Metamorphosis: Titian 2012 (National Gallery)

The National Gallery is exhibiting its three Titian Dianas together for the first time since the C18th: Diana and Callisto, 1556-9; Diana and Actaeon, 1556-9, and The Death of Actaeon, 1559-75 and has asked artists, choreographers, poets, and composers to respond to their themes of voyeurism, metamorphosis, violence, seduction, resulting in poems, three new ballets (Royal Ballet), and art works.

A superb idea on the face of it (especially given that Titian thought of his paintings as poesie anyway) and as an art historian, writer, and ballet lover, this should have been my perfect exhibition. So why was the end result so disappointing? The artists involved all have pedigree: Chris Ofili, Conrad Shawcross, Mark Wallinger, as do the seven choreographers and the three composers…. but with the exception of the poets there is not a single woman artist here. Are there no female choreographers, no female composers? Why not Jenny Saville, Susan Hiller, Sophie Calle, Vanessa Beecroft? Does it matter?

Well, yes. Particularly given the context of the National Gallery where you struggle to find any work by women artists they’re so under represented. (And I think the acquisitions policy should consider this.) In Metamorphosis: Titian 2012 even Mark Wallinger – an artist I’ve admired since A Real Work of Art – disappoints. Putting a series of real-life Dianas in a bath and making us into contemporary Actaeons (Norman Bates comes to mind) in order to highlight the voyeurism implicit in Titian is a good idea…. or would have been, had it been made in the 1970s at the beginnings of feminist art historian practice and scholarship (think Hannah Wilke, think Nochlin, think Laura Mulvey) or even in the 1980s post-The Guerilla Girls. But now? It’d have been more interesting to see a male nude in there. Unless it’s a very sly dig at the show’s sponsors Credit Suisse, given the frequency with which bankers (used to?) grace lap dancing clubs, hostess clubs etc.

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So yes, the ballets look good (Wallinger’s set design in particular), and Ofili’s Metamorphoses paintings convey shape-shifting and Shawcross’ re-imagined industrial robot Trophy has a kind of monumental quality but given the show had a female curator in Minna Moore-Ede, it feels like a wasted opportunity.

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