I went along to this exhibiotion more or less on a whim as I was in London for a job interview (crossy fingers!) and decided just to bowl along to the National Gallery and see what was on. I’m so, so glad I did as this was ambitious, dense and superb. The National Gallery’s ‘Metamorphosis: Titian 2012′ exhibition is a collaboration between the gallery and The Royal Ballet, and is a multi-arts response to three paintings by Titian (see below).
The paintings tell the typically gruesome story of Diana – how she banished the virgin nymph Callisto from her entourage after the other nymphs forcefully stripped her to reveal her pregnancy by Zeus; how the hunter Actaeon accidentally saw Diana and her nymphs bathing; and how Diana wreaks her revenge on Actaeon by transforming him into a stag and having his own hounds tear him to pieces. Not much of a sense of humour, these Roman goddesses. These beautiful paintings – worth seeing just in themselves, as they are exhibited together for the first time since the 18th century – are responded to by artists Chris Ofili, Mark Wallinger and Conrad Shawcross, and in three new ballets: Diana and Actaeon, Machina and Trespass.
I looked at Chris Ofili’s paintings first. I’m not always a huge fan of Ofili’s stuff – occasionally I struggle to see the purpose in what he does – but these works were pretty blinding. His Trinidad home and the Roman myths combined to show the Diana legends in a riot of tropical colour and a lot – A LOT – of penises.
Yes, Mr Ofili made it quite clear what he thinks the myths all boil down to! Yet despite the proliferation of phalluses – giant, small, erect, flaccid (great word, that) – Ofili never loses sight of the magical, mystical elements of the stories. Bodies weave in and out of each other, figures twisting into stag and water, and you can almost hear the music the figures are singing, seductive and beguiling. These are certainly not paintings of the real world, and Ofili manages to lift the myths away from white draperies and into something much more secretive and strange.
Mark Wallinger’s installation Diana was the real surprise to me. Indeed, I think some people weren’t even sure there was anything in the room at all! At first glance it looks like a black room with a black box in the middle of it and some splashing sounds, and a lot of people took a quick look and then scarpered. However, walk round the box and you soon come to a window half-hidden by a venetian blind, through which you can glimpse a messy bathroom. Walk round a bit further and you can see – through a broken pane in the next window of opaque glass – a girl washing in the bath, her hair piled on top of her head like a goddess, wearing some bronze Roman jewellery. Walk round to the front again and you see a keyhole in the door. This feels by far the most intrusive part of the installation, as you have to get down on your knees to look through it, and the view is directly at her head and torso as she bathes. Standing in front of a bored security guard, it makes you feel rather filthy. For the purposes of the installation, you have become Actaeon, experiencing his emotions as he watches Diana bathe – guilt, excitement, and an unwillingness to tear yourself away despite the risks. Of all the parts of the exhibition, I found that this installation was the one which provoked the most definite emotional response in me, and I liked it a lot.
Next up was Conrad Shawcross’s robot installation Trophy – a robotic arm (Diana) which has carved out Actaeon in the form of a wooden antler and now examines it curiously with a light poised at its tip. I must say, I found this part of the exhibition the hardest to swallow, and the one which added least to my appreciation of the Titian paintings and the Diana myths. However, what I did like was the way the light, as it moved around the antler, cast moving shadows of it around the room, turning the room and the people in it into a part of the woodland glade in which Diana examines the dead Actaeon.
Next were videos of the Royal Ballet’s various takes on the Diana myths, and the rehearsals for them. I thought it was fascinating to see the choreographers working with the dancers to create the emotions inherent in the stories. In particular I liked Will Tuckett’s scene in which Actaeon is run down by his hounds, each of which is played by a dancer sporting a hound puppet designed by Ofili. The movement of the ‘pack’ is perfect, as is the terror and desperation of the dancer playing Actaeon.
Lastly we saw not only each artist’s design for the set of the ballets – including a 7 metre high version of Shawcross’s robot and a gorgeous layered jungle scene from Ofili – but then videos of the whole collaboration coming together, in the shape of footage of the finished ballets. This, I feel, was a truly wonderful collaboration, a pooling of artistic resources to create a new dimension to centuries-old paintings and injecting new emotional life into Classical myths touching on very modern issues: sexuality, privacy, intrusion, conquest, seduction, clashing values. Go and see it!