Metamorphosis: The National Gallery's Titian 2012

By Rhiannon Starr | 12 July 2012
A photo of a modern gallery with two grand paintings either side of a door lit by lights
Conrad Shawcross, Trophy (2012)© Courtesy Conrad Shawcross / Victoria Miro Gallery, London
Exhibition: Metamorphosis: Titian 2012, National Gallery, London, until 23 September 2012

Declared “the sun amidst small stars” by his 16th century contemporaries, Titian’s masterpieces were a weighty influence on the work of fellow Italian Renaissance painters.  

Now, a series of three Titian paintings are at the heart of Metamorphosis: Titian 2012, an innovative collaboration between the National Gallery and the Royal Ballet.

An image of a colourful abstract painting of a figure across a mountainous scene
Chris Ofili, Ovid - Bather (2010 - 2012)© Courtesy Chris Ofili / Victoria Miro Gallery, London
The paintings Diana and Actaeon, The Death of Actaeon, and Diana and Callisto each depict a dramatic scene described in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Contemporary visual artists Chris Ofili, Mark Wallinger and Conrad Shawcross were invited to create their own work in response, and also to design sets and costumes for three new ballets being produced at The Royal Opera House.

Titian took liberties dramatizing Ovid’s text and, centuries later, Ofili does the same in his own paintings. Ofili saw sexual desire as the primary motive for the actions of both Actaeon and Callisto, so this became a dominant theme in his interpretation. Japanese erotic prints inspired the flat panels of colour, decorative patterns and graphic lines.

He chose to transport the fantastical tales of classical gods and goddesses to the exotic climate of Trinidad. Ovid-Bather offers a tantalising glimpse of a curvaceous figure, skin glowing with warmth from the sunlight, reclining under a waterfall.

A photo of a female performer being held by a male performer, both covered in lights
Metamorphosis has a strong performance element
© Chris Nash
Examples of costumes and a miniature model of each set design are on display too: Ofili’s is a vivid, dream-like environment of tropical flower and root forms.

Turner Prize-winning artist Mark Wallinger was fascinated by the tense moment when Actaeon accidentally intrudes upon the private scene of Diana and her nymphs bathing.

In Titian’s depiction of the scene, he positioned the red curtain as a dramatic device, visually representing Actaeon’s trespass over the line of propriety.

Wallinger’s meditation on intrusion and voyeurism led to a performance piece, which is surprising to stumble across in the National Gallery, despite its status as an institution which examines the history of the male gaze and female nude. Peek through the frosted glass and window shutters of this installation to catch a fleeting, blurred impression of the naked woman occupying the bathroom within.

This preoccupation with invasion of privacy also inspires his set design for Trespass at the Royal Opera House. A curved mirror takes centre stage, which when lit from the front reflects a beautiful pool of light on stage. When lit from behind it becomes transparent, dramatically revealing dancers positioned behind.

The third visual artist, Conrad Shawcross, is known for his architectural, mechanical structures: a very definite leap of faith by the National Gallery and Royal Ballet. As curator Minna Moore Ede jokes, she never imagined that a robot would sit between two Titian oil paintings. But sit there it does: beautiful and hypnotic.

This graceful, anthropomorphic piece of machinery will symbolize the character of Diana in the third Royal Ballet production, entitled Machina.

It swivels, rotates and stretches out with such fluid movement that it seduces the eye. But just like Diana, chaste goddess of the hunt, it is also deadly. The choreography of the ballet had to ensure that dancers would never be within her striking distance.

It is certainly a bold move, but Shawcross is keen to point out that there has always been a race to embrace new technology in the arts – from binding pigments with egg yolk, to the development of photographic techniques.

The ultimate realisation of this extensive creative endeavour is just a few days away, as July 14th marks the first performances of Trespass, Diana and Actaeon and Machina at the Royal Opera House.

If the display at the National Gallery is anything to go by, it is sure to be exciting, imaginative and ground-breaking.

  • Open 10am-6pm (9pm Friday). Admission free.

More pictures:

A photo of a 16th century oil painting of various nude figures lounging in a rural setting
Titian, Diana and Callisto (1556-59)© National Gallery / National Galleries of Scotland. Contributions from National Lottery through Heritage Lottery Fund, Art Fund, The Monument Trust, private appeal and bequests, 2012
A photo of a woman adjusting her make up in a circular mirror against a blue wall
Mark Wallinger, Diana (2012)© Mark Wallinger, courtesy Anthony Reynolds Gallery. Photo: The National Gallery, London
An image of a rich 16th century oil painting of various nudes lounging next to a lake
Titian, Diana and Actaeon (1556-59)© Bought jointly by National Gallery / National Galleries of Scotland. Contributions from Scottish Government, National Heritage Memorial Fund, Monument Trust, Art Fund (with contribution from Wolfson Foundation) and public appeal, 2009 Photo: The National Gallery, London
An image of two colourful contemporary paintings in a dimly-lit gallery with another visible through a door
A series of performances at the Royal Opera House accompany the show
© The National Gallery, London
An image of a rich oil painting of a 16th century female figure in the countryside
Titian, The Death of Actaeon (1556-59)© Bought with special grant and contributions from Art Fund, Pilgrim Trust and public appeal, 1972
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