Abstract Critical

Titian and Modern Abstraction

Written by Robert Linsley

With its Byzantine inheritance, Venetian compositions were traditionally symmetrical, and this pattern carries through into the high Renaissance sacra conversazione, with saints grouped symmetrically on either side of the Virgin’s throne. But with increasing realism compositions began to open up and spread over the surface of the picture. This is obvious in the work of the Bellinis, Carpaccio, Antonello da Messina, and then Giorgione. Venetian mastery of light and air ate away hieratic symmetry from within; an excellent example is a Bellini altarpiece with St. Christopher in San Giovanni Crisostomo (1513). Though the composition is perfectly balanced and regular, the vivid and convincing fall of light and shadow ensures that it doesn’t feel that way. It’s the particularity of the way that light falls that produces an effect of the real. But the most dramatic and important example of an open and asymmetric composition is Titian’s Pesaro Altarpiece (1519-26). The diagonal architecture is startling, unprecedented, perversely asymmetric and very difficult to justify in any narrative, compositional or logical terms. The top third of the painting is occupied by two columns that have no apparent reason to exist, except that they do. In all the many times I’ve seen the picture I have yet to discover any relation between these columns and the architecture of the Frari. Since Titian has posited the existence of the columns then they must extend the full length of the picture, but this kind of logic goes nowhere except where the artist wants. Arbitrariness that unfolds as necessity is the formalist concept of artistic freedom.

The art historian would explain Titian’s break with the arrangement of the traditional altarpiece, well represented by Bellini’s Enthroned Madonna and Child (1418) in the same church, by pointing out that it is part of a larger strategy to raise the status of the artist from medieval craftsman to independent inventor—and Titian was the object of much conversation on this topic even during his life. Words like sovereignty, mastery, and genius hardly seem out of place, but while the contemporary viewer might use those words to describe how the work feels, the scholar who shows us what those same words mean in historical terms can hardly open up the experience of the work any further by doing so. An ahistorical, “formalist” reading can still grasp the matter fully.

Further, the way that the drapery of the Virgin becomes confused with that of the saint in front of her, the way that the two differently coloured shapes appear to be joined, makes them break out and lift off, attracting and distracting the eye. This picture may mark the invention of consciously abstract shape, and as such testifies to Titian’s astonishing modernity.

Titian’s compositions are usually a little clunky, favouring the contingently awkward over the balanced arrangement, but at its best they spread out over the surface in wonderfully orchestrated groupings of limbs. The closest comparable designs are in the works of Michelangelo, especially the Pauline frescos, and these, together with Titian’s most complexly composed works, are the Renaissance sources for modern open and all-over compositions. This might be a good way to look at the two mythologies formerly in Edinburgh, Diana and Callisto and Diana and Actaeon (both 1556-59), but the latter is something a little different. It is based on a pyramid, and so it might be a response to the strengths of Raphael and Leonardo, a Venetian dialogue with the high Renaissance in Rome and Florence. Certainly the pyramid is a stable form, but Titian makes it truly massive by letting it tip toward the left, as if sinking into the soft ground under its own weight.

In early Italian paintings each discrete area is outlined and filled in with a colour. That colour might be accompanied by another that models form, as in areas of drapery for example, but the overall effect is that of a quilt or map, with adjoining patches of different colours. Oil on canvas brings new structural possibilities; paint can be built up in layers. The bottom layer, the toned ground, shows through, and colour floats free of drawn boundaries. The overall colour harmony of a picture has to be integrated with a tonal scale that is also a structural method, and this is a difficult task. Filling in every area with colour right up to the edge would destroy the new kind of unity that the method allows, while a stress on tone tends to make colour into a secondary element. Actually this is no diminishment of colour’s expressive beauty, just a more complex and layered kind of organization, but the main tendency until modern times was toward an overall brownness. In the seventeenth century underpainting became darker and less transparent, and colour became a matter of accents added to a fundamentally tonal picture. Caravaggio, Poussin, Magnasco, Rosa—the Baroque examples are many. In his old age Titian gets darker, browner and more tonal—he must have been very important for later developments in tonalism—but the two mythologies in London are right on the cusp; underpainting shows through everywhere, but colour is also present everywhere. The red of the curtain, the emerald of the landscape and the deep deep blue of the sky in Diana and Actaeon are rich and intense despite their darkness, but certain effects, like the thick blob of white paint that makes the sparkling water of the fountain in Diana and Callisto, are only possible with oil paint and toned canvas. Here Venetian colourism is perfectly balanced with the new tonal structure. Among Titian’s followers the two streams divide; Tintoretto is the tonalist, with floating areas of colour, often glazed, and Veronese stitches his brushstrokes together and spreads rich opaque colours evenly in every quarter of the canvas. Tintoretto paints broadly and tonally, Veronese colours everywhere in small strokes for an overall tapestry effect, but the moment of balance achieved in Titian’s mythological pictures is a touchstone of modern painting, not equalled until Cézanne.

In Titian’s mythologies, pictorial realism is accompanied by psychological realism, and this is another important origin of the modern, and even, though it is hard to justify this view, of modern abstraction. The expression on the face of the nymph under Diana’s arm in the Callisto is acutely revealing. This picture is a chamber comedy of jealousy, intrigue and petty passions; it could be a novel or play about court life, in fact that might have been the real value of an erotic mythology for its princely collector—that it was a kind of masque, or masquerade. It seems that Titian is looking forward to Watteau.

The origins of modern realism in secular mythological pictures deserves more examination. Titian’s example here is important for Veronese’s enigmatic mythologies. They should be seen less as allegories and more as poetic stagings of modern experience. The so-called Allegory of Love (c. 1575) in London is a great example; I would place the four panels in a different order than is currently suggested, starting with the marriage and ending with the jealous delirium, and I would pay special attention to the continuities of character between the panels. It’s a short novel, or even a movie, and the tale presupposes a very modern mobility of affection. What I would like to suggest, though again it will be hard to convince, is that the subject matter is also important for abstract art. Let me make a stab at this unlikely thesis.

I’m saying that one kind of abstraction comes out of realism, not out of the hieratic, symmetrical and geometrical art of ornamental patterns, Islamic mosaics, icons, or religious fetishes. The abstraction I see emerging in Titian is particular, specific, unique, and not in any way general. But in all literature, including theatre, the modern turn to the specifics of daily life involves confrontation with generic and conventional forms. Both Titian’s mythologies and Veronese’s Allegory of Love are painted courtly masques, so in one sense completely conventional and mannered, even as their technique brings an unprecedented vividness and realism to the depiction—including the nudity, not possible in theatre at that time. But somewhere in this rich mix is a connection between love as the desire for a particular, singular object, and sex as repetition, that resonates with the aesthetic struggle between conventional forms and realism as the experience of a vivid, never to be repeated here and now. I guess art had to become secular to become abstract, and secular means erotic instead of religious.

  1. David Lloyd said…

    I really enjoyed your article. I learned lots about Titian. I was especially interested in your rearrangement of the Allegory of Love paintings. I take issue with the word ‘arbitrary’ in regard to Titian’s composition, but I know what you mean. They seem more fluid and organic, less geometric, and as you say, less symmetrical. I still feel there is a kind of symmetry working in Titian. I have a theory that he shifts the symmetry so that it is goes off beyond the canvas. Obviously it’s not strictly symmetrical, but it refers to a roughly symmetrical organisation of pictorial elements So, for example in the Pesaro Altarpiece if that right-hand pillar is the central line of symmetry and you imagine the rest of the symmetrical framework going beyond the painting. I don’t know….I have to say it’s not a Titian I’ve spent a lot of time with, but you’ve piqued my interest. With the later work I have a ‘theory’ that he uses a system of overlapping circles which go beyond the limits of the canvas.
    But maybe you’re right and the composition is more arbitrary, although to me that implies a randomness. And with Titian I feel there is a visual reason for everything. You can really see this when he does more than one version of a painting.
    I Like that you point out his melting of forms together. This seems crucial to the Titian effect. Especially in the late work, and gives it that overall shimmering quality. I’d like to see more work on Titian’s composition.
    I have to say I take slight issue with you at the end when you say that art had to become secular to become abstract. You could make a case that abstraction came out of some very spiritual traditions. For example Mondrian was in no way an art-for-arts-sake formalist. Although it’s possible i’m mis-reading your argument.

    • Robert Linsley said…

      David, thanks for your response. I’m trying to be polemical about the religious/secular business, because maybe the spiritual origins of abstraction have been too much stressed, and it just doesn’t appeal to me. On the other hand the idea of the once and only, single time and space is very compelling to me and not much discussed.

      You may be right that I use the word arbitrary too much, but it is definitely not the same thing as random. To me arbitrary means a finite number of choices, any one of which is as good as any other. You would be right if you said that likely doesn’t apply to Titian, as it does to much abstraction today. In this context it means that the fall of light, and the fall of a drapery, or the angle of a limb, is just what it is, momentary, unforeseen, unrepeatable in reality. I want to use that aspect of realism – the once and only – to explain why a particular form or arrangement in a painting is striking.

      Your idea of overlapping circles running off the edge of the canvas is very interesting. Sounds like something he might do. Speaking of which I made a slight mistake in characterizing the Actaeon as based on a pyramid. The pyramid is in the middle of the canvas, but it is nested in a larger form like a parenthesis, made of the curtain and Actaeon’s body on the left and Diana’s body on the other side. Forms within forms – it’s so beautifully complex, and fits well with your idea.

  2. Robert Linsley said…

    Very interesting.

  3. David Sweet said…

    Titian’s liberated colour and adventurous compositional decisions explain his continuing appeal for painters. The case for his abstraction may be a little more complex. The Pesaro altarpiece is obviously about a family at prayer. What Titian seems to be doing with the organisation of the connected drapery right at the centre of the painting is reifying prayer. The intercession starts at the mouth of the kneeling figure on the left, passes through the Church, represented by St Peter, and proceeds via a very narrow isthmus that joins the virgin’s robe to the Book, rising onwards and upwards, as prayers do, to the Madonna herself. In other words the shapes are a way of turning an abstraction, prayer, into a tangible and therefore paintable form.

    When he wanted to find a way of painting lust, another abstract idea, he chose to personify it through the figure of Bacchus, leaping from his cart, his gaze fixed on Ariadne. But reification of abstract entities, the painted prayer in the altarpiece, does relate to ‘modernity’ in the visual arts. The Impressionists reified light, Cezanne, his ‘sensations’, van Gogh reified his chair, (because he wasn’t sure it was real), Pollock reified his unconscious. Maybe Still reified the sublime, or tried to, and many painters seemed to have attempted to reify space, rather than work with it in its ‘unreal’ state, namely as illusion. Reification is a problem in philosophy, but has been extremely productive in the practice of modern painting.

    • Robert Linsley said…

      I guess my work would be reified emergence, which would also fit Pollock’s. Stella’s would be a reification of the experience of shock or meaning or pleasure when two disparate things come together, a more common mode.