Review

Tearing into Titian

"The Rape of Europa," (ca. 1560–1562), a 178 cm × 205 cm oil on canvas by Titian (1488-1576), located in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

“Is the Pope going to sell you one of the rooms of the Vatican?,” wrote Henry James to the art collector Isabella Stewart Gardner when she acquired Titian’s Rape of Europa (1561-1562) in 1896. This purchase by “Mrs. Jack,” as she was known after her marriage to Boston socialite John Lowell Gardner II, was arguably the most significant American acquisition of an Old Master up to that time. It sparked European fears that Mrs. Jack and her rich countrymen, determined to build their own collections and fill their newly established museums, would denude the continent of its artistic heritage.

Rape of Europa became the cornerstone of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, for which Mrs. Jack built an original and highly ornate house just off the Fenway in Boston. Rape of Europa remains a standalone masterpiece at the Gardner. But today, America has launched a fresh assault on the Old Masters, one that threatens not to strip Europe of their splendor but to strip their splendor from them.

This assault is in full force in the exhibit “Titian: Women, Myth & Power,” which opened shortly at London’s National Gallery before the pandemic forced its closure. Now on display in Boston until January 2022, the exhibit views—and distorts—Titian’s work through a #MeToo lens. Rape of Europa is a part of the exhibit, but it is combined for the first time in America with five companion paintings, all featuring myths drawn from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. 

Titian produced the paintings on commission between 1551 and 1562. His patron was King Philip II of Spain, a Habsburg monarch who, while still heir to the throne, recognized the value of art in shaping a royal’s public image. He oversaw the project’s completion in the early years of his reign, which began in 1556.

Philip gets his personal due at the exhibition, which includes Titian’s flattering portrait of the young prince. The portrait made him look taller and more physically impressive than he was. The exhibition also includes the Dutch painter Antonius Mor’s severe portrait of Philip’s short-lived consort Mary I of England—Mary Tudor, or “Bloody Mary,” as she was known for her persecution of Protestants.

This is all very well. But the regal purposes of the remaining Titians, which the artist conceived as “poems” (poesie) are lost in the commentary of the exhibition. It would seem that now, as in Puritan times, Boston knows no difference between rape and seduction. In fact, the latter concept has utterly vanished; seduction is described here as “coercion.” Over and over the exhibition insists that the paintings on display are “disturbing.” We are “invited” to “consider Titian’s poesie from multiple perspectives”—a deceptive invitation, since we are shown only one perspective: that most of the canvases worryingly depict what the commentary calls “the persistent issue of sexual assault” and a “peculiar” depiction of “eroticism and power that resonated with the ascendant monarch.”

The exhibition presents no evidence to support its implication that Philip II, a devout Catholic to the point of near asceticism, had any prurient interest in sexualized violence. Instead, the commentary poses such juvenile questions as if we can “reconcile the beauty of a painting with the horror of its subject”; whether “representations like these normalized scenes of violence throughout the history of art”; and what might be the relationship “between sexual violence, or abduction, and power.” Apparently, no perspectives other than the most ‘wokely’ contemporary ones are acceptable or even possible.

The commentary misses the point of poesie entirely: these scenes, imaginative and expressive as they are, cannot be reduced to a depiction of ‘“normalcy.’” These scenes are mythological precisely because they are not ‘normal.’ To try to use Rape of Europa to deduce the sexual standards of either antiquity or of King Philip II’s court is inane.

As in most ‘woke’ commentary, there is no room to question the premises—anyone who dared do so could not avoid condemnation for sexism or other types of unacceptable insensitivity. The Gardner’s website virtue-signals that it consulted with the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center in order to create “content notes to alert visitors to potentially triggering themes in the exhibitions,” adding that “this allows viewers to make an informed decision about whether they feel comfortable engaging with content about sexual violence and assault.” It then lists six internet links to “resources” for “survivors of sexual violence and their supporters, and for all those who want to take action.” What kind of action, and against what, remains unclear.

Completing the travesty of the exhibition, the Gardner commissioned two “response” pieces by contemporary artists. Barbara Kruger’s ‘“artwork’” consists of a zoomed-in depiction of legs—male and female—from Titian’s painting Diana and Actaeon, with the words “Body Language” imposed over the image. Displayed on an outside wall of the Gardner, the utterly uncreative piece looked more like a poorly done ad for the exhibit than a comment about it. 

Body Language by Barbara Kruger described by the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum as “a striking and provocative image of two overlapping bodies … created for the museum’s façade.”

Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley created an animated video in which Mary performs as Europa after her putative rape. The film is supposed to “humanize and liberate her from the subservient and silent role” imposed on her by “male poets and artists.” The film largely consists of menstruation jokes and doggerel sexualizing women of the ancient world, in language that reminds the viewers of nothing more than the rhyme about the man from Nantucket. 

If these ‘responses’ serve any purpose, it is to underscore just how great an artist Titian is in comparison. Mercifully, the exhibition locates both ‘“responses’” at some remove from Titian’s paintings, making them easy to avoid.

For those who are capable of beholding Renaissance art without falling into hysterics, no amount of tendentious commentary can spoil a viewing of the paintings per se. Most of the spectators there when I saw the exhibition seemed drawn to the beauty of Titian’s work, just as the massive crowds who came to Nazi exhibits of “degenerate” modern art were, in general, far more interested in the condemned art than in the damning commentary on the work.  Rape of Europa was recently cleaned, and the vivid colors made it the highlight; the flesh seems to beat with life and the waters churn beneath Jupiter in the guise of a bull spiriting away Europa, who will soon give birth to the first kings of antiquity. 

Who cares if the commentary informs us that our contemporary circumstances make “Middle Eastern and African heritage” and “forced migration … as integral to the story of Europe’s origins as they are to its identity today”? Was this a real concern of Titian’s that all known sources on his life and art somehow missed? Did Philip II especially care about it when his main priorities were in administering Spain’s vast American empire and holding onto far-flung European possessions? The commentary does not even pretend to ground its assertions in the context of the paintings.  

A close-up of Perseus and Andromeda (ca. 1554–1556), a 230 x 243 cm oil on canvas by Titian, on loan from the Wallace Collection, London.

In fact, four of the six paintings directly contradict their tendentious commentary. Perseus and Andromeda (1554-1556) depicts the legendary hero saving Andromeda, a sacrificial victim, from the terrible Kraken. Is this deed, which corresponds to a traditional understanding of male/female strengths, somehow bad? The commentary is silent on that point, though the only external comment (by a person cryptically described as “a student of process and spirit”) questions the meaning of Andromeda—nominally an Ethiopian—being saved by Perseus—a demigod who looks white and European. No answer is provided, simply because, whether we look at the context of the painting or its mythological source, there is none. The story itself comes from a time when our contemporary categories of race were unknown; Titian rendered the story in terms of his own culture. There is no subtext here, despite the commentary’s best efforts to discover one.

And what to make of a brace of paintings on the subject of Diana? (Titian did three paintings but the final one, Death of Actaeon, was never delivered to Philip and is not included here.) Diana and Callisto (1556-1559) shows the goddess pointing accusatorily at the nymph Callisto, who has become pregnant by Jupiter and is to be cast out. Is Callisto’s punishment still unjust or offensive if meted out by a divine woman? The commentary is silent. What about the truly troubling story of Diana and Actaeon (1556-1559), where the painting foreshadows Actaeon’s punishment for accidentally stumbling upon the goddess and her nymphs in their bath: to become prey to his own hounds? How does this painting interact with the imposed ‘sexual assault’ theme of the exhibition? The commentary is silent. What about the tragedy of Venus and Adonis (1553-1554), which shows Adonis refusing the older goddess as she implores him to stay with her rather than go out to the death she has foreseen? The commentary: silent. 

Danaë (1551–1553), a 187 x 204.5 cm oil on canvas by Titian, on loan from the Wellington Collection, Apsley House, London.

It is only in Danaë (1551-1553) that the commentary finds some meat for its grinder. Danaë, who is locked in a tower by her father, is seduced by Jupiter, who transforms himself into a glittering shower of gold to get to her. Even though her fleshy, naked body is the painting’s dominant figure, the commentary says that Danaë’s beauty and the vivid colors surrounding it are beside the point. The commentary’s focus is on the much smaller figure of her servant, a worn-out old woman whose decay contrasts with Danaë’s beauty, allegedly “further fetishizing [Danaë’s] body as the object of Jupiter’s lust.” The servant’s receptiveness to Jupiter’s arrival, furthermore, makes her nothing more than a “troubling facilitator of this sexual encounter.”

I wondered for a moment how “troubling facilitator” could translate into ancient Greek, 16th century Spanish, Titian’s Venetian dialect, or our own language until about four years ago. But the day after I saw the exhibition I read that line to five dinner companions in Mrs. Jack’s native New York, all of whom laughed out loud. All of them are Democrats.

Paul du Quenoy is president of the Palm Beach Freedom Institute. He holds a Ph.D. in history from Georgetown University.

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