Getting to know the elusive Titian

It is remarkable to learn that Titian: His Life is the first full biography of the sixteenth century Venetian artist since 1877. To say that its author Sheila Hale would have felt pressure is quite the understatement, compounded by the difficulty of the passage of time, weighing expectation and a subject whose life is shrouded in mystery.
She has, however, triumphed, delivering an extensive narrative of the Old Master that is contemporary, authoritative and ruminative, a base from which new insights, ideas and debate can happily occupy the art establishment for another 100 years.
The release of the book coincides with a major new collaborative exhibition and performance between The National Gallery and The Royal Ballet, which itself has become part of the London 2012 Festival.
Entitled Metamorphosis: Titian 2012, the multi-arts project takes inspiration from three of Titian’s most famous works: Diana and Actaeon; The Death of Actaeon; and Diana and Callisto, which in turn were influenced by some of the Roman poet Ovid’s exquisite writings from Metamorphoses.
The sets for the performance have, interestingly, been left in the very capable hands of the YBA painter Chris Ofili, the sculptor Mark Wallinger and installation artist Conrad Shawcross.
To say that these three men are far from conventional is an understatement, which at first may appear incongruous with the established image of Titian until we remember that he himself was known for having a mutable approach to art.
From Ms Hale’s book to the rich concurrence of fine art and ballet to Titian’s visualisation of Ancient Rome’s poetic brilliance, there is something dramatic about it all; a long lineage of western culture captured with svelte eloquence. The binding force for all of this, of course, is the High Renaissance artist, whom to the contrary, we know very little of.
The author, who was famously married to the late John Rigby Hale, an authority of the British Renaissance, is revealing in what we don’t know. Titian’s birth is as mysterious as the mythological stories he painted and his second wife remains nameless like an “insignificant significant” extra on his canvas.
Peculiar blind spots punctuate their way through Titian’s life, strands of narratives that are perfectly formed, and others which run into cul-de-sacs, when really, they should have gone on and on, like the open road. How did he live to be so old – in his late eighties – in such a compelling corner of the world? Venice sizzled.
What can be understood, which Ms Hale in her detailed and sweeping tale, which is illuminated by her own experience of living in Venice, is the accounts that the paintings tell of his own life, in addition to that of the principal anecdote being explored.
Take for example a Man with a Quilted Sleeve (1509), a careful, quiet and fluent early portrait, fiercely obscure in the subject’s disposition (is that irritation or merely confidence?). Here Titian is serene, reflective of a happy life, or more accurately, still young and naive, no woe to speak of.
Contrast then with The Flaying of Marsyas (1575), finished a year before his death. The subject is a lot darker, violent, depicting the torturous death of the satyr Marsyas after losing a musical contest with Apollo. The work, like the scene, is a lot more turbulent, as if Titian himself is fighting against his own unavoidable demise.
Titian then remains “elusively knowable”, a frustrating ambiguity that adds to his greatness. There’s an uncomfortable beauty in not knowing things that we know about, to lend an awkward phraseology famously delivered by Donald Rumsfeld – there are known knowns – because it feeds our curious nature. In this instance, a long weekend with Ms Hale’s book followed by a visit to the National Gallery will certainly feed that appetite.