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Titian and the Perils of International Exhibition

Titian 1990 and at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC October 28, 1990–January 27, 1991

an exhibition at the Palazzo Ducale, Venice June 1, 1990–October 7,

Titian

catalog of the exhibition, Introduction by Francesco Valcanover
Prestel/distributed by te Neues, 430 pp., $65.00

A tough dilemma tends to condition the choice of pictures shown at the more ambitious international exhibitions of Old Masters: the institutions that lend the paintings (for the paintings involved now belong almost exclusively to institutions) feel inclined to support such ventures only if they are intended to be “of genuine scholarly interest.” But the borrowing institutions usually wish to promote exhibitions only if they are nothing of the sort, for reasons of politics and prestige as much as of finance make huge attendances absolutely essential. The ensuing compromises are rarely very satisfactory, though cunning work by departments of public relations can help to disguise this effectively enough.

The art of Titian, the subject of a major exhibition being held this summer in Venice and later to be shown in a slightly different version in Washington, presents many problems “of genuinely scholarly interest.” His early development remains very unclear, so too does the nature of the assistance he received from members of his studio; and there has been much recent controversy about the appearance of some of his very late pictures. Were these merely left uncompleted at his death or does the tremulous freedom of his brushwork and the sometimes arbitrary treatment of natural appearances represent a “late style,” through which the painter sought to convey so personal an impression of his deepest emotions that he was prepared to venture far beyond the comprehension of his patrons?1 These, and similar issues, are indeed raised in the catalog, but it cannot be said that the exhibition itself does much to resolve them. On the other hand, Titian painted an extraordinary number of sublime (and relatively unproblematic) masterpieces: some of these are certainly on view in the exhibition, but it cannot be said that the visitor will come away from it with a balanced understanding of the artist’s achievement.

The pictures are displayed in a series of rooms of varying sizes on the second floor of the Ducal Palace, and they are widely separated from each other so as to be easily accessible to the crowds and above all the guided tours—which flock there on Saturdays and Sundays but not, so far, on weekdays. Each painting is hung against a gray background, and is surrounded by gray gauze. Illumination comes from spotlights suspended from the ceiling. Visibility is good, and not harsh, though most of the rooms are otherwise so dark that the general effect is like that of being in a church by night (monuments and murals and coffered ceilings can just be discerned through the gloom)—or in an aquarium. Thus it is impossible to consult the catalog, even if one has the strength to carry it into the exhibition.

The first room is devoted primarily to the famous altarpiece of Saint Mark enthroned with Saints from the Church of the Salute and also to what has survived from the frescoes detached from the outside walls of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi (the present Central Post Office). Titian was to claim to his friends and admirers that it was these that first brought him to public attention at a time when he was still a young man working as a junior partner of Giorgione on what must have been the most astonishing scheme of urban decoration ever seen in Western Europe: figures, larger than life and in flaming colors, of female nudes and young men in fancy dress, of political allegories and fabulous sea monsters—subjects whose meaning baffled Vasari in the sixteenth century and have continued to puzzle art historians ever since.

A second room contains other early works, and the visitor then moves into a room designed to commemorate Titian’s first major venture into ancient mythology:2 the three pictures painted for Alfonso d’Este’s “Camerino d’Alabastro” in the Castle of Ferrara. These celebrated paintings—The Worship of Venus, The Andrians, and Bacchus and Ariadne—belong to the Prado in Madrid and the National Gallery in London, and, rightly, remain there. They are represented in the exhibition by seventeenth-century copies which are rather oddly displayed a few feet behind a sheet of white gauze. To peer at them through this gauze will induce in the hypochondriac fears of incipient cataract, while to the more theatrically minded it may recall those first few moments at the opera as the overture comes to an end and the heavy curtains slowly open to disclose in the distance blurred figures of nymphs and sylphs who will only be revealed in all their clarity as a semitransparent film of muslin rises from the floor of the stage like ground mist dissolving on a summer morning.

In the Palazzo Ducale, however, the muslin does not rise and nothing distracts us from what is hanging on the wall opposite: Giovanni Bellini’s recently cleaned Feast of the Gods from the National Gallery of Art in Washington. This is one of the most beautiful pictures of the whole Italian Renaissance, and anyone who finds it easier to travel to Venice than to Washington should hurry to the exhibition, if only to look at this one work. But then having done so, he or she should pause in amazement, dismay, and even indignation at the idea that this, one of the two or three greatest masterpieces of painting in the United States, should have been sent traveling to an exhibition where it is almost wholly irrelevant.

The issue of relevance is in fact not the only one that needs to be considered but it is worth discussing briefly. It was The Feast of the Gods, one of Bellini’s last works, which certainly gave Alfonso d’Este the impulse to commission the three pictures by Titian which have already been mentioned, although before even turning to Titian he had at first hoped to match his Bellini with paintings by Raphael and Fra Bartolomeo. It has also been recognized ever since Vasari that Titian made drastic changes to the original picture, though the reasons for these, the timing of them, and even their extent have been much debated. While it has always been agreed that all that area of wooded and hilly landscape which is visible to the naked eye is the result of Titian’s intervention, the catalog entry makes it clear that some scholars argued until very recently that Titian also modified the simple, rustic-looking figures in the foreground so as to make them more godlike, more erotic, and more up-to-date. The examination and cleaning at the National Gallery have, however, now demonstrated that this was not the case and that it was Bellini himself who made alterations to his figures well before Titian became involved with the adornment of Alfonso d’Este’s room. The picture must therefore have been transported to the exhibition exclusively because of the changes made by Titian to the landscape background—presumably during one of his visits to Ferrara which are recorded in 1524, 1525, and 1529.

One has to assume that the skillful conservators of the National Gallery of Art, who so recently restored to the Feast of the Gods as much of the original quality as had survived the four and a half centuries and more since it was painted, fully approved of its being sent twice across the Atlantic, being twice packed and unpacked, and being displayed in conditions so utterly different from those in which it is usually held; because it is, of course, virtually inconceivable that the director and trustees of that great museum could possibly have been so irresponsible as to reject expert advice on so important a matter. But the decision is a deplorable one, and its significance extends beyond this specific instance.

It is true that great works of art are always at risk even when shown in carefully supervised galleries; and it is also true that (as yet) no international exhibition has been responsible for such terrible damage to the artistic heritage as has been suffered in recent years through vandalism and robbery by museums in London and Amsterdam, Boston and Leningrad. The fact remains that, in private, almost every official closely involved with paintings (and this includes those officials who are given the responsiblity of organizing great international exhibitions) will admit to feeling uneasy about the dislodgment of certain supreme masterpieces—and there is plenty of (anecdotal) evidence to justify such unease. It can be argued that in exceptional circumstances such unease should be suppressed;3 but when decisions to lend pictures are taken as a consequence of international politics or artistic diplomacy (i.e., the hope, as presumably in this case, of winning loans of comparable significance in exchange) unease should turn to outrage.

For art exhibitions have, ever more frequently, been turned into “the continuation of politics by other means.” Détente, “a new spirit of friendship between our two countries,” “a return to the community of free nations,” “wideranging cultural agreements”—what shivers these phrases send down the backs of those concerned about the preservation of treasures entrusted to the world’s museums, and with what nostalgia one looks back to the time, only a few years ago, when improving international relationships were signaled by table-tennis matches rather than by art exhibitions held under the patronage of heads of state. The death of Franco and the arrival on the scene of Gorbachev have probably been responsible for more great pictures being on the move than at any time since the end of the Napoleonic wars, or at any rate since the heyday of Mussolini’s cultural diplomacy.

All this is partly a cause, and partly a consequence, of the fact that exhibitions are now replacing museums as the principal vehicles for the transmission of visual culture, just as museums themselves earlier replaced ecclesiastical institutions and private collections. Very sensibly the Venetian authorities have not transferred two of Titian’s most splendid altarpieces from the Church of the Frari (for which they were painted) to the exhibition (though both of them are included in the catalog). When I visited the church it was quite empty, although at exactly the same time crowds were struggling to squeeze themselves into the rooms of the Ducal Palace where altarpieces by him had been moved from other Venetian churches—the Salute, the Gesuiti, and others. Similarly, queues of Spaniards (and not just foreign tourists) waited patiently for six or seven hours to get into the Velázquez exhibition in the Prado despite the fact that all but a few of the pictures by Velázquez to be seen there are permanently displayed in the museum.

The implications of this development have yet to be fully understood, but some of them are already becoming apparent. Exhibitions flourish at the expense of museums just as museums flourish at the expense of private collections. Every visitor to Italy must have been maddened by the closure, sometimes partial, but all too often complete, of half that country’s museums because of “lack of staff” or “lack of funds”; yet in Venice the Titian exhibition is open every day without interruption from nine in the morning until eleven at night. No one would claim that the catalogs of the permanent collections in the Louvre are even remotely adequate—yet catalogs of exhibitions devoted to major French artists which have been held in the Grand Palais for many years are among the most useful (and the most handsome and the most—comparatively—cheap) art-historical publications to have appeared in France.

Of course museums have also been among the beneficiaries of the vast and growing exhibitions culture which have now generated a powerful momentum of their own, but the role of museums seems rather incidental to the main functioning of the process. Underpaid and overworked curators are given opportunities to make frequent, brief, but very pleasant journeys to prohibitively expensive foreign cities (such as Venice) by acting as couriers for the pictures under their care—but critics lucky enough to have articles commissioned by magazines enjoy similar advantages. Restoration departments are shamed into cleaning pictures out of fear that they would otherwise look shabby when hung next to those from other institutions—but disruption of long-established plans that had been laid in the interests of the museum as a whole is by no means always welcome or desirable.

Museum directors, compelled more and more to scrounge financial support for the institutions under their authority, are photographed giving press conferences and escorting royalty and government ministers around the exhibitions they have helped to organize—but the attention and admiration they receive from such activities merely forces them to start the whole business all over again as soon as the current show has been completed. Meanwhile publishers find rich and comparatively assured markets for the production of fully illustrated art books (described, with varying degrees of accuracy, as exhibition catalogs) which might otherwise have involved considerable financial risks: nearly 400,000 copies of the catalog of the Velázquez exhibition in Madrid have so far been sold. Art historians fly around the world to attend colloquia, congresses, round tables, and so on in the great cities of Europe and the United States. Commercial sponsors receive wide publicity of the most sympathetic and attractive kind, and in those fortunate countries where support for cultural enterprises wins, rather than loses, votes, local politicians are only too anxious to give ostentatious support to all the activities I have mentioned.

The appeal of exhibitions is real and obvious. Thanks to Bush and Gorbachev, Agnelli and Unilever, it has become possible for Malraux’s “Musée Imaginaire” to assume physical reality, as inconceivably magnificent, but almost as short-lived, as Cinderella’s truncated night at the ball. Even now it is not all that easy to travel to Leningrad: at the Venice exhibition one can see two splendid Titians from the Hermitage—indeed a glance at the art press gives one the impression that splendid pictures from the Hermitage are now to be seen in just about every city in the world except Leningrad.

Cinderella was found by her prince and lived happily ever after; but do exhibitions survive the dizzying months during which they are displayed? And does anything of lasting significance help to compensate for risks that are too painful to contemplate and for energies and financial commitments that must seem desperately misplaced to anyone who believes that it is the duty of public collections not only to make their possessions known and understood, but also to care for them with the skill and devotion that are now under increasing threat throughout the world?

It is true that moments of revelation can sometimes be transformed into values that are durable. One should perhaps mention the exhibition of Dutch art held in Paris in 1921, for the inclusion in it of Vermeer’s View of Delft inspired Proust, by now desperately ill, to visit the Jeu de Paume to see once again a picture that had first aroused his enthusiasm nearly twenty years earlier—and his visit gave rise to one of the most celebrated scenes in European literature.

More to the point in the present situation are exhibitions that have helped to change the public’s perception about certain artists or that have made accessible major pictures which cannot be otherwise seen. Many art historians would agree that among the most rewarding Old Masters shows held since the war were those organized in Bologna by the late Cesare Gnudi and devoted to the principal Bolognese painters of the seventeenth century. These had once been considered among the greatest of all artists, but their reputations had begun to suffer at the end of the eighteenth century and had been dealt a series of devastating blows by Ruskin and his followers. Beginning with an exhibition of Guido Reni in 1954—which was visited with mixed feelings by Bernard Berenson, then aged eighty-nine—and continuing in subsequent years with the Carracci, Guercino, and other painters, these bold ventures in Bologna have in retrospect been granted the status of heroic, almost superhuman, myth (as can be seen by consulting the catalogs of their more recent successors).

But this somewhat falsifies their true significance. For a revival of interest in these artists was already under way among specialist connoisseurs and scholars—their catalogs were of the highest standards—and the effect of bringing together a large number of works by them was not only to clarify problems of attribution, chronology, and so on, but also to convince a far wider public, among whom were some imaginative museum directors, trustees, and collectors, that hostility and neglect were wholly misguided. In this respect these exhibitions were entirely successful.

Poussin never suffered as much contempt as Guido Reni, but the Paris exhibition devoted to him in 1960 was the first to demonstrate the full stature of a painter who had hitherto been somewhat distantly admired rather than genuinely appreciated. And alongside such displays of major artists there has grown up, especially in Italy, a most rewarding tradition of devoting regional exhibitions to artists with local associations who are of the utmost distinction but do not enjoy the overwhelming fame so beloved of the more powerful international exhibiting bodies and their sponsors. Thus the excellent exhibition of pictures by Girolamo Savoldo which was held at his native town of Brescia earlier this year revealed the exquisite poetry so often to be found in the works of this provincial contemporary of Titian, and the sensitive choice of Italian views of Bernardo Bellotto currently to be seen at the Museo di Castelvecchio in Verona shows that he was capable of producing some of the most marvelous landscapes (as well as townscapes) of the eighteenth century.4

Mantegna hardly belongs to this category, but the exhibition devoted to him in 1961 by Mantua, the city where he spent most of his working life, deserves to be recorded here partly because tradition maintains—surprisingly but correctly, I believe—that this was the first Old Master exhibition since the war in Italy (and perhaps in Europe) to attract the enormous crowds that we have now come to take for granted, and partly because the catalog appears to be heavier than any that had been published before that date, though it is light by later standards.

Many other exhibitions besides those I have mentioned have proved to be as enlightening in the long term as they were attractive during their brief periods of existence—I am thinking, for instance, of those held in London, Paris, and elsewhere that were devoted to German and Danish painters of the early nineteenth century—because they have brought to our notice whole schools of paintings which were relatively unfamiliar or difficult of access, and in so doing they have fundamentally altered our perception of the art of the past.

On the other hand, with the exception of some works by the great portrait painters (which often still belong to the families for whom they were painted) and of a sizable proportion of the output of the Impressionists and later artists (who constitute an exception to almost everything that I have so far written) it is now more and more rare for the really major works by the really major artists not to be in the possession of public or semipublic institutions, and hence visible only on the occasion of special exhibitions, if then. One exception springs immediately to mind. Fragonard’s so-called La Fête à Saint-Cloud, which seems to me to be of a quality far superior to anything else ever painted by him, belongs to the Banque de France, where it hangs in the governor’s office. Anyone who has ever tried to infiltrate that far will agree that this can by no stretch of the imagination be described as a public or semipublic institution, and the only way that it has been possible to admire this wonderful picture, one of the great masterpieces of the eighteenth century, has been at occasional exhibitions held in London, Paris, Berlin, and New York.

For the exhibition entitled The Genius of Venice, which was held in London in 1983, the organizers managed to borrow a painting by Titian of The Flaying of Marsyas which belongs to the archbishop’s palace at Kromeriz (formerly Kremsier) in Czechoslovakia. It was perfectly easy to see it there, but Kromeriz was not then—though I suspect that it may be more so now—on the itinerary of many visitors to Central Europe, and the picture was very little known at first hand. At the Royal Academy in Burlington House its combination of refined and lingering cruelty, rapt ecstasy and brooding melancholy, rendered in the subdued colors and sketchy but fluent brushstrokes characteristic of Titian’s “late style” (or uncompleted pictures?) caused a sensation—among contemporary artists as much as among art lovers and scholars. No other work of art seemed to penetrate so deeply into the mysterious and barbarous world of early pagan myth, and yet none seemed to speak so directly to our own terrible century. If any recent exhibition is remembered in years to come, I am inclined to believe that it will be The Genius of Venice for this one picture.

The Flaying of Marsyas is currently on view in the Palazzo Ducale—rather badly shown toward the very end of the exhibition. Those who have seen it in London (or Kromeriz) will, I believe, find it as impressive as ever, but—to judge from the reactions of the public—it has not made anything like such an impact on people seeing it for the first time. No little groups stand mesmerized in front of it as they did at Burlington House, and (unless my own visits to the exhibition took place during a very uncharacteristic period) this comparative lack of response raises once again the question of how far so universal a painter as Titian evokes different responses from different people at different times.

What struck me as the most wonderful picture on view in the Palazzo Ducale—more wonderful in fact than the Marsyas—was the huge altarpiece of The Martyrdom of St. Lawrence from the church of the Gesuiti. It is, of course, well known and it has been exhibited before in recent years, but it is not easily seen where it usually hangs and the impact that it makes in the exhibition is overwhelming. The variety of its lighting effects—from the flash of lightning which breaks through the black skies, from the flaming torches of the soldiers, from the brazier below the saint’s grill—have added to its fame, or notoriety, but the effect of the painting itself (as distinct from the colored illustration in the catalog) is as far removed from an empty display of virtuosity as can be imagined, and though it is sometimes described as mannerist, it conveys a far greater sense of reality than does, for instance, Caravaggio’s fearful, but somehow contrived, Beheading of John the Baptist in Malta. In fact nowhere in art can I recall a more moving and more terrifying, but less melodramatic, depiction of the crushing of a frail body by sheer, brute force—a dark and sinister crime in which the raised hand of the saint who writhes under the torture seems to be both calling for human help which will never come and at the same time acknowledging the divine intervention symbolized by the opening of the skies. It has become a cliché (though it is an apt one) to compare Titian with Shakespeare, and this picture belongs with King Lear among the great tragic epics of the Renaissance.

Titian’s glorification of the sensuality of the human body—as opposed to his understanding of its suffering—is represented at its finest only by the great Danäe from Naples, the picture that impressed (but perhaps also disturbed) Michelangelo. But the strength of the exhibition lies above all in the religious paintings (mainly from Venice and often recently restored) and in the portraits. We are thus presented with a Titian who would have been far more familiar to most of his contemporaries than the painter of the Marsyas or of the “poesie” for Alfonso of Ferrara and Philip II.

There is a startling moment when we walk from the room containing the portrait of a member of the Mosti family and the famous Man with a Glove from the Louvre—gentle, sensitive, withdrawn—and suddenly find ourselves confronted by the (spectacularly cleaned) portraits of Francesco Maria della Rovere and his wife—hard, ruthless, and impersonal: exactly what was wanted, to judge from most of the remaining portraits, by a hard and ruthless society. For us today something valuable seems to have vanished and I found myself thinking of the chapter in Berenson’s monograph on Lorenzo Lotto, in which he movingly compares the sensitivity and feeling for inner life and human weakness shown by that artist with Titian’s exclusive concentration on “prosperity, beauty and health—men on parade, as it were.” And yet this is a false conclusion, and even in the exhibition itself moments of delicate sympathy return, while if we look at the whole corpus of his surviving portraits we can see how broad was Titian’s emotional range when he was given the chance to express it.

Yet even so astonishingly vivid a portraitist as Titian presents us with extreme difficulties of interpretation. In one of the introductory essays to the catalog we are told—yet again!—of the triple portrait in Naples of Paul III and his grandsons Alessandro and Ottavio (not shown in the exhibition) that it “throws more and better light on the personality of that Pope and the politics of the Holy See in the middle of the 1590s than can the archives and the reports of contemporary ambassadors,” and that it is “perhaps the most extraordinary political document that has been left to us by modern western painting.” Fortunately, however, the matter is left there, where we can accept it as meaningless but well-meant hyperbole, instead of being invited to accept the notion of a Titian determined to divine and record the hidden secrets of a tormented family. Gestures and even facial expressions change their significance over the centuries, and though the general intention of Titian’s representations is rarely in doubt, it is usually pointless to try to ask even so great a painter to give us something he had no intention of looking for. Berenson puts it well:

The interest he himself arouses in the world he painted makes us eager to know more of these people than he tells us: to know them more intimately, in their own homes, if possible, subject to the wear and tear of ordinary existence. We long to know how they take life, what they think and, above all, what they feel; Titian tells us none of these things….

The Venice exhibition—which is taking place now because of the convenient but wildly uncertain assumption that Titian was born in 1490—presents many marvelous paintings by this most marvelous of painters. It includes few that are not known—for there is only a limited stock of lendable pictures—though the amazing full-length portrait of an officer in a pink and blue hunting costume with at his feet a hound and a Cupid fingering his elaborate helmet has very rarely been seen outside Kassel. It also contains few that are of doubtful attribution or second-rate quality.

The catalog has plentiful illustrations and introductory essays of varying value, but the entries have been left, for the most part, to the lending institutions so that there is no coordinating, overall view, no decision about what sort of information (such as provenances) should be included, and—it need hardly be said—very stern rebukes for anyone who disagrees with the official line on the pictures lent. It is definitely not a catalog to be read by anyone who still believes that questions of attribution and chronology concerning even the most studied of artists can be happily settled by consensus.

It is being said, and will be said again and again, that this is a unique exhibition, that nothing like it will ever be seen again. That is not true: for better or for worse plenty of exhibitions like it will be organized for years to come, and the air routes of the world will soon be jammed once again by jets carrying their cargoes of Rembrandts and Rubenses, Poussins and Goyas. Minor damage will be repaired without publicity, and a failure to care for paintings that stay behind will not be connected with the pressure to attend to those that travel. But one day a major accident will occur and the current priorities of some of the world’s greatest museums will be exposed as grossly irresponsible.

  1. 1

    For a general discussion of the so-called late style see Kenneth Clark, The Artist Grows Old, The Rede Lecture, 1970 (Cambridge University Press, 1972).

  2. 2

    He had, however, already painted his so-called Sacred and Profane Love, whose exact meaning remains controversial. Surprisingly this magical and immensely important picture is not shown in Venice despite the fact that the Villa Borghese in Rome, to which it belongs, has been closed to the public for years for structural repairs, and despite the fact that the other Titian in that museum—Venus Blindfolding Cupid—is present at the exhibition.

  3. 3

    This argument was probably deployed when the London National Gallery lent the Rokeby Venus to the Velázquez exhibition in the Prado, and it is true that in that exhibition virtually all the artist’s major works were shown (with the single exception of the portrait of Pope Innocent X in Rome) and that the Venus constitutes a unique, and surprising, aspect of his genius. It is, on the other hand, less easy to justify sending to London as a quid pro quo Goya’s Maja vestida and Maja desnuda.

  4. 4

    The fact that my name is included in the catalog among those on the “scientific committee” of this exhibition should not (alas) mislead anyone into thinking that I played even the smallest part in its selection and organization and that I should therefore feel inhibited in praising its excellence. It is, however, true that I have been involved in one of the other exhibitions referred to in these pages—The Genius of Venice, held in London in 1983—and must therefore share the opprobrium, or the praise, which I have distributed to others engaged in similar enterprises.

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