Bodies flailing through the air, mythical creatures rushing by in a blur, golden rays of light and mounds and mounds of flesh: Titian’s poesie series is wild, dramatic, violent and very, very sensual.
The Renaissance master’s works are reunited in full here for the first time since the 1500s. The seven huge paintings here tell stories from Greek myth – ‘Diana and Actaeon’, ‘Venus and Adonis’, ‘The Rape of Europa’ – with heaving passion and lyrical intensity. At a time when painting was dominated by religious themes and visual restraint, these free-flowing works were a shock to the system. Like living in a world of Ken Loach films then suddenly watching Michael Bay’s ‘Transformers’.
‘Diana and Actaeon’ and ‘Diana and Callisto’ are the fleshiest things here, both filled with endless undulations of white and pink. In the first, Actaeon stumbles across the goddess Diana and her nude nymphs having a bath in the forest. Shocked and enraged by the peeping Tom, Diana turns him into a stag. Then in ‘The Death of Actaeon’ – darkest work in the series – Diana slays the half-stag Actaeon with her bow and arrow. He’s a blur of motion, caught in splodges of brown and ochre; she’s bright, golden and precise.
There are mirrored elements throughout the works: the whirling cherub in ‘The Rape of Europa’ echoes Perseus caught mid-air as he saves Andromeda from a sea monster; Adonis fleeing Venus has the same aggressive motion as Diana killing Actaeon, and on and on.
Furthermore, each work is the same shape and size (except for ‘Danäe’ which some plonker trimmed in the eighteenth century), so viewing them together, with all those repeated elements, is like watching an epic movie unfold around you in ultra-slow motion. There are so many narratives, emotions and actions happening that it’s almost impossible to take it all in. And that’s before you even start thinking about the actual art of it: the compositional genius, the sly looks, the wobbling flesh, the snarling dogs, the violence, the sex, the anger. There’s so much to see, so much to say, so much to analyse.
The captions, however, are brutally cringe and we could do with a whole lot more context from the gallery, but walking into that room and being totally surrounded by those paintings is totally magical. It’s taken 500 years for these pictures to be reunited, but it’s been more than worth the waiT.
National Gallery , Trafalgar Square Until Sunday January 17 2021