There can be such a thing as too much history. One encounters it in cities like Venice and Paris, where the boulevards and the canals have ceased carrying significant cultural traffic to ferry around sclerotic hordes of tourists instead. Even London, a bustling town that wears its newfound relevance as a financial and cultural center proudly, is not immune to behaving like a museum. At times London can seem pokey as an attic, old-fashioned as a great-aunt and irremediably, hopelessly twee (Brit-speak for quaintness). Yet London is also a city that does old well, imbuing the hallowed with something like a spirit of lived relevance. More believable than the Met, more genuine than the Frick, London’s great collections speak to bygone strengths and also to a vibrant, current ambition to display the best art in the world to its visitors. In that, at present, it has New York beat.
"When it’s three o’clock in New York," Bette Midler once said, "it’s still 1938 in London." But not inside London’s National Gallery, where Bronzinos, Holbeins and Rubens have been pushed aside to make room for an exhibition that is worthy of the term blockbuster. Inside the museum’s Sainsbury Wing, on the north side of Trafalgar Square and opposite Nelson’s Column, hangs the eponymous "Titian," the first major exhibition in Britain devoted to the work of the 16th-century Italian giant.
Packed by ticket-holding locals and foreigners alike, the 42 paintings brought together by the National Gallery and Spain’s Museo del Prado have set off something of a British craze for the artist and his images. Posters and books and t-shirts abound, as do Titian-inspired movie programs (all of the films take place in Venice), ticket giveaways and wine tastings. Anticipating the crush that followed the Feb. 19 opening, the National Gallery has extended its opening hours until 9 in the evening four days a week to make room for additional attendance. Titian, it seems—though nearly five centuries old—has among 21st century Britons become very, very new again.
"Titian," the historian and painter Giorgio Vasari wrote in 1550, "…deserves to be loved and studied by artists and in many things admired and imitated, for the works he has made are worthy of infinite praise, and will last as long as illustrious men are remembered." Born Tiziano Vecellio in Cadore, a small town in the north of Italy, around 1490, Titian (as he is called in English) became the greatest painter of the period now pegged as the High Renaissance. A consolidator of knowledge as well as an innovator, Titian painted for the world’s richest and most powerful patrons, first in Venice and then throughout Europe. Subsequent generations of artists, among them Velazquez, Rubens and Van Dyck, drew deeply from his influence and even fought to own his paintings.
Titian was the most celebrated of all Venetian painters and the first painter to achieve European fame in his lifetime. He was also the first artist ever to successfully cross the threshold into full-fledged notability (the Renaissance version of superstardom). Sought after by rich merchants, nobles, popes and kings, Titian could select from among the best commissions and so ensure that his works would be enshrined in the continent’s most important churches and picture galleries. Such was Titian’s fame that his early biographers have claimedw that Charles V, the most powerful man in Europe, once stooped to pick up Titian’s brush—an unheard of gesture for royalty, even today. Apocryphal or not, the story illustrates Titian’s status during his own age. Though, technically speaking, the artist made his living with his hands, Titian was widely held by the most miserable rabble and exalted nobility alike to be indisputably one of the most important men of his day.
Titian was the unequaled exponent of Venetian color or colorito, and his great claim to fame lay in his melding of color with disegno, or drawing line, typical of Florentine artists like Michelangelo and Raphael. No longer drawing plus coloring, Titian inaugurated a new vision that organized the picture plane according to patterns of color and areas of light and dark, which he balanced with the rational three-dimensional arrangement of figures and objects in space. His work marked a decisive change in the trajectory of European painting. Thanks to Titian, it has long been possible for a moustache or belt buckle to be captured with a few precisely applied strokes. The importance of such a notion today is so great as to be obvious and destined to be constantly overlooked.
What cannot be overlooked are Titian’s paintings themselves: pictures of religious, mythological and historical subjects as well as portraits of the great and not-so-great men and women of the age. Titian’s paintings moved from inexperienced spontaneity to a controlled blurred or "unfinished" look during a uniquely long career (he lived to be 90). Among the gems at the National Gallery’s stupendous exhibition are La Schiavona, an acutely realistic portrait of a plus-sized beauty standing beside a profile marble bust of herself that contains a brilliant polemic. This is a painting about the power of painting, a rebuff to sculpture that makes a claim for the title of greatest of the arts. Titian shows that painting can imitate both life and sculpture (while sculpture cannot imitate the colors of life) and that painters can represent a figure from more than one point of view at a time.
Another masterpiece, The Three Ages of Man, shows Titian harnessing his considerable powers as a landscape painter to the enigmatic largesse of his allegorical imagination. Borrowing the memory of the Dolomite mountains surrounding his birthplace, Titian painted a moody landscape holding a pair of post-coital lovers, two slumbering infants and the far-off image of an old man flanked by gaping skulls. This is a meditation on the cycle of life and death, a memento mori that extends its narrative to the painted landscape, mirroring fecundity with verdancy, while surrounding infancy and senescence with the barrenness of crusty soil.
A third portrait, that of the picture dealer and antiquarian Jacopo Strada, displays Titian’s quick, painterly intelligence as well as his amazingly subtle powers of characterization. Titian clearly disliked this man, but he needed him. The painting captures Strada in his shop dressed in his best gold and finery, including a fur the artist was to get as part of the deal and which he painted falling off the dealer’s shoulders. According to the chiaroscuro laid on around his face, Strada is a shady character; Titian painted him manhandling the statue of a Venus with a pair of lusty, claw-like hands. The ultimate portrait of the fraught, tousled relationship between an artist and his dealer, the picture portrays a conflict whose essential parts have remained unchanged these five centuries. And how many other works of art can one really say that about?
"Titian" in Britain is itself worth the trip. It won’t be coming to New York, so call your airlines now.