Late Titian: The Big Muddy

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The Flaying of Marsyas, Titian, 1575-76 / Image: STATE MUSEUM, KROMERIZ

The late works of Titian were the subject of the big temporary show that just closed at the Accademia in Venice, where I caught up with it last week in its final days. Actually, it wasn’t that big, 28 canvases from the last decades of Titian’s long life, when his brushwork became looser, more vivid and visible, more impastoed and sprezzatura. As a signifier of life and spontaniety, Titian’s late style became a hugely influential way of working paint, finding it’s way over time into the canvases of Velazquez and Rubens, Hals and Rembrandt, and by way of them to Manet and even 20th-century Expressionism. The late style was a thunderbolt he threw in old age and it travelled a long way.

Or was it? Even in his lifetime there were people who saw in his pittura a macchia — “patchy painting” — not a deliberate style but an accidental one, a sign that the old man was losing it, that his eyesight was too weak and his hand too shaky to accomplish the more assured finish of his earlier work. Then there was what you might call the de Kooning problem — just how much of the late work was done by his apprentices? As a further complication, his final canvases include some that were still in his studio when he died in 1576, swept off in his 90s by a plague that also claimed one of his sons. Were the raw and agitated passages of these pictures deliberate? Or were they simply unfinished at the time of his death?

The show divides his work into three areas: portraits….

Jacopo Strada, Titian, 1567-68/ Image: VIENNA, KUNTSHISTORICHES MUSEUM

……religious scenes, like the Accademia’s own magnificent Pieta, one of Titian’s last works….

Pieta, Titian, c. 1576 /Image: ACCADEMIA

….and poesies, the eroticized mythological scenes that he produced for learned customers like Cardinal Alessandro Farnese in Rome and Philip II of Spain, the chief patron of his final years.

Danae, Titian, c. 1560 /Image: VIENNA, KUNTSHISTORICHES MUSEUM

In the run up to this show, which was first mounted last year in Vienna, a great deal of new research was done on many of the canvases, including x-ray and infrared reflectography, partly to get a better grasp on Titian’s practice of producing multiple versions of the same image. All the same, the curators don’t offer a definitive judgment on the question of how deliberate Titian’s late style was. But they plainly favor the idea that, as the catalogue puts it, “Titian’s visible brushwork is also his artistic signature.” All of this is a question that I don’t think research and scholarship can ever entirely settle. It may not have a single answer. For myself, I still prefer to think that, having confronted and absorbed the lessons of Michelangelo and central Italian painting generally — Titian had traveled to Rome in 1546 and again in 1550 — in his later work he was making a final, radical statement in the debate between drawing (Rome) and color (Venice) as a means to build a picture. In Titian’s lifetime oil paint was still a relatively new medium in Italy, and in the blurred contours and lush textures of his last years he was still working out its possibilities as no one else had.