T HE BIG DRAW OF PARIS IN THE SPRING OF 1993 WAS THE show titled “The Century of Titian,” which filled the Grand Palais with the most comprehensive exhibition devoted to the work and influ-ence of a single Renaissance painter in living memory—a feast for the eyes and a landmark in modern museum history.
Few artists have ever dominated a period, and a cultural frame, the way Titian did. His public career as an artist began with the new century, around 1505; it lasted until 1576, when he was carried off by the plague, still painting, at the age of about 90. Titian’s work, so masterly in its effects, so profoundly inventive, so grand in scope and yet relieved by such suppleness and intimacy of feeling, continued to set the tone of aspiration for Rubens in the 17th century and, through Rubens, for painters like Delacroix well into the 19th. Titian was the son of a provincial notary, born in Pieve di Cadore in north Italy in 1478 or 1479. Apprenticed to a Venetian artist before his 10th birthday (no child labor, no Renaissance), he learned from the two painters whose work incarnated the “modern style,” Giovanni Bellini and Giorgio da Castelfranco, alias Giorgione. Bellini supplied the prototypes for one side of early Titian: his suave construction of pictorial space and pragmatic realism. The imagery of Giorgione, Titian’s exact eoeval, was more mysterious and poetic.
The most enduring product of the relation between Titian and Giorgione was the pastoral, the landscape of pleasure, the earthly paradise derived from Latin liter- ature, with its shepherds, gallants and nymphs. The picture that starts this long train is Titian’s Concert Chainpetre, circa 1509, which is one of the most hermetic and disputed images in all Western art. No theory will ever quite account for the magic of the scene, with the two naked women in the mature and fruitful landscape and the two clothed men, one standing for Culture—as his city dress, his lute and the rhyme between his elegant hat and sharp profile and the architecture on the hill be- hind him proclaim—while the other, rustic and mop-headed like the tree behind him, signifies Nature. This originally pagan, arcadian image would come to perme- ate Venetian culture, even affecting religious art. Learned but never pedantic, steeped in the classics, Titian could mediate fluently between the world of Ovid and what to him was modern life. His integration of idea, observation and pictorial gesture was seamless. He consolidated a style of portraiture that would radiate throughout Europe: the official mask in the grand manner, suffused with mobile thought and subtle indications of personality. Titian’s nudes may not conform to modern erotic taste. They are too plump and “womanly.” But when his unbounded sensual curiosity played upon the idealized territory of the classical nude, he changed the whole sexual balance of the naked body in art, creating an inexhaust-ible domain of feeling for others as well as himself, in his late years Titian sought only to release his deepest feelings in whatever roughhewn language they required. Old Titian is like old Michelangelo, the master of apparent incompletion. Old Titian is the astonishing predecessor of Expressionism: smooth modeling in continuous, rational space gives way to the agitated sea of paint, the broken emphatic touch, the gleam of marshlight or fire on darkness laid into yet more darkness.
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