On reading the press release for this exhibition, the words “mission impossible” came to mind.
The new show, “Metamorphosis: Titian 2012,” at the National Gallery in London sets three contemporary artists a challenge. At the entrance hangs a trio of the greatest pictures Titian painted: “Diana and Actaeon” “Diana and Callisto” and “The Death of Actaeon” -- three masterpieces of western art.
In adjacent rooms, three artists have been invited to “respond” to the Titians. Not surprisingly, and entirely excusably, two of them fail. One, Mark Wallinger, has come up with perhaps the only artistic device that would not be upstaged by Titian’s richly sensual depictions of naked female flesh. He is exhibiting real nude women.
Wallinger’s work, “Diana” (2012) consists of a bathroom, set up in the center of a gallery. Within this space, eight women, each of whom -- by a neat conceptual twist -- is named Diana, in turn take a bath. It’s possible to see inside, but only with difficulty.
There are four vantage points: a keyhole, a couple of small perforations at eye level, a window obscured by a venetian blind within and another frosted window, one small corner of which is broken. Through these, by dint of crouching and peering through the keyhole or squinting sideways through the gap in the window it’s possible to catch a glimpse of what’s happening on the other side of the walls. You might see, for example, a pair of feet immersed in bathwater, or a shoulder being toweled.
Wallinger’s idea is witty. “Diana and Actaeon,” for my money the finest of the three Titians, is all about the punishment of a voyeur. Actaeon, a hunter, accidently stumbled on Diana and her nymphs while they were bathing. Infuriated, the goddess transformed him into a stag; he was then torn to pieces by his own hounds.
Through this installation, Wallinger manages to transform every spectator into a Peeping Tom. It’s impossible to see the work without becoming one. That makes a sharp point. A good deal of art is concerned with staring at sculpture or pictures of naked people. If you do that in real life, you are a voyeur (or perhaps an artist).
For the rest, there’s not much to say. Poor Chris Ofili, as a painter, is in an invidious position side by side with Titian. The pictures on show suggest he has lost his way (temporarily, I hope, since I like his work). They are flat: dull, without Ofili’s earlier fizz and energy.
Conrad Shawcross -- another artist whose work I often admire -- has come up with a robotic mechanism which periodically examines a pair of antlers made from various woods. This seems to represent Diana metamorphosed strangely, yet not very excitingly, into a machine tool.
The rest of the exhibition is made up of costumes, sets -- by the three artists -- and a film of new ballets inspired by Titian. These will be performed by the Royal Ballet, which is collaborating with the National Gallery on the Metamorphosis project (from July 14 to 20).
Some people may say that all this is a grave indignity to inflict on those venerable Titian masterpieces. They look good, though, hung together for the first time since the 18th century.
And the Wallinger, while not a great work, is a clever joke -- and one likely to attract a huge amount of attention from childish types such as school groups and journalists.
“Metamorphosis: Titian 2012” opens tomorrow and runs through Sept. 23 at the National Gallery, London. The exhibition is sponsored by Credit Suisse Group AG. Information: http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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