Titian’s paintings come together after centuries of separation. Museum visitors express themselves.

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When Titian created six masterpieces for King Philip II of Spain centuries ago, the Renaissance artist pioneered a revolutionary style in an attempt to prevail over other forms of ‘art.

“It’s no exaggeration to say that these paintings transformed the history of Western painting,” says Nathaniel Silver, curator of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, which recently opened an exhibition bringing the group together.

Why we wrote this

Where does seeing art fit in among our other demanding attention options? In Boston, a rare exhibition of Renaissance paintings tests the appeal of quiet contemplation.

Looking at these works over 450 years later, it occurred to me that Titian had to compete, once again, with other art forms. This time, he’s competing for attention against young psychics like TikTok. Many entertainment options today consist of interactive and immediately available digital content. On the other hand, the paintings of Titian are immobile and require a visit to see them. A more fundamental question is whether Titian’s mythological scenes, which portray sexual violence with a lewd gaze, speak to our contemporary values.

Again, the exhibit presents a compelling counter-argument for quiet contemplation on the arc of human history. Taken in these terms, Titian’s paintings still stand up to contemporary art forms. Gardner’s innovative presentation, which incorporates the perspective of modern social mores, suggests that museums may still find a niche for our attention.

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What would the great artist Titian of TikTok have thought? I reflected on this question when I visited the historical exhibition “Titian: Women, Myth and Power” at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

For most of Titian’s life, parallel to the heyday of the Renaissance, painting was eclipsed by other artistic mediums. The printing press had raised the popularity of theater and poetry, sometimes accompanied by music. So when Titian created six masterpieces for King Philip II of Spain – brought together for the first time in several centuries in this exhibition – the artist launched a revolutionary style in an attempt at primacy against others. art forms. The Italian broke with the finely detailed techniques of the time for looser, impressionistic brushstrokes that invited the eye to fill in the details.

“It’s no exaggeration to say that these paintings transformed the history of Western painting,” Nathaniel Silver, curator of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, tells me.

Why we wrote this

Where does seeing art fit in among our other demanding attention options? In Boston, a rare exhibition of Renaissance paintings tests the appeal of quiet contemplation.

Looking at these works over 450 years later, it occurred to me that Titian had to compete, once again, with other art forms. This time it is competing for our attention against young media such as TikTok and video games. Many entertainment options today consist of high definition digital content that is immersive, interactive, and immediately available at our fingertips. In contrast, Titian’s oil and canvas plaques are fixed, two-dimensional, and require a visit to see them in person. A more fundamental question is whether Titian’s mythological scenes, which portray sexual violence with a lewd gaze, speak to our contemporary values.

Melanie Stetson Freeman / Staff

“The Abduction of Europe” (1559-1562) belongs to the Gardner Museum, the only American place of the traveling exhibition of Titian.

Again, the exhibit makes a compelling counter-argument for quiet contemplation on the arc of human history. Taken in these terms, Titian’s paintings still stand up to contemporary art forms. Gardner’s innovative presentation, which incorporates the perspective of modern social mores, suggests that museums may still find a niche for our attention.

“Museums are in a really interesting space because they still have that cachet of being the symbol of authority,” says Ben Davis, national art critic at Artnet News, an online publication. “But at the same time, they’re just this very small node in this giant information network that everyone is consuming now.”

Museums can stand out by being a little out of step with popular culture, Davis says, but he adds that there is a lot of pressure on museum directors to respond to what’s in fashion.

“Titian: Women, Myth and Power” isn’t necessarily trendy – when was the last time Renaissance art was chic? – but it’s a hit show. Several of these paintings have never traveled outside of Europe. The Gardner Museum, which has Titian’s largest work, “The Abduction of Europe” (1559-1562), is the only American location for the traveling exhibition, which runs until January 2. The six “poems” or painted poems of the Italian artist, inspired by the work of the Roman poet Ovid, were initially exhibited in the palace of Philip II in Madrid. Then they ended up in different collections. Each of these paintings is the equivalent of hit singles. Finally seen together, it is obvious that they form a classic album.

Melanie Stetson Freeman / Staff

“The subtlety of the colors really comes out when you see it in person,” says David Jackson (right) who discusses Titian’s work with his brother Steven.

The show was billed as a one-time reunion, likely never to be repeated. But these days, people are pulled in so many directions for entertainment – and their lives – that they often struggle to find time to visit museums. (And some people are still hesitant to visit crowded indoor spaces due to the pandemic.) That’s why the Boston Globe exhibit’s rave review urged readers to make the effort to go, calling it “Extreme lesson in the value of showing up.” “Visitors to the Titian exhibition echo this sentiment.

“You see the extent of the painting, its grandeur, which doesn’t really come out of a book I’ve seen or any representation online,” says David Jackson of Chicago, visiting the museum with his brother, Steven. “The subtlety of the colors really stands out when you see it in person. In addition, the atmosphere of all these people who turn around, watch it, add something to the experience. It’s something that touches people.

On both of my visits to the exhibit, there were queues outside. Yet adolescents were as rare as the fully clothed women in Titian’s paintings. The Gardner has made a concerted effort to speak to the younger generations by offering accompanying exhibits with a social justice perspective.

Melanie Stetson Freeman / Staff

Like all the paintings in the exhibition, “Perseus and Andromeda” is based on the writings of the Roman poet Ovid.

A short film, “The Rape of Europa” by Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley, delivers a feminist critique via risky limericks that would have made even Chaucer blush. Visitors can also scan QR codes with their mobile phones to listen to audio commentary by contemporary artists responding to Titian’s portrayal of women, non-consensual sex, and patriarchal power. (It’s a neat way to engage visitors so they aren’t distracted by other apps on their phones.) For example, Matisse DuPont, transgender educator, artist, and consultant, shares an LGBTQ rendition of “Diana and Actaeon ”. Artist Johnette Marie Ellis explores a complex of white saviors in “Perseus and Andromeda”, wondering why an Ethiopian princess is saved by “some semblance of a Greek man”.

Mr Silver, the curator, said the Washington Post’s rave reviews on the exhibition – with art critic Sebastian Smee raising the idea that it was “the art event of the year, and maybe of the decade ”- drew hundreds of comments from readers. There was an argument raging between those who appreciated the comments of contemporary artists on the show and those who hated their inclusion.

“I go to lectures all the time as a scholar where people will tell you that the Renaissance is dead,” says Silver. “I can’t think of a contemporary art exhibition that generates so much discussion and debate. And to me, it suggests that Renaissance and Old Master paintings are much more relevant and engaging to people than most scholars would have you believe. ”

During one of my visits to the exhibit, I overheard a teenage girl explain to her mother that some of the women in the paintings wear their blonde hair curly to be less sexually provocative to men. (Titian only gives them a minimum of modesty – they’re all naked.) It turns out that teenage girl Elena Comellas, a student at Wellesley College in Puerto Rico, recently traveled to Greece to study the classics. I asked him why so few of his peers attended this exhibition.

“I think it’s because of social media and because there are so many distractions these days that people don’t turn to art,” she said. “There are so many other things that are available that may be more interesting to them.”

Indeed, a new Deloitte survey of Gen Z consumers found that 26% of them prefer video games as their favorite pastime. Next is music at 14%, followed by surfing the Internet (12%) and interactions on social platforms (11%). Watching movies or TV shows rated even lower. As for visiting art museums? To borrow a Gen Z slang term, it’s just boring.

But youth anxiety and depression, often linked to social media, present an opportunity, says art critic Davis. Savvy museums could join forces with the growing mindfulness and meditation movement.

Melanie Stetson Freeman / Staff

Elena Comellas, a student at Wellesley College in Puerto Rico, reflects on the Titian exhibit at the Gardner Museum.

“The early museums were really meant to be spaces of comfort in the face of new industrialization,” says Davis. “Its sluggishness, the things people find that make it a tough sell in a digital economy, could actually be strengths. They are custodians of slower forms of gaze, attention and historical thought.

The Gardner Museum, which has a serene interior atrium, certainly invites quiet contemplation. Inside the intimate Hostetter Gallery, one can grapple with the complexities and contradictions of Titian’s compositions. His scenes of anguished violence often feature a lascivious gaze. But there is also a great humanity in the tenderness and compassion of many characters.

Another thing I noticed: the grandeur of these paintings easily attracts the attention of visitors for long periods of time. Student Farid Mazrui of Buffalo, New York, says Titian’s “breathtaking” work makes him want to learn more about classical mythology. The math major adds that he enjoyed being around other people in a quiet environment.

“It’s healthy to go offline, you know, just turn off your phone for an hour and you experience it,” Mr. Mazrui tells me. “It makes you live in the moment.”


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