Historicity as a current cultural mode for managing our relationship with the past. While they can be presented as acts of democratisation, opening up the palace and the country house to all, by presenting them as special and limited experiences, they may simply create a new form of cultural privilege. One might even see such events as 

In a way, history repeated itself. Just as an outbreak of plague in 1576 ravaged Titian’s Venice and ended his long and productive life, the Covid-19 pandemic forced the National Gallery to shut its doors only days after the exhibition opened. The exquisite moment would remain unattainable for months, until the gallery briefly re-opened in July, permitting lucky visitors to see Titian’s work in much less crowded conditions than has previously been normal for special exhibitions. The planned schedule which took many of the paintings on a tour of their home galleries was abandoned, and the London display had to close twice again as further lockdowns shut museums. For a culture of heritage in which participation in a spectacular event is valued so highly, the thwarting of the exhibition and loss of the potential experience became an event in itself, with its own BBC documentary ‘Titian – Behind Closed Doors’. Titian’s depiction of humans, powerless against capricious forces, was as applicable to the 2020 exhibition as it had been to the Poesie’s original viewers. 

References:

  • Hartog, F. (2015) [2003], Regimes of Historicity: presentism and experiences of time, trans. S. Brown (New York: Columbia University Press).
  • Wivel, M., et al. (2020) Titian: love, desire, death (London: National Gallery Company).

Untimely epic: Apollonius’ Hellenistic Argonauts

Congratulations to former Anachronism and Antiquity post-doctoral research associate Tom Phillips on the publication of his monograph Untimely Epic: Apollonius Rhodius’ Argonautica (Oxford University Press, 2020). The book uses analytical frameworks developed by Tom while working on the Anachronism project to re-read this complex and subtle contribution to the epic tradition.

Untimely Epic book cover

Tom writes:

Epic poems are concerned with what is fundamental. They dramatize the concepts, beliefs, and actions that orient their societies: the ‘fame’ pursued by Homeric heroes, the pietas of the Aeneid, and the ‘eternal Providence’ of Paradise Lost. Apollonius Rhodius’ Argonautica, although long recognized as an important representative of Hellenistic poetic culture, has tended to be treated more as masterpiece of learned, self-conscious artistry than as a serious reflection on the exigencies that mould historical life.

This book, by contrast, reads the Argonautica as  deeply invested in the question of what it means, or might mean, to be a Greek in the third century BC. This question is staged in the poem’s presentation of characters, but it also emerges when readers are prompted to consider the historical, ethical, and aesthetic sources of their agency.

The ‘untimely’ is crucial to Apollonius’ project: in the course of their journey, readers are confronted by a lament that sounds unceasingly but is only heard once, a shepherd who lives out an echo of the golden age, nymphs whose harmonious world has been mauled unmendably by Heracles, and many other phenomena constituted by their complex situation in time.

The imaginative and formal subtlety with which Apollonius dramatizes these events impels readers to consider the grounds on which they construct the past as meaningful, and themselves as meaningful in relation to the past.

The story of Jason’s journey has been retold many times since Apollonius wrote his version in the third century BCE. Perhaps the most familiar and iconic modern version is Ray Harryhausen’s 1963 film Jason and the Argonauts, which used both live-action and stop-motion sequences to capture the complexities of the story. Jason’s mythical journey provided a vehicle for new cinematic techniques just as it had for Apollonius’ development of the possibilities of epic told in hexameter verse.

The bronze man Talos confronts Jason and the Argo, from Jason and the Argonauts.
The bronze man Talos confronts Jason and the Argo, from Jason and the Argonauts.

For more on Untimely Epic see both the OUP website and our Publications page.

  • If like us you love the beautiful cover art on this book, check out photographer Paul Kenny’s website for more of his amazing work.

Linder’s anachronic Bower of Bliss

Reviewers described the first version of Linder’s performance piece ‘Bower of Bliss’ as ‘remixing history’, surely a working definition of anachronism. That was already an apt description of her 2018 film in which powerful women of the 16th century, Bess of Hardwick and Mary Queen of Scots, encountered each other in the house and grounds of Georgian Chatsworth. This latest instance of ‘Bower of Bliss’ was performed at Murray Edwards College in Cambridge on March 14, 2020, as part of the Linderism exhibition at Cambridge’s Kettle’s Yard, and added further layers of multi-temporal myth-making to a rich and provocative performance.

Linder Bower of Bliss performance
Linder opens the Bower of Bliss: an improper architecture, performed in Cambridge 14/3/20

Linder’s layering of time and place is emphatically multi-sensory. Louise Gray’s costumes mixed historical elements, notably the Tudor elements of the queen’s costume, with textures and layers reminiscent of eighties street fashion. Under the college’s brutalist dome, relit in spring green, Linder re-created her bower as ‘an improper architecture’ (a phrase used by critics of this women’s college modernist buildings) using music, lighting, scent – the House of Helen scent created for her Kettle’s Yard exhibition, sprayed into the audience by dancer Kirstin Halliday – and flowers and blossom from the college gardens. Maxwell Sterling and Kenichi Iwasa provided a shifting soundscape, from electronic drone to acoustic instruments and percussion. Elements from Linder’s visual art reappeared in performance, her critique and subversion of the domestic; a sieve is passed between the dancers to become a handheld mirror in the past and a phone for selfies in the present.

The phrase ‘bowre of blisse’ appears in Edmund Spenser’s ‘Faerie Queene’ (Book II, Canto XII, stanza 42), an epic poem from 1590 which explores the power of women in the time of Queen Elizabeth I, and which Linder interprets as ‘a critique of irresponsible femininity’. Spenser’s bower of bliss is the ‘wandering isle’ home of Acrasia, a personification of female pleasure, and both delightful and dangerous; eventually it is destroyed as masculine power trumps the feminine. Akrasia is a canonically classical vice, the weakness of will and the triumph of desire over reason; for Plato, that is the outcome of education which empowers the rational part of the soul to command the lower desires. Feminists have long questioned the gendering of desire and reason in philosophers’ models.

Spenser’s description of the bower further invokes classical exempla through description and ecphrasis, the depiction of Jason and Medea on its gate, and the nod to ancient poetic descriptions of gardens such as that of Alcinous (Homer, Odyssey 7.112-32). Linder’s complex web of allusion acknowledges Spenser and his sources, but also reaches from the classical past through the northern club cultures of post-punk music and Northern Soul to the contemporary reality television of Love Island. In this anachronic Bower of Bliss, women explore and express their distinctive identities and allegiances through clashing dance styles from the formality of classical ballet to the vitality of Northern Soul.

Dancers scatter daffodils in the bower of bliss
Dancers scatter daffodils in the bower of bliss

As daffodils were strewn across the floor to create the bower, Linder opened up and reclaimed another past, her own part in England’s post-punk heritage as friend and muse to Morrissey, whose early performances with the Smiths featured him strewing daffodils across the stage as fans surged on to it. Full marks to Lillian Wang for dancing on pointe amid the petals, as Linder’s characters reframed the often-masculine experience of the stage invasion as female delight.

Linder also opposed the academic and institutional context of this bower through sound. The Inter Alios choir, students from Murray Edwards and Churchill Colleges, circled the performance space, their black academic gowns a stark contrast to the colourful dancers. The eclectic and contemporary soundtrack made way for a sombre choral version of ‘Dido’s Lament’, from Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas, linking back to Virgil’s Aeneid, another classical text in which female experience and pleasure is suppressed and denied, before the choir provided drones and chants for Maxwell Sterling’s soundscape.

The Bower of Bliss musicians and dancers: (back row, l to r) Ashley Young, Maxwell Sterling, Linder, Kenichi Iwasa, Kirstin Halliday; (front, l to r) Lilian Wang, Lauren Fitzpatrick
The Bower of Bliss musicians and dancers: (back row, l to r) Ashley Young, Maxwell Sterling, Linder, Kenichi Iwasa, Kirstin Halliday; (front, l to r) Lilian Wang, Lauren Fitzpatrick

In Linder’s reimagining of the Bower of Bliss, her women characters create a space in which they can express their desires. The temporary installation and performance of the bower upends and replaces the usual order – even in a women’s college, traditional academic hierarchies are usually upheld. The transformation continues in the Linderism exhibition, which features imagery from the project, screens the film, and transforms Kettle’s Yard into a feminine space even to the extent of re-gendering the Kettle’s Yard House website.

In engaging with the distant literary and artistic past, Linder also re-examines her own often transgressive and provocative past as artist and performer, as when she fronted her band Ludus wearing a dress made of raw meat and a dildo in a 1982 performance at Manchester’s Hacienda, a performance intended to criticise artificial conventions of femininity, restrictions on women’s role in the music world, and the macho culture of the Manchester scene. Her performance in the Bower of Bliss was no less provocative, yet completely of the moment. There had been some debate as to whether the performance on March 14 should go ahead at all, as arts organisations began to respond to the arrival of coronavirus. Linder and the musicians performed in dark surgical masks, and Linder turned her opening song into the most transgressive sound of the present moment, the cough.

Linder's subtle interventions in the Kettle's Yard house included opening a secret door between the floors, through which Jim and Helen Ede communicated.
Linder’s subtle interventions in the Kettle’s Yard house included opening a secret door between the floors, through which Jim and Helen Ede communicated.

A couple of days later, Kettle’s Yard followed the other University museums in closing its doors. Linder’s intervention in the Kettle’s Yard house, opening up a small door through which Jim and Helen Ede communicated between the floors of the cottage, was left in place. As Sarah Victoria Turner notes, Linder’s engagement with Kettle’s Yard and particularly with Helen’s Room ‘necessarily looks to the past’ as part of her ‘retrospective practice’ of ‘making invisible women visible’. Linder’s Bower of Bliss envisions an anachronic world in which women’s emotions are revalued and their presence in the past is revealed.

  • Kettle’s Yard has now released a video of the performance on March 14.

 

  • Edmund Spenser (2007)[1590], The Faerie Queene, edited A.C. Hamilton, London.
  • Amy Tobin (2020) ‘Linderism: the red period’ in Linderism, edited A. Tobin and A. Khakoo, London, 39-48.
  • Sarah Victoria Turner (2020) ‘Raising Old Ghosts: Linder’s Conversations with the Dead’ in Linderism, edited A. Tobin and A. Khakoo, London, 65-71.
  • Images from the Bower of Bliss is also installed on billboards at Southwark tube station until May 2020. A version has also been displayed at Glasgow Women’s Library.

Publication day

Today’s the day that Anachronism and Antiquity is officially published. Pre-ordered copies have been shipped, and we spotted copies on the shelves in our local book shop, Blackwells, an anachronistic day early. We’re very pleased to see it out in the world.

Anachronism and Antiquity book with other books on the display bookshelves in Oxford.
Anachronism and Antiquity on the bookshelves in Oxford.

You can take a look inside via the links here.