Martin Gayford

To ‘review’ such supreme paintings is slightly absurd: Titian at the National Gallery reviewed

Titian's late pictures are executed with a looseness and freedom that still startles

Crime scene: ‘The Rape of Europa’, 1559–62, by Titian

In 1576 Venice was gripped by plague. The island of the Lazzaretto Vecchio, on which the afflicted were crammed three to a bed, was compared to hell itself. In the midst of this horror Tiziano Vecellio, the greatest painter in Europe, died — apparently of something else.

He was in his eighties and working, it seems, almost to the end. Titian: Love, Desire, Death, which was briefly on at the National Gallery, before it was closed down this week by our own plague, contained several of the greatest masterpieces of his old age — and also of European art. It comprises just seven canvases, all done for Philip II of Spain — a villain of English history, the man who launched the Armada, but as far as Titian was concerned his most discerning patron. Philip was an avid persecutor of heretics but happy to give his favourite artist a free hand. He was rewarded by some of Titian’s most audacious work.

To ‘review’ such supreme paintings is slightly absurd. These are the touchstones from which Rubens, Velazquez and Rembrandt learnt and their successors still do. Van Dyck actually owned ‘Perseus and Andromeda’; Lucian Freud confessed that he, too, would have liked to have had one of these Titians on his wall. He couldn’t choose between ‘Diana and Actaeon’ and ‘Diana and Callisto’, which he considered jointly ‘simply the most beautiful pictures in the world’.

These are the touchstones from which Rubens, Velazquez and Rembrandt learnt and their successors still do

Frank Bowling, a contemporary master of abstraction, returns again and again to ‘The Death of Actaeon’ — in part because he finds it so modern. ‘There’s something amazing in the stirring up of the paint,’ he told me. ‘It just comes across at you — whoosh! — like a De Kooning.’

That’s absolutely right.

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