Metamorphosis (sponsored by Credit Suisse) is more than an exhibition, it is wider in its manifestations and implications. The Sainsbury Wing galleries are full of interesting works of art, but the Metamorphosis festival — for that is what it surely is — extends to the Royal Opera House and beyond, through dance and poetry. Unfortunately, there are only limited performances by the Royal Ballet, but these will be filmed and thus available for viewing, and the poetry is published in a handy illustrated paperback (price £8.99), with a learned but accessible introduction by the director of the National Gallery, Nicholas Penny.
The theme of the festival is Titian, and we are celebrating the NG’s recent acquisition (jointly with the National Galleries of Scotland) of ‘Diana and Callisto’, the third great Diana painting to join the national collection. ‘The Death of Actaeon’ was purchased by special appeal in 1972, and ‘Diana and Actaeon’ in 2009. All three are now on show together in the first room of this new exhibition, and very splendid they look too.
The idea behind the festival is to demonstrate Titian’s continuing relevance, and all the work — in gallery, opera house and book — has been directly inspired by these three paintings. The curator responsible is Minna Moore Ede, and she must take the credit for initiating a remarkable series of artistic responses to the great art of the past. The achievement of Titian is timeless, but it’s good to be reminded of this in such a positive and public way.
This collaboration between the National Gallery and the Royal Opera House has resulted in three contemporary visual artists (Chris Ofili, Conrad Shawcross and Mark Wallinger) being commissioned to produce work which will then be translated into a trio of ballets by leading choreographers and composers. In addition, 14 poets (from Patience Agbabi to Hugo Williams, The Spectator’s poetry editor, via Seamus Heaney) were also commissioned to write a poem in response to Titian. The range of work on offer is fresh and varied, but I will limit my remarks to the exhibition.
In the Metamorphoses of Ovid, the source of Titian’s themes in these paintings, Actaeon is turned into a stag for chancing upon the goddess Diana bathing in her sylvan retreat, and subsequently torn to death by his own hounds. Callisto, once a favourite handmaiden of the goddess, is turned into a bear for the crime of falling pregnant. Both stories offer rich possibilities for interpretation, and they have certainly inspired the three chosen artists to new heights. Turn left out of the Titian room, once you have done feasting your eyes on this genius of Venetian painting, and you are in the Ofili room, a dimly lit chamber of tropical delights, lush with colour and profuse organic growth. These paintings pursue the trail begun with the works in the last room of Ofili’s 2010 Tate Britain retrospective, in which Sixties’ psychedelia meets Art Nouveau, following the artist’s relocation to Trinidad in 2005. The lurking mood mixes threat with seduction in a sprawl of falling, writhing forms.
The best paintings here mingle Ofili’s pronounced decorative streak with unconventional imagery. In the painting ‘Ovid — Destiny’, the lower section is a crazy pavement of red, green, purple, yellow (some echo of Kitaj here), while two dark figures, like something out of the wayward imagination of Edward Burra, embrace on the extreme left. The luxuriant jungle settings of these six large and impressive paintings bring uncomfortably to mind flowers of evil portent. Also memorable is the yellow-dominated ‘Ovid — Actaeon’, with its looping fluid figures against a humid midnight ground, with sex the serpent rearing its dangerous head. From the lurid nightmares of Ofili’s vision, it is something of a relief to turn to Mark Wallinger’s darkened room, where the self-communing of art is a shade less personal.
Wallinger invites us to participate in something altogether more insidious: a peep-show of a live girl at her ablutions. A small bathroom has been built in the blacked-out gallery, which we may walk round. There are various observation points at which the visitor may apply his or her eye for an illicit glimpse: first and classically, the keyhole of a locked door; then on the next wall round, a corner has been broken out of a frosted window, offering a clear, if partial, view; on the third wall, one may peer through the shutters of a long louvred window; finally, on the fourth wall, a pair of peepholes allow the spectator to look into the room through a two-way mirror. When Wallinger advertised for seven girls to fulfil this role of naked bathroom beauty, he stipulated that all must be actually called Diana, which is the title of his installation. The nature of art as voyeurism has never been so piquantly explored, despite Duchamp’s late masterpiece ‘Etant Donnés’, and the knowing references to it here.
The thoughtful visitor proceeds back through Ofili’s jungle, perhaps pausing in a room of ballet costumes, before encountering Conrad Shawcross’s robot, weaving about in its large glass case. Entitled ‘Trophy’, it consists of a mechanical aluminium limb holding a pencil of light which rears around a fixed pair of antlers (all that is left of Actaeon the stag), examining them. A little like a dentist’s drill with a mind of its own, this computer-driven arm on its tripod is almost sinister, but not quite. The most intimidating moment is when it lurches into swift action and you can hear the surge of the motor.
Quite how effective this will be in giant form in the ballet devised around it, I cannot tell. There are two more rooms, one of filmed choreography, the other of set designs, which begin to suggest how the visual art moves and metamorphoses into ballet, through the inventive skill of composers and choreographers. I have always found displays of ballet costumes or designs singularly unenlightening, and models of sets only marginally more informative. For the full effect of the transformation, and the completion of this festival’s wide scope, the visitor needs to see the ballets themselves, not available when I visited. A hint of the pleasure in store came through snippets of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s beguiling music. At least the poetry book may be carried away to savour at leisure.
I wish I could conclude this review neatly by quoting the Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, who observes in her poem on ‘Diana and Callisto’ that in the end ‘it’s all about paint’, but only part of this exhibition (Titian and Ofili) fits that description. I am not usually an admirer of performance or installation art, but in this case Mark Wallinger’s piece is brilliantly adapted to the theme and its meanings, while the swooping mechanical arm of Conrad Shawcross brings a futuristic sculptural reading to the sacred grove. I’m almost tempted to say that, for several centuries at least, Diana has never had it so good. The exhibition, by the way, is free.