It’s a truth universally acknowledged (to borrow an opening from Jane Austen), that female flesh is used to sell the work and sometimes even the reputation of an artist. Case in point: at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, a show opened yesterday called “Titian and the Golden Age of Venetian Painting.” The keystone works, two companion pieces by Titian , 1488-1576, based on Ovid’s “Metamorphoses.” At the height of his career Titian was given a commission by King Philip II of Spain to paint whatever subjects he wanted; for this, the artist would receive a yearly stipend. The arrangements were unprecedented: a mark of Titian’s preeminence and the king’s appreciation of his work.
Perhaps the best known of Titian’s canvasses for the king is “The Rape of Europa,” in Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner museum. I remember it from dim-dark college art history, when the bull (Zeus in one of his many seductive guises) yearns back at Europe flung across his back, as he hoofs it off through the foam to Crete. This was one of Zeus’s more gentle seductions: hiding among her father’s herds, he became the object of her affection, his horns twined with flowers, her hand caressing his flank. What I love about Titian’s depiction of this “rape” is its diagonal composition–bull and dame speed off across the lower right, while a huge swath of canvas is given over to luscious seascape with two nymphs hovering above.
Titian’s Europe is fully clad in diaphanous gauze. Not so Diana and her nymphs in the two works at the MIA. They sit, lounge, bend, stand completely nude, hardly idealized, heavy-bottomed, round-tummied, small-breasted northern Italian women. No doubt art historians would applaud this tendency toward physical realism. In both paintings–Actaeon surprising Diana and her nymphs in their bath, and Diana banishing her nymph Callisto for becoming impregnated by Zeus in one of his many disguises. In both canvases, the huntress Diana and her nymphs provide a frieze, shot with light and shade, motion and sensuality, of female flesh. Reportedly, Mark Twain is supposed to have quipped, too salacious for any setting but a museum.
Why do they make me squeamish? I’m not at all put off by Titian’s “Venus of Urbino” in the Uffizzi, or by Manet’s 19th-century French take off–“Olympia”– both women with cool, poised and looking right atcha gazes. Both self-aware, in command of their nudity. In fact, they are regal. “Tamper with me if you dare.” But there’s something in the two Diana works that disquiets me. Perhaps the veil of incident is too obviously a ploy, a scrim of myth over what is in reality a display of female meat for the private delectation of the “male gaze.” But I think there’s more to it. In both, Diana will render harsh judgment on Actaeon and Callisto for challenging her supposed chastity. She’ll turn Actaeon into a stag who will be hunted down and killed by his own hunting dogs. “Aw, Mom, I didn’t mean to stumble on your female revels. Gimme a break! It was all a mistake.” But Mom is cruel and relentless.
Ditto even more pathetic Callisto, whose vow of chastity in the service of the hunting queen is breached by Zeus’s even more powerful wiles. In this painting, Diane is draped across the right side of the picture in frontal display, while poor Callisto, writhing in the rather smirking grip of other nymphs, goes down to banishment. Her pregnant belly with its huge umbilical depression sags like a sack of grain. Titian has made her ugly, her tortured face cast in agonizing shadow. Those of us who identify with women, their history and fate, find this reprehensible. There’s a terrible and rather disgusting double message here: the nudity for male delectation; the cruelty of the queen, a tease to male viewers, suggesting other life-moments when they, too, have suffered from female rejection. It’s a classical version of sado-masochism.
Many artists in their old age reach deep into the human dilemma for some of their greatest works. Rembrandt’s “Lucretia” in the MIA permanent collection is, for me, the most potent example. Creating these Diana canvases in the few decades before his death, Titian may also have intended to plumb the human psyche and its murky depths. Apart from their superficial lusciousness, these two works roil up questions and disgust. And admiration of a kind.