isolated poses looking in different directions for the purpose of understanding
the ornithology room at the museum was quiet on the afternoon i visited. with the current trend for the quasi-museological in the art world, the artfully ‘animated’ array of bird species started to take on the uncanny presence of a contemporary art installation. naturally, i could not resist relating the experience of many preserved, dead animals in a room in a museum to the current retrospective of damien hirst’s work at tate modern, london…
the physical (im)possibility of life in the mind of a taxidermist
a prime example of taxidermy is exhibited in this ‘lively’ looking tiger – simultaneously both frightening and quite frightful, a curious inversion of the hunter and the hunted…
the castle museum’s natural history collections, as seen in the old mahogany wood cabinets (above) to the meticulously staged landscape dioramas (some with sound effects), altogether display an exhaustive if slightly eccentric fascination with all things natural and wild. many of the specimens on display are acquisitions from the collections of local edwardian or victorian naturalists – expertly catalogued, neatly labelled & now tamely presented. it reminded me of a time when i visited tring natural history museum many years ago, and ’seeing’ (unbelievably, absurdly, curiously) two fleas dressed as mexican dancers…
however dear reader, i digress… this museum visit was really an opportunity to see Titian’s painting, Diana and Actaeon, in the flesh (the painting is currently on a national tour, cost a staggering £50 million and it was ‘bought’ for the nation by a consortium of funders). i sat quietly in its great presence for many minutes, but it failed to animate my interest beyond the myth of the young hunter (Actaeon) who stumbles upon the chaste goddess of the hunt (Diana). deep thoughts about Titian the great painter and the great skill of this painting were slightly distracted by two toddlers who found the pattern of the air-conditioning grid on the floor more fascinating. it was perhaps not the admiring, attentive audience that the great Titian would have wanted.
Diana and Actaeon is one of six large mythological paintings by Titian (inspired by Ovid’s series of stories, the ‘Metamorphoses’), as part of an ambitious commission for King Philip II of Spain – and it would seem that Titian relished the challenge.
even with the protective barrier of ‘glass’ Diana and Actaeon the painting pulsated with epic drama and spectacle – in sheer scale, in the dynamics of composition, in the lushness of colours and with every florid brushstroke. i sat on the bench, i looked and i observed, and then i began to wonder; Titian may have been a great painter of full-bodied flesh but he was no painter of women.
it bothered me that diana had a very small head (for a goddess) and that her legs were out of proportion with her torso (and with each other too, it seems – and, as if my eyes wanted to deceive me even further into finding more faults, i started seeing a third leg?! i take it art historians forego these small anatomical inaccuracies (as we might do when watching a sci-fi movie, the special effects versus continuity, etc)
however, when viewed in the context of a museum exhibit (this is a painting that comes with its own personal security guard) i felt compelled to admire Titian’s ‘Diana and Actaeon‘ for its art historical significance. by all accounts Titian was at the top of the art hierarchy when he created this magnificent series of paintings, a showman in command of his medium (and his audience) and a wealth of rich patrons, and the art ‘critics’ of venice praised him (is that an oxymoron?) – does this ring any bells with anyone?
however, when removing the lavish ‘history’ of Diana and Actaeon (expertly provided by the museum to enrich the visual experience) i later began to ponder how an outsider might ‘interpret’ the dramatic scene.
idle thoughts led me to make a comparison of Diana and Actaeon with this quite well-known advertisement from the 1970s (badedas), as a number of visual features are superficially similar – outside/inside retreat, the swathe of the curtain, the private pleasure of bathing, a moment of alarm or surprise, the intrusion – and what might happen next. in fact, a number of the badedas adverts played on a kind of faux-historical tableaux.
however, unlike the hunter goddess diana, who is clearly enraged and will later seek her revenge (in the next episode of the story), the badedas bathing lady does not appear to be in any hurry to reach for her shotgun to do away with the red-shirted voyeur. it’s all in the semiotics (reminded of my MA thesis, which was on beauty, women & advertising).
when i first saw Diana and Actaeon i was put in the position (or mind) of the King who commissioned it, and from that perspective the painting becomes an object of status, wealth, and with that the delight and desire of looking & owning. the badedas advertisement’s original message was [good] ‘things happen after a badedas bath’ and it has resonances with many other ‘luxury’ lifestyle advertisements of this bygone era, such as ‘imperial leather‘ and ‘milk tray‘ (the milk tray man). how times (and contexts) change as this advertisement now seems very sinister.
when we look at an object or image (as art), into that context of looking comes prior knowledge or cultural experience and this influences interpretation and understanding. what is discussed or written about the art beforehand (and afterwards) is often more persuasive and conveys more meaning than by the simple act of just looking. the viewpoint changes, the viewer changes, the context changes, the meaning changes.
In the end, the art of the past is being mystified because a privileged minority is striving to invent a history which can retrospectively justify the role of the ruling classes, and such a justification can no longer make sense in modern terms.
John Berger, Ways of Seeing