Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Late Titian and the Sensuality of Painting (L'ultimo Tiziano e la sensualità della pittura)

Danae by Titian (c.1554)
I love art. Those of you who have read my books know that my protagonist, Harley Columba, is a young artist. And my favorite artist of all is Titian -- in fact, I even wrote a short story about the Titian fresco of St. Christopher in the Palazzo Ducale called Venetian Fan that was included in the anthology, Sixteen, edited by Megan McCafferty.

I am a Titian maniac, so I will go see Titian whenever and wherever I can. Luckily we have a few Titians around Venice:) I seem to remember a Titian exhibit in Treviso a long time ago... I was most definitely at the Titian exhibit in 2003 at the National Gallery in London because I will never forget the image, below, Allegory of Prudence.

Allegory of Prudence by Titian (c.1550-65)
Titian's later work always haunted me. To me, he was centuries ahead of the French Impressionists in catching life's lights and shadows. Of course, an artist tries to paint/write/sculpt, etc. what is inside his head and get it OUT OF THERE and into the world. Speaking as a writer, when I write fiction, I want to get my thoughts down like that... I hope to get to the point where I can write like an Impressionist but still have a form that communicates to the masses.

So when the Gallerie dell'Accademia, one of Venice's most important art museums, had their pre-opening for journalists this past Friday, I was thrilled to go. They gave us a CD-rom of images, some of which I will share with you. The entire exhibit is about Titian's last years. Titian really controlled the personal image he presented to the world, sort of like rock stars and movie stars do today. There is a lot of secrecy about his personal life; he is still around after 500 years.

Flaying of Marsyas by Titian (c.1570-76)
Everyone is searching for the Answer to Life, and I think it is right under our noses. If you come to Venice, head on over to the Accademia and have a look at Titian and figure out for yourselves what he is trying to communicate -- don't only listen to what they tell you, because often "they" are wrong. Especially in Titian's later years... I am a firm believer that when artists are close to the end, they throw it out there. They have all sorts of hurdles to jump -- what society at the time allows, who's paying for it, etc. -- but if an artist has a message he wants to impart, he's going to get it out there somehow.

(I was at the opening of Palazzo Grassi last year, and there was a cigarette pack going around the room. Now, THAT message I just didn't get. Truly. What makes a cigarette pack going around the room "art" is beyond me. I guess I am not sophisticated enough to understand contemporary art:)

I will share my thoughts with you about a Titian that I never saw before, just to show you that anyone can do it, even if you are not an expert. This image is called Supplizio di Marsia, or Flaying of Marsyas, and I found it the most riveting in the room.

First, we have to go back 500 years and remember that most people probably knew about the myth behind the painting -- not like we do today! There was a contest between Marsia, or Marsyas, and Apollo about who was the better musician. Apollo played the stringed instrument (which has been a lute, a lyre, a violin, etc.) and Marsia played the wind instrument, like a flute. The winner could do whatever he wanted to the loser. (And I think it is important to know that Marsia, the satyr, issued the challenge.) Well, Marsia lost, and Apollo skinned him alive. The End.

So... over at the Accademia, you see this enormous painting in front of you. And there are all sorts of emotions coming off it. Apollo seems so calm and beautiful as he skins Marsia; he holds the knife like a paintbrush. And the face of Marsia seems... accepting. There is something almost sexual about it, as if he enjoys being skinned alive by a god. After all, he is merely a satyr, half man, half god.

Now, what does it all mean? Well, I will give you my interpretation: we are all driven by sex, an energy that makes us move. We should probably give "sex" a different name because we have convoluted it so... to me the sexual energy is a driving energy that makes wars as well as babies (hence: Make Love Not War). And, to me, the painting is the transformation of sex to a higher level, to the level of the gods.

I think, but I don't know if it is true, that strings vibrate longer than wind instruments resonate. Since I am a big fan of Quantum Physics and string theory and music and Gurdjieff, etc., I think it has to do with the quality of vibrations. We all start stories. We run into each other, and start interactions with each other. So, Marsia ran into Apollo, and said, "Let's have a musical contest because I am a great flute player, and you are not so hot on the strings." And Apollo said, "Oh, yeah? Okay, you silly creature. The winner does what he wants."

I would imagine that Apollo knew he could whip Marsia's butt. But WHY did he skin him alive? Did he really have to be so gruesome? And what's with the little dog down there by Marsia's hands? The dog does not seem alarmed. In fact, no one seems particularly alarmed, they seem contemplative, almost matter-of-fact, yet the subject matter is gruesome.

I think Apollo is giving Marsia a lesson. I think Marsia could not be so stupid as to challenge a god without thinking there would be some price to pay. Did he think he could really win? Probably. Man thinks he is better than a god, more powerful than nature, and then nature and the gods come along and show man a thing or two.

Apollo is the god of Light, Truth, Arts and the first healer, as well as being keen on the ladies. Marsia was a talented, self-taught musician. He found the flute of Athena (who invented it) after she had thrown it away because she looked ridiculous when she played it, cheeks all puffed out. (I have to say, I know this feeling because I played the clarinet. It does not make females look pretty, like, say, a harp!) Satyrs, by nature, are supposed to be after wine, women and song, and that's that, but Marsia was arrogant and proud. I would imagine it was better to die being skinned alive by a god than as a Satyr-that-nobody-knew. (I could get REALLY off-topic and think about John Lennon and Mark David Chapman... and then it went the other way... maybe Marsia was hoping it would go the other way, too.) I could be wrong, but we only know about Marsia because of his Great Flute-Lute Challenge, otherwise we don't know him at all.

A lot of this latter work was inspired by Ovidio, or Ovid, and his Metamorphoses. Now, that has always been a fascination of mine, about how to metamorphosize our natures. So, ultimately, I think both images represent Titian's struggle within himself, the satyr and the god, just as they exist in all men. It's all about transformation. Poor Ovid was banished to Tomis, or Constanta, over in Romania on the Black Sea, and that is where he died.

Anyway, that's just my interpretation, a few thoughts to kick things off. Now, why did Titian paint this particular subject the way he painted it? There are even more thoughts! Better than watching TV!

There are a couple more images, below, and plenty more at the Accademia.

Ciao from Venice,

Tuesday, January 29, 2008


Nicolò Paoli - Cows on Gondola

January 19 through February 24, 2008
Tuesday - Friday 3:30 to 8pm
Saturday and Sunday 11:30am to 8pm

Art Gallery
Fondamenta S. Biagio 795
Giudecca, Venice
Tel. (39) 340-879-8327
Vaporetto Stop: Palanca
Actv 41, 42, 2

Whimsical. Candid. Pensive. The dashing young artist, Nicolò Paoli, examines the world through the eyes of a fanciful cow, a curious juxtaposition that belies the creator's good looks. The exhibit, "Cows on Gondola," twenty acrylics on canvas, currently adorns the walls at the art gallery, Giudecca795.

When I asked him, "Why a cow?" Paoli grinned. "Why not?" He elaborated, "Cows are not too important or arrogant. They produce milk and fertilizer, things that support life. I've always felt like a cow, thinking and watching the world go by. A cow rumina... I'm sorry, but I don't know this word in English -- ruminare -- in both senses of the word. They chew and contemplate."

"Ruminate," I offer. "It's a similar word in English."

His modesty seems genuine, and made all the more interesting considering his pedigree -- the twenty-seven-year -old artist and photographer is the son of Gino Paoli, the renowned Italian singer. Nicolò Paoli is hesitant when I ask him about his background, unwilling to capitalize on his lineage. "It is difficult because, of course, I want to be known for myself and my work. But, honestly, I am in love with my father! And my mother, even more. I couldn't have asked for better parents."

Paoli's cows ride in gondolas on canals sparkling with color, or graze in kaleidoscope fields of grass, and frequently wear a halo. Cows are often considered sacred, a symbol of abundance, the sanctity of life, the omnipresence of the Almighty. "I'm not at all religious," Paoli said. "In fact, I think organized religion is the cause of a lot problems in the world."

Born in Modena, and raised in Florence, then Genoa, Paoli has succumbed to Venice's charms, and plans to relocate to La Serenissima. "I have a special feeling about Venice," he said. "It's magical. The food is good. The people are friendly. I like the water, the light and that there are no cars." The idea that Venice is attracting young artists of caliber is welcome news, especially one from Genoa, Venice's ancient rival.

Ciao from Venice,