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An Old Master whose work is ever young

Titian: Catalog of the Exhibition at the National Gallery, London, Edited by David Jaffe, National Gallery/Yale University Press: 192 pp., $39.95 Tiziano: Catalog of the Exhibition at the Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Edited by Miguel Falomir, Museo Nacional del Prado: 444 pp., 35 euros (about $39.50)

August 17, 2003|Theodore K. Rabb | Theodore K. Rabb is the author of "Renaissance Lives: Portraits of an Age."

Only one Old Master in the history of Western art has never fallen out of fashion. However much we may admire them today, Michelangelo, Raphael, Rubens, Vermeer, Rembrandt and Caravaggio have all suffered periods of neglect and indifference. As late as the 1950s, the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City could snap up a masterpiece by the unappreciated Caravaggio because larger museums weren't interested. That was never true of Titian, the long-lived Venetian who has influenced other artists and commanded the highest prices in every generation since his death in 1576.

Why has he held this unique position? Why is it that so many who followed, such as the Spaniard Velazquez, regarded him as the ideal they sought to emulate? Two exhibitions in Europe this summer -- one, including about 40 works, was at the National Gallery in London until mid-May; the other, with 65 works, is at the Prado in Madrid until Sept. 7 -- seem to take the reverence for their subject for granted. But the questions remain, and if the works themselves, rather than the accompanying catalogs, offer the most persuasive answers, at least one must be grateful for the opportunity to seek those answers amid the riches that have been assembled.

The London show, displayed in the crowded underground area that has become the site of the gallery's major exhibitions, had a hard time making the case. And the catalog, a relatively straightforward recounting of Titian's life, portraits and painting technique, rarely addresses larger issues. About the most ringing evocation of Titian's fame is the comment that "his greatest contribution was to extend the expressive range of oil-based pigment." But the work itself conveyed the power of the master. Despite the subdued light, his ravishing colors, his noble figures and the persuasiveness of his compositions made one realize why he has had such a continuing influence over the centuries.

The Madrid show, larger, more spacious and bathed in natural light, allowed the impressions to flower. The Prado has 35 Titians of its own, thanks to the Habsburgs' passion for his work. Five more are in and around Madrid, and 25 foreign loans made this one of the most comprehensive assemblages of his art one is ever likely to see. Although the Madrid catalog does little more than its British counterpart to suggest why Titian has been so widely appreciated for so long, it is certainly more expansive. There is some overlap with the London essays, but there are more contributions here; the text is in both Spanish and English; and the illustrations are far more numerous and brilliant. The National Gallery's publication is easier to hold and much cheaper (about $16 if you buy it at the gallery), but the Prado's is a more fully realized and appropriately lavish tribute. Above all, the current exhibition is the best place to ponder at length the reasons for Titian's enduring appeal.

A fundamental source of his popularity -- his use of color -- is apparent as soon as one sees the paintings. It is fitting that no other artist's name is also that of a color: the glowing red that is one of Titian's trademarks and lights up room after room. And he used it not merely to give richness to a scene but also to focus the viewer's attention. In a desolate "Entombment of Christ," for instance, he extends the arm of Joseph of Arimathea, who is holding the body, well beyond its possible actual length in order to create a splash of red from Joseph's sleeve right at the heart of the scene: next to the dead white hand, with its own splash of red, the blood from the crucifixion nail. Titian regularly distorts physical reality for effect; here the distortion enables color to tie the composition together.

Of course, it is not just the reds that dazzle. There are also radiant blues (often the Virgin's robe, notably in that same "Entombment"), greens and browns, and luminous whites. Even Michelangelo, who haughtily complained "that these Venetians are not taught from the beginning to draw well, that they do not apply themselves better," admired Titian's use of color. And it is especially notable in the creamy flesh of his nudes, one of the specialties that made Titian a continuing inspiration for later artists.

The first lush example at both exhibitions is in a "Bacchanal" commissioned by the Duke of Ferrara for a room that, in its original form (reconstituted in London), must have felt like an act of homage to the human body. Even among the dozens of nudes, however, the provocative sleeping nymph in the "Bacchanal" proclaims a sensuality that has been rarely matched (though much imitated) in Western art. The painting hangs, as it did in Ferrara, next to "The Feast of the Gods" by his teacher, Giovanni Bellini (on which Titian also worked), and it makes the semiclothed sleeping nymph in the latter seem tame -- a comparison that Titian may well have expected viewers to make.

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