‘Metamorphosis – Titian 2012′ is another exhibition staged as part of the Cultural Olympiad. It brings together, for the first time in centuries, three of Titian’s works inspired by the story of Diana and Actaeon in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and shows them alongside works, specially commissioned for the event, by contemporary artists, Chris Ofili, Conrad Shawcross and Mark Wallinger, carrying on the tag game of inspiration passing from one artist to another.
As well as the art works, the Metamorphosis programme includes three new ballets and other performances, which are represented in the National Gallery by a film of the rehearsal process and models of the stage sets.
One of the most striking aspects of my visit to the exhibition was how quiet it was. My footsteps echoed across the Sainsbury Wing lobby and downstairs to the show rooms. Perhaps it was noticeable to me because the last time I was in this part of the gallery was to see the da Vinci exhibition, which I shuffled through in a long line of people, peering over the heads of the short people at the front, or because Trafalgar Square outside was a heaving throng of soon to be underwhelmed people, kept in line by policemen from Manchester, waiting to see the olympic torch (but don’t let me get going on that bugbear again…).
I wasn’t completely alone in the exhibition space, but it didn’t really count as a crowd.
The Titian paintings depict aspects of the mythical story in which Actaeon spies on Diana in her bath. When she discovers him, she turns him into a stag and he is pursued and killed by his own hunting dogs. They are full of classical detail, and reclining flesh, drapery and little dogs in the corner of the canvas. I spent a long time looking at them trying to capture and appreciate all the little touches and detail. The story is there: the transgressiveness of voyeurism, no matter how accidental, the immediacy of punishment and revenge, and the fatal injustice of not being seen for what you really are.
I found the contemporary responses less compelling. I think it’s time to admit that I simply don’t understand what Chris Ofili is getting at. Ever. This isn’t the first of his shows that have left me unmoved and disinterested even though I do understand there are those who find interest in his work.
Conrad Shawcross uses old industrial machinery to both produce work and to feature in the presentation of that work. I like watching machinery, you know, the steam engines at the Science Museum, and films of factory production lines making light bulbs or the bottling line you usually get to see at the end if you go on a tour of a vineyard or spirits producer. Consequently I quite enjoyed watching the articulated arm of the machine he’d used to carve a set of antlers bend and wave circumscribing invisible lines in the air, all the time wondering what Titian might have made of it.
Mark Wallinger’s is a fully functioning bathroom, a white shiny space, visible only through peering through the keyhole or cracks in a window, or if you could get the right angle to see through the Venetian blinds. The viewer stands in a dark space, peering in at a woman in the bath; a real woman, one of a cast the artist found through putting an ad online for women called Diana, who were interested in participating.
Crouching down to look through the keyhole there is a slightly uncomfortable feeling of being made into a voyeur. Having said that the staginess of it acts to undermine the notion, and then waiting in line for my turn to look through the crack in the corner of the window behind a man holding up his young son, all trainers and Harry Potter backpack, so he was high enough to see, was a tad on the surreal side. Their conversation was the highlight for me.
Boy: ‘I can’t see anything.’
Man: Close one eye; that’ll work better.
Boy: ‘Why is the lady in there?’
Man: ‘It’s art. Like in the painting outside where the man was spying on the lady.’
Boy: ‘The lady with no clothes on?’
Boy: ’Does this lady have no clothes on?’
Man: (putting his own eye up to the glass) ‘Yes. She’s not wearing anything.’
Boy: ‘Is she locked in? What if she wants to come out? Will she have no clothes on then?’
Man: ‘Shall we go and get an ice-cream?’