Monday, May 30, 2011
Giorgione vs. Titian (Hint: No Contest)
In the art of the high Renaissance, the connection between beautiful women and the divine was absolute. Courtesans became the models for goddesses and demi-goddesses in the paintings of da Vinci, Raphael, Giorgione, Veronese, Correggio, Titian, and others we know and don't know. Take Raphael's fresco of the apotheosis of Galatea. An epic figure riding a giant seashell drawn by dolphins, gazing ecstatically up at a hidden source of light in a cloudy renaissance sky, nude but for a red cloak flapping in the wind, surrounded by earthbound centaurs and a triton (half man, half whale) abducting nymphs right left and center and raising alarums with trumpets and conches to the putti raining arrows down from above. Galatea was painted in the likeness of the Roman courtesan Imperia.
There are countless other examples. Some of the women's identities we know, some we don't. Dozens of variations of Leda and the Swan (Correggio's version at right). Danaë lying on a bed whose sumptuous drapes are drawn back to reveal her receiving a shower of gold sprinkling on her lap from above. Flora, a fertility goddess closely associated with Venus.
The real-life model for Titian's versions of these subjects appeared again (and again) in Sacred and Profane Love, a painting where the nude is the sacred one, and the brooding housewife profane. The woman who is the identical model for both is widely believed to have been Titian's mistress Cecilia, of whom he made an honest woman, Renaissance-style, by marrying after she bore him the second of four children.Titian's paintings are swollen with emotion, and the sensuality - whether of sex or violence - is overripe and sensationalist. His women are certainly beautiful, but it's Titian's idea of beauty, not theirs. Titian's women have been captured on a surface of lush colors, forced to offer their naked breasts and bellies and plump legs to us. On the rare occasion they do look at us, they do not confront our gaze, but look askance. It's as if they weren't seeing us, but rather the man who was painting them.
Giorgione and Leonardo never did that. They somehow managed to let their women be themselves, enigmatically themselves, their moods changing each time you take a fresh look. They reveal less of their flesh than Titian's, yet are more sexy. Some gaze solemnly off to the side, in a classic three-quarter view, some look directly at the viewer. Some cast their eyes downwards, tragically or with a peace that passeth understanding.
The eyes of Giorgione's nude Venus are closed. She is asleep, seemingly dreaming the epic landscape behind her, both fantastical and vividly real, which at once frames and reflects the curves of her body. She is not an object of desire in the conventional sense - in the tradition of the reclining nude that Titian so excelled in. Rather she is such a complete embodiment of the place of the human in the natural world that you could just as easily describe her as naked - in the same way as, say, a stream could be naked, or a blade of grass.
Anthony di Mello once drew a telling distinction between two kinds of pleasure within a larger discussion of the nature of love. The first was the pleasure of receiving glowing praise from respected peers for a special achievement. The second was watching a beautiful sunset. Di Mello saw merit in each of these two kinds of pleasure - or two kinds of love - but cautioned that the first, being dependent on the opinions and judgments of others, is vulnerable to exploitation.
If we came across a nude woman sleeping in a field next to, say, the Appalachian trail, I think we would agree she was making herself vulnerable to exploitation. Equally, many would argue that the nude Danaës and Floras and Ledas and Venuses depicted by Titian and others on red velvet bedspreads or in leafy copses - for the pleasure or aesthetic approbation of the eye of the beholder - were painted in a way that rendered women more vulnerable to exploitation.
But Giorgione's Venus is different. She isn't in the slightest bit vulnerable. She is sleeping the sleep of the most wise and powerful of gods. When we look at her, we are not inflamed with desire, but struck with awe.
Perhaps tellingly, Giorgione's student Titian was entrusted only with painting the drapes on which she dreams.
Giorgione's women are depicted with a level of dignity and intelligence and gravitas that gives them an equal measure of power with the viewer. I read somewhere that Leonardo himself was the source of that old saying, "The eye is the window of the soul." Titian didn't seem to be too concerned as to whether that window was open or not. But Leonardo was.
As was Giorgione. He painted an unknown woman who a century later another unknown person was to name 'Laura' after the laurel branches which frame her against a chiaroscura background. She is gazing off to the left and gently holding open the fur lapel of a sumptuous red cloak to reveal a naked breast. The skin of her throat melds with the delicate tiny strands of fur in a sfumato effect - you can't tell where her skin begins and the fur ends, save where a length of thin white lace curling down from her opposite shoulder brings things into focus (albeit still a misty one). The fur is the same color as the stray lock of hair whose tip brushes against her bare neck. She is alluring without making the slightest effort to be so, her portrayal balanced tantalizingly between ethereal artifice and animal sensuality. The latter has been conquered and subjugated for now through the mortal sacrifice of the beast whose de-fanged hide now caresses her bare skin. But Laura's smoldering brown eyes are the same color and texture as the shimmering lush strands of fur. The soul of the animal is touching her in the most intimate way imaginable. It lays dormant somewhere inside her - inside this portrayal, which is all we have left of her - eternally waiting to be unleashed by our gaze.