Pop Culture
Mar 09, 2009, 05:31AM

Save Titian?

A recent controversy over Titian's "Diana and Actaeon" has reignited discussion about public ownership of art.

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I was beside myself on the London Underground. There was a partial closure on the line, keeping me from getting to King’s Cross station to catch my train. With 30 minutes to go, I was delayed twice and switched lines three times. My eyes rolled, teeth gnashed, foot tapped—all in that quietly desperate way we have to assume when we’re late and in public. Then, a middle-aged woman got on and sat directly in front of where I was having my quiet fit. I blinked as I noticed the button pinned to her pea coat: “Save Titian,” it read. My rage abated and I actually smiled—here, rattling along under the biggest city in Europe, a quietly cultured statement. I could have sworn I heard violins somewhere. I blinked again and realized I had missed my train by three minutes, but the unhurried lady on the Underground with her Titian button somehow made it seem less important.

This is by way of introducing a story that has a distinctly Old World feel, compared to much other news coverage that lately has been obsessed with a brave and troubling new world. Like many British stories, it involves a duke, a painting, and the Nation: six months ago the 7th Duke of Sutherland announced he would auction Titian’s “Diana and Actaeon,” long on loan to the National Gallery of Scotland, unless £50 million was raised to keep it in Britain. The painting is quite beautiful: full of sensuous lines in sweeping countermotion and the rich colors that made Titian’s name in 16th-century Venice. But the uproar over the painting’s possible sale has been equally remarkable to behold. Though on a smaller scale and to a wholly different end, the effort to keep the painting resembled nothing so much as the Obama campaign in its popular impact. At the National Gallery in London, you could see “Diana and Actaeon” and its partner “Diana and Callisto” for free until December. This inspired the grassroots side of the movement: the public donated £7.4 million in all. The National Heritage Memorial Fund provided a further £10 million, and a number of other similarly named charities came up with much of the rest.

Responses in the media have included impassioned pleas on television to numerous articles and editorials in all the major British newspapers. The arguments usually range from moral/aesthetic tautologies (“Why would it be good to keep the painting?” “Because it’s good.”) to crass pragmatism (“The painting’s alright, but more importantly it’ll keep tourists coming”). Far more interesting was the photographic reenactment of the painting starring Kim Cattrall from Sex in the City. The headline reads “Nice Titians, Kim,” and it looks more like a frame from a porno than a mythological tableau. On the more reserved side, the painter Lucian Freud—Sigmund’s grandson, known as a brilliant recluse whose pictures sell for record-breaking sums at auction—lent his gray eminence to the cause in October, giving his first television interview in 20 years to Channel 4’s arts correspondent. The reporter’s apparent befuddlement is understandable: Freud’s remarks range from riddle-like to cerebral. But there’s a glint in his eye when he says, gazing fondly at the interrupted bathers, “Looking at it, that’s the way to live, I think.” This aside, most of the interview consists of Freud, the reporter, and the National Gallery’s director pacing around the painting in somewhat theatrical awe.

“I quite like the idea of it staying here forever,” the director sheepishly ventures after several seconds of dead air.

“Yes,” Freud mumbles, looking up at the younger man approvingly. “No, quite.”   

A few weeks ago, it was announced that the wishes of celebrities, pundits and the lady on the Tube alike have come true. The £50 million was raised, and the National Galleries of England and Scotland jointly bought “Diana and Actaeon.” The Duke of Sutherland has graciously allowed Britons four more years to come up with another £50 million to keep the painting’s mate, “Diana and Callisto.” Though the issue is resolved, I’m still intrigued. The case brings up a range of issues: the power of the aristocracy in British culture, the place of art in public life, the value of tradition in a troubled economic situation.

Many people, forward-looking Americans especially, are inclined to think of the nobility as a thing of the past. But that old Faulknerian saw, “the past isn’t dead, it’s not even past,” is even more evident in Britain, if only because of the sheer weight of recorded history. The aristocracy still plays a mostly benign but strange part in British public life, as shown by the Duke of Sutherland’s gambit. Of course, “Diana and Actaeon” is his property to do with as he wishes; it’s been in his family since 1798. And yet the painting has been displayed in a free museum for 50 years, as close to the public domain as private property can get. A Google image search for the duke doesn’t come up with much, and he may be a decent sort, but it’s hard not to imagine him as Snidely Whiplash with a monocle and an Old Etonian accent. It’s equally hard not to think that he just got away with ransoming the British people over a painting (even though £50 million is apparently a bargain). And yet little if any media coverage addressed the Duke’s motives. I am reminded of the iconic poster plastered all over wartime London. “Keep Calm and Carry On.” Faced with the threat of removal, British art lovers have done just that.

But then, the people and the aristocracy have always played important, if continuously shifting, roles in the life of “Diana and Actaeon.” As patrons and the most prominent audience, the nobility of Renaissance Europe were a driving force behind the artistic avant-garde. Shakespeare wrote King Lear, his most radical play, as a member of the King’s Men; King Phillip II of Spain paid for “Diana and Actaeon” when Titian was one of the most innovative artists in Europe. But where King Lear was performed at court and also in public theaters, “Diana and Actaeon” was not put on public display until much more recently. Another public did influence the painting coming to Britain, though: having been given to a French nobleman, it was evacuated during the French Revolution, at which point it came into the Duke of Sutherland’s family. Now that it has been on public display for over 50 years, the threat of its removal seems to have caused a mass act of elision between aristocratic heritage and cultural heritage.

We are cultural magpies in the States, too, but I cannot think of a painting the nation would fight for. Another Titian, “Venus with a Mirror,” which lives in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, was part of the collection of Andrew Mellon—as close to an aristocrat as Americans get. He donated it, but suppose Mellon had bequeathed it to Warren Buffett with the proviso that it stay on display in D.C. Hit hard by the global recession, Buffett decides to sell. Would we shill out in hope that we can take the kids to see it some day, or merely because we like the idea of it being around? Perhaps. I can imagine a fight over “American Gothic” leaving the country but, as another piece of canvas delicately smeared with oil, it raises the same question “Diana and Actaeon” did: What value does art have in our public life? Is an old painting—or a play, a concert, a website—worth even a little bit of our money, especially with the economy in shambles?

Works of art make nothing happen, but that they exist means they can happen to us. Especially when it is so easy to become disheartened, we need something that can, as Seamus Heaney put it, “catch the heart off guard and blow it open.” Though some of them may never have seen “Diana and Actaeon,” it may have been because of the global recession that Britons pooled their money together to keep it. It was a relatively small gesture of resistance to an uncertain, selfishly motivated economic force. When so much in society has been called into question, Titian’s painting happened to them and they kept it. Perhaps that’s why I felt reassured by the woman’s “Save Titian” button as the Tube shuttled forward through the dark. Though much is taken, much abides.


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