In the ‘Metamorphosis’ show at the National Gallery in London, three artists (Conrad Shawcross, Chris Ofili, Mark Wallinger ) respond to three Titian paintings.
Mark Wallinger in ‘Diana’, 2012, sets up a black box in a dark room and inside that box, brightly lit, is a bathroom. In that bathroom a young woman is taking a bath.
A direct reference to Titian’s ‘Diana and Actaeon’, we are now the young hunter and the retinue-less bather presumably the hunter goddess. Voyeurism is a theme that is often raised when discussing the painting, the keyholes and broken window viewpoint through which we see the bather in ‘Diana’, emphasise that way of seeing the original story.
Is that really the case? Is that really what ‘Diana and Actaeon’ is all about? The nudes are arranged as in a frieze, or rather we have horizontal emphasis in a shallow pictorial space, the rows of arches behind tending to further emphasise this notion of looking through. Diana herself lifting her arm to look through as it were (unfortunately it looks more like she is checking her armpits, doing the BO test) All three paintings are about looking and finding, but is that finding as sexual as the first sight and early reviews of Wallinger’s might imply?
The Shawcross machine, ‘Trophy’, 2012, a large metal prosthetic limb moving in a huge vitrine in front of an antler on a pole, is an intriguing thing that is impossible not to think of anthropomorphically. The limb ends with a light on a stick, that arm/ body probes, strokes and almost caresses, but never actually touches, itself or the antler. Technically extraordinary, far more delicate and sensual than either ‘Diana and Actaeon’ or the Wallinger, it says I think, a great deal about the medicalised manner in which we approach the human body now.
The Ofili paintings, ‘Ovid-Desire’, 2012 seem lost to me, somewhere between figuration and patter. They seem etiolated, enervated by heat and humidity; Douanier Rousseau meets 19th century yellow fever sufferer.
How we actually see paintings is also informative, in the exhibition set up the three Titians are arranged in a sort of dark vestibule where all the visitors congregate. This means that seeing the central painting (Diana and Actaeon) is difficult, you view her through people. One assumes that in the original setting we would be alone, hiding in the woods metaphorically speaking.
We look I suppose through the eyes of Actaeon. A figure within a painting (usually male) seen looking at something they shouldn’t and thereby exciting the (usually male) viewer; illustrating and creating titillation is something that artists have always been good at. It is a characteristic trope; all those Susannah and the Elders paintings for example. We can see some of that familiarity here, although the goddess hides herself from Actaeon, the way in which she holds up the white cloth succeeds in showing the viewer more of her naked body. But is this exciting? That awkward pose of Diana’s perhaps tells us something else might be going on. The figure poking out behind the pillar to Diana’s right strikes me as the key to all this.
In the poems published by the National Gallery, Wendy Cope shows she has noticed this figure as well. Her poem ‘Actaeon’s Lover’ describes the hidden girl as his secret lover, horrified by her murdering mistress
“This moment: the last time I saw his face
Before the horror of the horns, the hide.
I rage and mourn. There can be no redress
Against divine Diana, murderess.”
Voyeuristic seeing is aggressive, it is about power, the active male gaze. But look at Actaeon, our internal male viewer, he seems tentative, moving backwards out of the pictorial space. Where is he looking towards? His head is tilted and turning, he looks as much to the peeping figure from behind the pillar as he does to the goddess. As Cope points out, the girl seems separate, a contemporary figure whereas the rest live in the usual vague classical timelessness, ie the peeping girl is a figure from our ordinary world.
Perhaps that is where the link to Wallinger comes in, his installation is not particularly titillating either, certainly not erotic. It is a domestic setting as though a sister or partner has beaten you to the bathroom and has been there for hours. Notice the figure washing Diana’s foot, equivalently banal and ordinary. These are works about the disturbance of domestic privacy, a different sort of privileged viewing.
Actaeon is killed, not because he has seen the goddess naked, but because he has penetrated her private world. Pulling aside the curtain, he discovers that underneath the trappings we are all awkward and much the same. Like discovering that the Queen eats breakfast cereal out of Tupperware or that the Prime Minister doesn’t know how to use text speak, it is the sort of transgression that demands a horrible death.
The border though is slight, that curtain, red of course to link to Actaeon’s death, but as George Szirtes describes in his accompanying poem ‘Actaeon’
‘O, my America, discovered by slim chance,
Behind, as it seemed, a washing line’
It is not much of a boundary is it? Anyone would just push it aside, where is the security detail? Where is the man with clipboard, list and radio preventing access? Or did Diana outsource the job to G4S as well?