Metamorphosis was an ambitious multi-disciplinary exhibition that was shown at the National Gallery within the frame of Cultural Olympiad 2012. Titian produced three paintings, Diana and Actaeon, Diana and Callisto and The death of Actaeon, in the mid-16th century. They were inspired by the relevant stories narrated by Ovid in his epic poem ‘Metamorphosis’. According to the Roman poet, Actaeon saw Diana in the nude while her nymphs were bathing her and the virgin goddess infuriated, turned him into a stag. The handsome hunter was then attacked and killed by his own dogs. Callisto was Diana’s favourite companion. She was betrayed by Jupiter who disguised as Diana impregnated her. Naturally the goddess removed her from her entourage that was constituted only by maidens.
All three paintings are remarkable. The colour is layered coating upon coating as was done by all masters of that time, in order to create an out-of-this-world effect. The nude bodies resonate a light that seems to glow from under their skin. Each scene is choreographed to perfection as if the people were actually dancing while they bathed or fell to their death. The compositions, the colours, the cryptic facial expressions, the landscapes, everything could be analysed in length. This is how important these paintings are.
Titian’s three paintings were used as inspiration for contemporary artists from different genres who were asked by the exhibition’s curator Minna Moore Ede to interpret them. Various choreographers, composers and dancers collaborated to create three different ballet performances that were danced by the Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera house in July. Some of the set and costume designs was done by Chris Ofili who also produced a number of original paintings inspired by the same subjects.
Conrad Shawcross contributed a robotic sculpture that was exhibited in the National Gallery and a larger version of which was also used in one of the ballet performances. Mark Wallinger created an installation, representing voyeurism connecting his reading of Titian’s paintings and contemporary life. In his piece the visitor enters a black room with a cube in the middle. Through a keyhole, some shutters and the broken corner of a window one can look inside the cube that is in fact a bathroom where a naked woman is constantly showering, drying herself or looks at her reflection in the mirror.
Finally 13 contemporary poets were asked to write poems that were inspired by the same paintings. Some of the poems recited by the poets are shown in a film that is screened in one gallery along with excerpts from the ballet performances. In display are also the original ballet costumes on mannequins, scale models of the set designs and a film where one can see the Royal Ballet choreographers instructing the dancers during rehearsals.
Entering the exhibition the first thing that one sees are the original Titians. However they are placed in a relatively small room that one cannot truly distance oneself from them and is constantly pushed by other visitors trying to catch a glimpse. in the second room that I entered were the scale models of the ballet’s set designs and Shawcross’s robot. Already I was confused, each room I entered I was confronted with works that were supposed to be related to the paintings. I was constantly trying to solve the riddle of the artworks’ association to Titian.
Then I spent some time watching the ballet rehearsal-film where the dancers were filmed so closely that I could not get any sense of dance or movement but only saw fragmented face expressions and random dancer-limps, amputated by the frame. I caught myself thinking that the interpretation of the paintings was actually done by the cinematographer’s choice of showing the dancers’ flesh closely and not by the choreography. I was confused. Then I entered the large room where Chris Ofili’s painting were displayed. Beautiful, massive and colourful paintings in his usual African-influenced idiom seemed like the exhibition’s centre of attention. His interpretation of the original paintings was very personal but incorporated similarities in composition, movement and geometry of some forms.
At that time I was not thinking of the Titians any more. Entering Mark Wallinger’s installation I realised that there was someone in the box, my first glance in the bathroom was achieved through the shutters and I was faced with the bathing woman’s sex. I certainly was not expecting to see that. However catching different views through the broken window I saw her shoulders, hips and back and realised she was quite plump, similar to Diana and her nymphs. However by then I almost had a headache constantly thinking how each art work was connected to Titian’s work.
The only place I relaxed was the theatre where the film with the excerpts of the ballet and poets reciting their poems was screened. Maybe it was the darkness and the fact that this projection was not as flamboyant and did not involve live nudity that made this room less popular to the public.
Artists from different disciplines have always inspired one another. Contemporary art curating, picks up on this age-old tradition and combines different themes, artists and artworks. However the fact that most curators are theorists or academics is often reflected in their choices of cross-disciplinary associations which at times seem contrived or superimposed. My first thought when I visited the Metamorphosis exhibition at the National Gallery was: Too much information!
All artists involved are individually accomplished and their creations isolated were admirable. However the video of the choreographers at work, the costumes on the mannequins, the set design scale-models, the poems, the dancers’ limbs, Chris Ofili’s paintings and the naked woman constantly showering confused me immensely. The original paintings were cramped in a tiny room while around them revolved a tornado of random creativity that seemed almost irrelevant.
Modernity’s psychotic gluttony for information and contemporary art’s fragmentation in all its glory. What truly touched me were the poems. Poetry’s ability to deduct, penetrate and glorify the essence was quite relieving.
Find out more about the exhibition at the National Gallery website here
Listen to the poets recite their poems here