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Titian behind closed doors: the ethics of an erotic gaze.

Titian's greatest masterpieces are currently under quarantine in the National Gallery, after this landmark exhibition was forced to close two days after opening to the public. Gaia Clark Nevola reviews the BBC documentary that subsequently took its place.

“Anybody who loves painting loves Titian.” With these bold words and the familiar, if rather flat, echo of Einaudi’s piano, the BBC streamed, digital rendition of the National Gallery’s ‘Titian: Love, Desire, Death’ opens. 

Undeniably, the exhibition was a historic event. For the first time in more than 400 years, since they were hung together in Prince Philip of Spain’s palace, Titian’s seven paintings (or ‘poesie’ as he preferred them to be termed) interpreting Ovid’s Metamorphoses are once again reunited in one room, to be viewed together as intended by the painter. In an exceptional stroke of bad luck, the occasion was, as we are all keenly aware, inaugurated by a global pandemic, and two days after opening its doors to the public, the paintings are locked away until further notice. So, enter the BBC to distribute Titian to the nation.

The structure of the one-hour episode seems to be in a continuous process of slippage. The linear procession of walking through an exhibition breaks down, there is little overarching narrative; the beginning, middle and end blend together into a confused and confusing smoothie. Credible academics are interspersed in syncopation with random Titian aficionados who happen to inhabit the buildings where the painter once lived, a qualification which apparently renders them eligible to impart valuable contributions to the field. At first, this seems to be done for comedic effect. Julia Panama, the current resident of the multi-million-pound Venice property which used to be Titian’s home, bristles with excitement as she is given a good 5-minute chunk of airtime to explain how her choices of painted wallpaper and plush teal ottomans are infused with the essence of Titian. Later, she whips out her phone, showing anyone who will listen pictures of herself on the cover of Cosmo back in the 70s. She introduces a friend to the camera too, an artist apparently, who now paints in the studio where Titian once worked. He too is keen to whip his phone out, explaining in broken English laced with Italian that:“Sono un galantuomo… ti faccio vedere le mie donne” (I am a gentleman…I’ll show you my women), a statement he uses to preface scrolling through pictures of his multiple, and noticeably much younger, girlfriends. “Better than Casanova,” he smiles charmingly, no hint of an apology. In these moments of surreal chauvinism, I wonder if conscious parallels are being struck between the sexist male gaze of the artist today and that of the 16th century but am left unsure if enough thought has been invested to even do that. 

I had never been to a digital art exhibition before this one. Sure, art history programmes I’d seen a-plenty, but the dynamics here are interestingly different. As well as showing the paintings, which to be frank they do precious little of, interviews and footage from the exhibition’s trailer are woven in too. They have the head curator, leaders in the field, art critics. They even rope in Mary Beard. This programme bustles with discordant voices struggling to quite align, and what feels like rushed editing does little to alleviate this problem. Everyone seems keen to mark out their patch on how best to do the viewing, on what story is being told. “These are pictures about desire, about looking,” says Matthias Wivel, head curator, but the direction of where, and how, to carry out this looking is very much left open to debate. 

Rupert Featherstone and Alec Cobbe, art conservators, form a different, rather more grotesque comedy duo than Julia and her painter friend. They gaze at the nude: “It’s a very erotic picture, with the back view, where so much is, sort of… left to the imagination,” the former says, making sweeping hourglass figures with his gently folded hand “but you’ve also got this: her very prominent bottom!”. A flash of a grin, surely the most naughty fun he’s had since school, but he’s not done yet. “There’s a variety of bottoms, there’re different forms…I like the pressure of sitting.” No one steps in to criticise.

The problem really with the programme is the staggering lack of sensitivity. Titian’s Poesies, for all their vibrancy of colour, the complexity of texture, and importance as cornerstones in Western art, are without exception scenes of violence perpetrated against women. True, the stories are age-old Greek myths, but the subject matter remains. These are men gazing on unconsenting bathing women, women chained up nude to rocks, women pregnant and victims of rape being publicly shamed, women abducted by male gods to be assaulted. To titter lightly over the pleasantness of ‘bottoms’ pushed down by the weight of sitting is not a matter for academic disagreement, but what feels like an insult to content and viewer.  

Jill Burke, author of the monograph ‘The Italian Renaissance Nude’, comes across the best in the programme by far, along with Mary Beard. Forty-five (painful?) minutes in, Burke is allowed finally to criticise the absurdity of failing to engage with content: “we don’t look at the subject matter, we look at brushstrokes and genius… the art world colludes in this objectification.” There is bitterness in her tone, and rightly so; there is a great male privilege in being allowed to gaze on paintings of violated women’s bodies, with no need to consider the ethics of the erotic act of gazing. 

I am not suggesting that Titian’s work, along with some of the stuffy scholars who have been interviewed, ought to be binned overnight. Mary Beard is right to say that these paintings are important, even crucial, cultural points that provoke discussion. Titian’s paintings are painted with extraordinary skill. They might tell us things too: about how ideas of beauty and eroticism have been shaped over time, about how military and political power has historically been enmeshed in male notions of power over the female body. Let us be clear though; these images do not, in any way, speak to an authentic experience of violence against women. These images are laced with a smoke-screen of what has been consistently convenient for a male-centric, patriarchal society to perceive a woman in pain to look like: scantily clad and beautiful, objects of desire. These fetishized nudes should not be pointed to as ways of understanding rape or the gendered disparity in power dynamics. If they were, they would not have hung on the walls of oppressive kings. 

“Anybody who loves painting loves Titian.” Perhaps, right at the start of this rather disappointing programme my heckles should have risen, wary of anything trying to universally pin down subjective opinion as a constant and unshakable marker of what is beautiful, important or greatI am reminded of Terry Eagleton, defining the act of labelling something as beautiful as colonially establishing hegemony. A hegemony of the aggressive male gaze is replicated not only by Titian but far more troublingly by so many of the talking heads in the programme. “To demand that art be morally pure is basically to demand that art not do what it has always done. That’s what art helps us do, art is not there to provide a moral example, art is there to ask us questions, or make us ask questions of each other,” crows Wivel, rounding off the programme. Quite possibly, he is right. However, if we are to ask ourselves honest questions and have open honest conversations, we must first learn to see Titian’s nudes clearly, and not simply through the hegemonic gaze of the sublime, erotic and aesthetic. 

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