The recent acquisition of three of Titian’s six ‘poesie’ works of mythological scenes by the National Gallery in London, and the National Galleries Edinburgh, has instantly become one of the crowning glories of Britain’s National Art Collection. The purchase of Diana and Calisto and Diana and Actaeon came to a pricey £100 million for the nation, but whereas in London the pieces have been awarded a grand reception, the treatment of the works in the Edinburgh Gallery has been a lot less rewarding.
I first viewed these three masterpieces in 2012, in the London Gallery’s massive project to celebrate the works, Metamorphosis: Titian 2012. The Gallery, in line with the Royal Ballet, and three contemporary artists, dedicated its entire temporary exhibition space to the three works, while also exhibiting three modern takes on Titian’s great themes. A room was dedicated to a massive, illuminated crane, looming over antlers like some feral vulture, representing the corpse of Actaeon from the title; another contained an array of tropical murals, a third an innovative performance piece, looking in on a woman in her bathroom, replicating the gaze of Actaeon on the goddess Diana. To top it off a full three act ballet was put on, recounting the stories of Titian’s works, of which excerpts could be viewed in conjunction with the paintings. In short, a full multi-media experience celebrating the works that had been bought on the behalf of the nation was put on in this highly impressive showcase for the gallery.
Following their stint in the National Gallery, the experience went on tour to music and arts festivals across England, a mobile cinema showing the history of the works, the stories they told, and showcasing the work of the Gallery in purchasing the paintings. When viewing this film at Latitude Festival 2013, I was greeted with three copies of the artworks mounted on a custom made van, in its own secluded area of the festival. On learning that the pieces, after touring England had finally come to Scotland, the other partner in the purchase of the paintings, you can imagine how happy I was to see how they were exhibited this time, after two very enjoyable and very differing experiences.
The gallery, which should be familiar to any Art History student from various trips, contains an exhibition space below the main gallery, which itself is made up of a series of rooms displaying its vast collection. Instead of taking up the spaces of the main exhibition, the three masterworks were presented in one section of the normal gallery space, surrounded by other works by admittedly talented artists, but ones lacking the same weight as the Titians. The works spoke for themselves, the mastery of Titian still came through, but the presence that they held when in London seemed to be lost. One couldn’t help feeling that these works, despite all of their glory, were somehow discarded by the gallery, despite being one of the crown jewels of the UK art collection.
It seems a shame that when put on display in London, the ‘centre of culture’ for the UK, these pieces are displayed with a grandiose air and with all the trappings of the cultural hub which the city undoubtedly is. When these masterpieces of art come to Scotland however, I had a feeling that it was deemed acceptable to give the works less of a reception. The National Gallery of Scotland is an equal partner in the ownership of these works, but seems to place less worth on them than London; no ballets or customised vans here. The works are still as impressive and grand as ever, but their treatment I think reveals to us how work outside of London really does not get the treatment it deserves, even in the art establishment.