About halfway through "Titian: Prince of Painters" at Washington's National Gallery (through Jan. 27), the visitor enters a gallery devoted to the painter's mythological works, and is surrounded by Titian's vision of woman in all her sumptuous sensuality.
There is "Danae" (1544) the monumental nude whose flesh radiates warmth and light and whose plump pillows echo the roundnesses of her body.
There is "Venus with an Organist and a Dog" (1550), that curious painting in which Venus lies before a sunset landscape as unconscious of her nudity as of the organist who, fully clothed and symbolically sworded, turns from his playing to gaze openly at her.
There is "Venus with a Mirror" (about 1555), her golden locks bound with pearls and the mantle that she clutches bordered in gold and fur, gazing appraisingly and somewhat self-consciously her regal image.
There is "Venus Blindfolding Cupid" (1560-1565), the whole canvas suffused with a rosy light and punctuated with deep reds that weave their way across the surface.
And there is . . .
Suddenly, through an opening, one looks back into the show's smallish second space, several galleries back, and there on the facing wall is the "Madonna and Child with Saint Catherine and the Infant Baptist in a Landscape" (about 1530). When Titian executed that work he was 40, and had been painting for at least 25 years -- a mature painter, in other words. Yet, looking at the Madonna and the "Venus Blindfolding Cupid" juxtaposed in this way, one is astonished at the changes that took place between the product of the 40-year-old and that of the 70-year-old painter.
It is not that one painting is better and the other worse, and it is not the different subject matter, for Titian painted both mythological and religious paintings all his life. It is that in the later painting the figures are more sculptural and monumental, the brushstroke is freer and more obvious, the colors are deeper and more subdued, the faces are less idealized and the expressions more natural, the action is pushed closer to the surface of the canvas, which we now notice.
And this is not the starkest contrast one could have picked. Walk out of the first gallery, which contains "The Concert" (about 1512) and "Madonna and Child with Saints and a Donor" (about 1512-1514), and go around the corner to the last gallery's horrifying "The Flaying of Marsyas" (about 1570-1576), which Titian left behind at his death.
We have gone from a painter emerging from the serene shadows of Giovanni Bellini and Giorgione, from an ideal of form and
exquisite finish, not just to a painter 60 years farther along in the history of art, but virtually to a modern.
As art historian David Rosand writes in one of the best of the accompanying catalog's uneven series of essays, in a late painting such as "Marsyas" the substance of Titian's image is more the substance of paint than that of illusion.
And the artist's vision here also reflects a pessimism, even a cynicism, wholly familiar in the late 20th century. As Marsyas the satyr, hanging upside down, is flayed alive, his blood runs down onto the ground where it is lapped up by a cute little dog, symbol of the world's unconcern with atrocities. No painting by a late 20th century neo-expressionist is more modern in its sensibility than "Marsyas."
Seldom has a retrospective proved itself more worthy of being done. We have all seen this and that, or these and those, Titians in our museum-going years. But without an overview such as this it is impossible to understand the profound changes in Titian's art during a career that spanned most of the 16th century.
This, the largest Titian exhibit since 1935, opened to acclaim in Venice last June. The National Gallery's is a somewhat smaller version of that exhibit, containing about 50 paintings. One can always wish for some of the famous works that are not here, of course, such as the "Sacred and Profane Love" from Rome. Far more important is what we do have, a presentation of Titian's work comprehensive in subject matter, chronology and style. Those who miss this opportunity will have to go to 20 cities on three continents to see the same paintings. Those who take the opportunity can emerge from the show's excellent organization and for the most part exemplary installation feeling that they finally know the artist.
Although Titian exaggerated his age as he got older -- he was thought to be about 100 when he died in 1576 -- scholarship now puts his birth at about 1490. At an early age he studied with Giovanni Bellini and Giorgione, but as Terisio Pignatti points out in the catalog, even his earlier works depart from Bellini's "always hieratic, traditional, linear approach" and from Giorgione's "lyrical idealization," in favor of sensuous beauty, gloriously rich color and a reality that contemporaries called more real than the nature it imitated.