At the National Gallery

Peter Campbell

The painting A Man with a Quilted Sleeve in the Titian exhibition at the National Gallery (until 18 May) makes sense as a self-portrait. The bearded young man looks over his shoulder towards you as an artist would who had turned from canvas to mirror. There are also two undoubted self-portraits here. The Berlin picture (from the mid to late 1540s) shows Titian in vigorous old age – although exactly how old he was is a mystery since his date of birth is uncertain. The one from the Prado, painted something over ten years later, shows him frailer and more contemplative. In all three images the confidence and authority of the faces is matched in the work. But they are all different in style and handling. No painter was less constrained by his own example.

If you accept a birth date of about 1490, he would be in his twenties in the first picture. Around that time he was painting both devotional works like Gypsy Madonna (seen here), in which the reserve and modesty of the Virgins of his erstwhile master Giovanni Bellini is replaced by a more robust humanity, and pastoral pieces like the Louvre Concert champêtre (long attributed to Giorgione, now more often to Titian) and The Three Ages of Man. There a naked young man gazes soulfully into the eyes of a clothed young woman. (In the Concert the woman is naked.) A little later he painted Sacred and Profane Love (which is in the catalogue but has not made it to the exhibition).[*] This picture and The Three Ages of Man combine lyrical-pastoral eroticism with end of the day light. Less than ten years later, in the early 1520s, when he came to paint Bacchus and Ariadne, The Worship of Venus and The Andrians for Alfonso d’Este, he found a way of telling stories which, as Charles Hope puts it in the introductory essay to the catalogue, ‘has proved so seductive that we still see mythology through the eyes of Titian and his later imitators’.

Contemplative, even slightly melancholy pastoral has been replaced by a dance-like interlacing of figures, shown either in movement or sitting and lying in poses that imply action (sometimes on someone else’s part). The pictures went to Rome in 1598, and have long been spread around the world. Along with Giovanni Bellini’s Feast of the Gods (with new landscape and sky by Titian) and some of the frieze of panels by Dosso Dossi illustrating the Aeneid, Titian’s paintings are hung here in the positions suggested by Charles Hope’s reconstruction of their original setting, the Camerino, one of the private rooms created by the Duke in his palace in Ferrara. There is no natural light in the National Gallery basement. Hope took the direction from which light falls in the paintings into account in making his reconstruction, but direct experience of a significant element in what made the suite of pictures hang together is lost. Moreover getting on for five hundred years have taken their toll. There is a gap on the wall where Dossi’s Bacchanal with Vulcan (now lost) would have hung, and cleaning, restoration and repainting have left the adjacent Andrians and Bacchus and Ariadne jarringly different from each other in tone and colour. Nor, in the absence of the enclosing fourth wall, is there much sense of how small the original room must have been. Their frames unmatched and close hung, the pictures have something of the ad hoc jostle you get in an auction room. None of this matters very much – although one longs for a little daylight – but it does make it plain that even with the pictures together again there is still a lot of work left for the historical imagination. You have, in particular, to look at them as though ignorant of the later painted mythologies they adumbrate if the full wonder of what was achieved is to come home to you.

In the second self-portrait the young man who had become the most successful and most admired painter in Northern Italy has matured and aged. Here one sees the internationally famous artist and painter of fashionable portraits – among those in the exhibition are the young Ranuccio Farnese, Pope Paul III and Titian’s friend and publicist Pietro Aretino. The last two are remarkable for the way they use clothes as a kind of landscape – the Pope’s cape rising like a hill to support the head and Aretino’s rich velvet coat crossing his body in a brilliant curve, its highlighted creases indicated by broad, direct brush strokes. Here, and in the Berlin self-portrait, the free, ‘unfinished’ Venetian manner, in which seeing and making marks are so entwined that they seem to have become a single activity, has taken the place of craftsmanlike finish. From now on one feels, looking at the pictures, what X-rays confirm: that conception and creation have become a continuous process. Heads and arms are moved about; the viewer responds to movement preserved in visible brush strokes, and to the way that surface movement is at play with the movement implied by poses. Effects were, to some extent, achieved by trial and error and pictures were put aside and returned to, sometimes years later.

The Berlin self-portrait is from 1546-47. In 1548 Titian went to Augsburg at the invitation of Charles V. From then on he was, to all intents and purposes, court painter to the Habsburgs, and rich. His income from Venetian sinecures and Habsburg pensions was about twice that of the highest-paid Venetian government official, while his relationship with Philip II gave him what seems to have been almost total freedom in what he painted. The pictures, portraits apart, give no sense of being directed by anything except his own desires (not that he was unobservant of national tastes: he advised Pontormo to ‘show much blood and nails’ when working for the Spaniards). Among the pictures in the exhibition which were sent to Philip in the 1560s and 1570s are an Entombment, The Tribute Money and Tarquin and Lucretia. These were the work of the old man one sees in the Prado portrait of around 1560. The magnificence of the pictures, the haunting and terrible calm of The Flaying of Marsyas and the solemn, blurred tenderness of the National Gallery’s late Virgin and Child must be added to his earlier inventions – which included a new directness and humanity in portrait painting. Considering all this leaves one with the feeling that much of European painting in the centuries which followed has been an extended footnote to his work.

This is a wonderful exhibition. The dramas and difficulties of mounting such a show are hinted at by those few things which are in the catalogue but not on the walls (Sacred and Profane Love, the Hermitage St Sebastian) and those which are in the show but not in the catalogue (The Flaying of Marsyas and the Ancona Crucifixion). The latter is significant as among other things a contribution to the debate about which of the pictures pointed to as examples of Titian’s late style were simply unfinished. The Crucifixion was delivered, and therefore reckoned to be finished, but it is also strikingly economical and bold in its details.

That debate is interesting because to look at a lot of Titian’s paintings all together in one place is not to be exposed to a personal vision of the world so much as to experience different ways in which images can be made to impinge on the imagination. Sometimes you feel that a calm and brilliant experiment in perceptual psychology is being carried out; that Titian’s genius lay not in finding new things to say, but in finding ways of saying old things – the pastoral, mythological, religious, dynastic – which refreshed them. At the end of his life he found how effective extreme economy of means and suggestive rather than firmly descriptive marks could be. In some cases at least it’s up to us to decide which paintings are finished and seen as he intended them to be.

[*] Titian, edited by David Jaffé (National Gallery, 192 pp., £25, February, 1 85709 904 4).