Titian the Magician: Deflection at the Gardner


Photograph by Nancy D. Kelly

by Samuel Jay Keyser

In 1903, Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner opened her private art collection to the world in the museum that bears her name. She and her husband Jack lived on the top floor of the building designed by Willard Sears, on land that was essentially a filled in swamp. Instantaneously it became one of the country’s finest privately collected public museums. I went there recently to see one of the most extraordinary exhibits of its 120-year history. Titian’s poesie, six major paintings done for King Philip II of Spain (1527-98), were united in a single room for the first time in over four centuries and perhaps for the last time.

The paintings are called the poesie because they are visual interpretations of myths from Ovid’s Metamorphosis. Their ownership is diverse. Gardner was only able to bring them together when one of the owners abandoned a century old policy of non-lending. The Gardner, to its great credit, leaped through that open door.

In order of completion, poesie consists of:

Danaë (about 1551–3)
Venus and Adonis (1554)
Perseus and Andromeda (probably 1554–6)
Diana and Actaeon (1556–9)
Diana and Callisto (1556–9)
Rape of Europa (1559–62)

By his own admission, Titian had saved the best for last.

The exhibit comes with a theme. The title of the exhibit is: Titian: Women, Myth & Power. Its online catalogue explains that the exhibit is meant to explore “themes of sexual assault and violence.” To underscore that message the Gardner arranged two sister exhibits.

One is an image created by Barbara Kruger from Titian’s Diana and Actaeon to challenge the dynamics of gender and power. It is entitled Body Language and hangs prominently on a façade of the museum.

Photograph by Nancy D. Kelly

Here is Diana and Actaeon, the painting from which Body Language was created:

And here is the detail from which Kruger drew her image. I have tilted it a bit to align with Body Language:

As you can see, the image has been manipulated. In the original, Actaeon’s leg is clearly well in front of the blue clad female figure.  In Kruger’s version, the impression is that his leg is in contact with hers. She has flattened the image by cropping out the information that gives perspective to the two figures. Here is what the New York Times art critic, Holland Cotter, had to say about it in his August 12, 2021 review of the exhibit:

“Body Language,” by Barbara Kruger, hangs on the museum’s facade: a large vertical banner with magnified detail, lifted from “Diana and Actaeon,” of a muscular, tanned male leg stretched across a pale, bare female one as if pinning it down.

Cotter is not quite right; “a muscular, tanned male leg stretched across a pale, bare female one as if pinning it down” has not been “lifted” from Diana and Actaeon. It has been manufactured from body parts contained in the painting. A consequence of this manipulation is that a painting depicting a female, Diana, dominating – and ultimately destroying – a male, Actaeon, becomes a painting about a male dominating a female.

Presumably, this kind of manipulation is deemed acceptable in the world of recontextualisation in the service of a meta-discussion about the relationship between power and painting. After all, isn’t that what Duchamp did when he painted a moustache on a postcard image of the Mona Lisa and labelled it L.H.O.O.Q.? (Pronouncing the letters in French approximates the sentence Elle a chaud au cul – ‘She has a hot ass’.) The problem is that there is collateral damage with this kind of gesture. What Kruger has done is to demonstrate that when an exhibition is devoted to a theme, its paintings take a backseat, often to the detriment of the paintings. Questions of how Titian brought about an impression of three-dimensional reality to a two-dimensional canvas are back-burnered to questions of the relationship between gender and power implicit in the representation. The discussion immediately turns away from the painting as a perceptual event to the painting as an occasion for editorial comment.

To the New York Times critic asking ‘Can We Ever Look at Titian’s Paintings the Same Way Again?‘, this deflection has become an inevitability:

Great is what this art is, yet it raises doubts about whether any art, however “great,” can be considered exempt from moral scrutiny.

Apparently, Cotter is willing to extend the Duchamp/Kruger gesture by licensing the idea that in future all great works of art be subjected to a kind of artistic Grand Inquisition. On the face of it, Cotter can’t possibly be right. One would be hard-pressed to find a moral place to stand with respect to Jackson Pollock’s drip-painted masterpiece Number One or Franz Kline’s Painting Number 2. Or Picasso’s The Accordionist. Of course, Cotter must have been thinking only of mimetic art.

In so doing, he was getting at something that separates mimesis from abstraction. Representational paintings can be so well done that they invite thinking about what the painting represents rather than thinking about questions like: How in the world did the artist do that? Thus, even though Titian himself considered The Rape of Europa his most successful of the series, the exhibition focuses not on trying to understand why he thought so, but rather on the sociology of the world he is depicting.


So, what kind of inquiry has the Gardner exhibit relinquished? In The Rape of Europa all of the action takes place at the periphery of the canvas. This is in marked contrast to the other five paintings where the centres of the canvas are crowded. Indeed, it is not at all hard to see the figures in the painting as images constructed along a large abstract circle. Does the mental perception of the painting involve unconsciously circumnavigating that circle and does that action somehow translate as the perception of movement so successfully achieved by Titian? Does the repetition of the flailing arms and legs of Europa by the putti in the upper left-hand and lower left-hand corners of the painting contribute to the palpable perception of movement? And what about the pale replication of flailing arms and legs from the tiny figures on the far shore at the lower left of the canvas?

And then there is the red scarf that Europa is waving. Its shape is an inversion of her right leg and it reflects the shape of the bull’s unusually long tail. And it is no accident that its colour is matched by the colour of the dress on the far shore, a gesture that reinforces circularity of the image.

Every figure in the canvas is in some respect tumbling away from stability with the single exception of the bull himself. He is remarkably stable. The only hint of motion is in the flowing contour of the tail and the frothing water around his partly submerged legs. The impression, reinforced by his fixating stare, is that the bull is in charge. One wonders what the psychological impact is of this tension between stability and imbalance. For Kruger, it undoubtedly sends a message of male dominance over women. But what does it mean for the success of the painting qua painting, for a success it surely is?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. But I do find them immensely interesting in that they reflect on the shared relationship that must exist between an artist and his or her audience. Titian knew what his design would invoke in the viewer and this viewer, at least, could not help but oblige him.

A friend of mine once observed that artists like Titian were the first cognitive scientists. I would dearly love to know what Titian knew about what would move his viewers. Like a master magician, he was able to make me see what really isn’t there. How in the world did he do that? One thing is clear: I will never find the answer by looking away from the painting.

About the Author

Samuel Jay Keyser is Peter de Flores emeritus professor of linguistics at MIT. His most recent books include The Mental Life of Modernism, MIT Press, 2020 and Turning Turtle:  Memoir of a Man Who Would ‘Never Walk Again,’ 2020. The latter is gratis at He is editor in chief of Linguistic Inquiry, an MIT Press journal and its sister monograph series. He is a jazz trombonist with The Dixie Sticklers, a Dixieland band and with the avant-garde jazz orchestra, Aardvark, the oldest continuing jazz ensemble in the United States.

Comments are closed.