Titian’s “Women, Myth and Power” at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum pits classical art against modern morality

TW: mentions of sexual assault and abuse

A new exhibit at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, which opened on August 12 and will run through January 2, titled Titian: women, myth and power, brings together six ancient paintings that have dark and complicated personal histories and traditions.

The oil paintings on canvas are all designed to represent Greco-Roman myths, featuring iconic figures like Jupiter, Diana, and Theseus. Almost all of the subjects are nude and are etched on six-by-six foot canvases in vivid colors and larger-than-life detail.

The group of works of art is called poetry, a French word meaning “poetic paintings”. The paintings were named so because each is based on a poem from ancient Roman author Ovid’s most famous work, “Metamorphoses,” an epic 12,000-line poem recounting his interpretation of the entire history of the world. until the assassination of Juilus Caesar. The collection was designed by the famous Renaissance artist Tiziano Vecelli, or as he is better known, Titian.

The coins were originally commissioned by King Philip of Spain in 1550 and after his death were separated from each other and scattered across Europe. One painting, however, was highly sought after by famous local Boston art collector, Isabella Stewart Gardner. Thereby, The Abduction of Europe crossed the sea to the United States in 1896.

Piera Cavalchini, the esteemed Tom and Lisa Blumenthal curator of contemporary art at the museum, explained the history of the piece to the museum Creative collision panel. The panel also included two contemporary filmmakers whose work complements the exhibition, as well as leading experts in the fields of art, mythology and history.

“As the title suggests, the painting portrays the kidnapping and eventual rape of the character Europa,” Cavalchini said in the artist panel. “Titian’s other poetry, five in number, also called painted poems like the European rape, are all these great stories of sexual violence and coercion, themes not uncommon among Renaissance artists.

In addition to the six poems and two other 500-year-old portraits of Titian, the exhibition also features two contemporary pieces, produced in response to Titian’s work.

“We share our founder Isabella Stuart Gardner’s commitment to the living artist, to contemporary artists,” Cavalchini said. “This season, we engage with artists who have influenced and are influenced by the feminist movement and cultural criticism, and who allow their work to question the representation and objectification of women, art and culture. company.”

A contemporary response piece, Body language, is a digital graphic art work by Barbara Kruger, a leading figure in the art world specializing in collage, who rearranges the details of Titian’s poem painting Diana and Actaeon to capture an obscure and sexually provocative moment. It was designed to stimulate thinking and reconsideration about power, sexuality and submission. The image is installed on the Facade Anne H. Fitzpatrick on the exterior wall of the Museum’s main entrance, covering the building with display screens.

The other answer piece is a short film by internationally acclaimed filmmakers Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley. Their film is narrated by a more modern version of Europa who is dressed in work clothes and sarcastically addresses the audience between scenes.

Photo: Courtesy of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
An image from the short film by Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley

Europa’s screen time is interspersed with limericks detailing fables and folklore about mythological women from around the Mediterranean. The poems are written in a particularly vulgar manner and are recited over crude Vaudevillian theater acts.

Mary Reid Kelley is an Artist in Residence at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum who painted the sets for the film, wrote the poetry, and performed the role of the entire cast, among other artistic roles.

“One of our first impressions seeing the painting was that it was funny,” said Mary Reid Kelley. “There was a clear slapstick quality in the way Europa tumbles down the back [of the bull] and her skirts fly off in a very predictive way of Marilyn Monroe. Cupids and Fish somehow imitate what she does. And so it’s clearly fun. And then, of course, the bull’s head, which is probably my favorite part of the painting, is just looking at you like, “Did you get it? As if he was waiting for the laughter.

For many who saw the film and others who attended the museum’s artist panel featuring the Kelleys, this approach seemed like a shocking transgression in the realm of humor and fantasy, given the dark story that played out in the source material.

The original tale, taken from Ovid’s epic poem “Metamorphoses,”Is the story of the rape of Europe at the hands of Zeus, the god of thunder and king of the gods. He transforms into a bull and urges Europe to ride on his back. He kidnaps her and takes her to the island of Crete, where he reveals his true identity to her, and proceeds to the assault and lets her carry three of his children.

Mary Reid Kelley made it clear that she and her partner understand the gravity and darkness of the story they are reinterpreting.

“She’s going through real devastation,” said Mary Reid Kelley. “For us, there were these two facets: being funny and also recognizing the seriousness of the crime and the absolute destruction of being.”

Patrick Kelley, a trained videographer who contributed to various aspects of the production of the piece, added his own thoughts on the matter to the Museum Creative collision panel.

“When we say we’ve both seen this humor in the painting, we have to qualify it as humor with a patina,” Kelley said. “This patina, or at least for us, is who the original audience was. It was this closed audience of all men, painting men, painting for other men. We perceive that kind of single-layered humor in the sense that it was done with this inner joke that fetishizes violence.

During the panel, Jill Burke, professor of Renaissance visual and material cultures at the University of Edinburgh, explained that although the history of the original poetry residence is shrouded in secrecy, much can be learned of things from the surrounding context. This background is essential for understanding Titian’s thought process in creating a series of paintings that leveraged humor against stories of brutal tragedy.

“We know they were in a small room,” Burke said. “They were for Philip and they would have been intended for him and a few close friends of the court of Spain. Spain in particular had a lot of taboos against nudity, and against female sexuality and representations of birth, more than other European countries. The generation after Philip II began to have rooms reserved. They were just for the aristocrats, just for Men, to see these images. These images were not intended for a general audience at all.

Burke echoed the Kelleys’ sentiments that the six poems were “inner jokes” and that they were not meant to be renowned works of art. At least not in the way we think of art in a modern context. They weren’t tasked with inspiring or enlightening – in fact, they were probably more akin to porn.

“These images are already sort of … gender specific,” Burke said. “The ideas of the public and these images are gendered and classified from the start, from the moment they are created. “

The King Philip Observation Room, and others like it, was one of the only ways for Spanish men of the day to watch naked women – other than their wives – in a “dignified” setting, according to Burke. . They were, in essence, the equivalent of a pin-up magazine designed only for the chicest aristocrats of the 16th century.

Photo: Courtesy of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
One of the six paintings by Titian.

None of this is meant to minimize the artistic value of Titian’s work, or the exhibition at all, quite the contrary. Where Philip and his royal sidekicks ultimately failed to grasp the tragedies and intricacies of Ovid’s story and the trauma of Europe, Titian and Kelley’s partners dramatically prevail.

When paintings are viewed in a way that goes beyond the surface beauty of the light, color, and the pure, naked bodies within, they are filled with a kind of strangeness, something that is almost akin to horror. It hides in the small details of every room, in a way that can only be fully understood by looking at the paintings in person in full size, which are around six feet tall.

Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley’s film captures a similar and disturbing property. This is how Europa stumbles around the ruins, blindly searching for something as her eyes are covered with replica irises.

“With some types of assault and violence, it can take a long time to realize what happened,” said Mary Reid Kelley. “Definitely in cases like rape or things that you think are ‘just an accident’ or ‘misunderstanding’ and that’s kind of how you’re trained to interpret it. So we see Europa basically putting it back together. It was in a way our way of recognizing a common reality of aggression. ”

Painting matching The Abduction of Europe alongside the masterfully bizarre Kelleys movie of the same name, he had the power to feel really disoriented, really uncomfortable, and really terrified.

It is an excellent feeling.

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