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,


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

Titian; drawing by David Levine

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…

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