Bold in color and expressive in texture, the works of Venetian painters have their own distinctive place within Renaissance art. Taking the lead was Titian (1488/90 -1576), who became official painter to the Venetian Republic, and whose fame spread across the Europe of his day.
The Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum’s current exhibition is, perhaps surprisingly, the first in Japan that centers around Titian and features his name in the title. Not so much an extensive overview of his work, “Titian and the Renaissance in Venice” thus provides a largely unfamiliar audience with a simple introduction to the artist and the rich artistic heritage of the city he is associated with.
Titian, also known as Tiziano Vecellio, was born in the Republic of Venice and was sent to the city as a boy to study art. He worked under Giovanni Bellini, who is represented in the exhibition by a couple of works, and was influenced by fellow student Giorgione. After Giorgione’s death in 1510, Titian began to establish himself as an independent painter.
The exhibition is structured around a handful of key Titian works, namely “Flora” and “Danae,” both of which address the kind of mythological themes popular in Renaissance Italy in Titian’s day. It opens, however, with some examples of the art of Venice that would have been familiar to Titian when he started producing works. One challenge organizers must have faced was coordinating the nearly 70 paintings the exhibition brings together, with works by a few dozen different artists and tackling a variety of subject matter.
The exhibition’s strategy here is to cluster works together by theme with, for example, numerous renditions of the virgin-and-child motif along one long wall, and another only displaying portraits. Elsewhere, works are grouped by artist, including a a slightly incongruous section dedicated to the work, mainly etchings, of Andrea Schiavone.
This almost modular approach is heightened by having the walls in these various sections painted different colors, breaking the monotony of the usual white cube of museum spaces and suggesting something of the ambience of the interiors the paintings likely originally adorned.
Such is the case with Titian’s “Flora” (1515), which is mounted in its own pink-walled alcove. This painting represents the artist maturing as a painter and opens the second section of the exhibition, titled “The Age of Titian.” “Flora” depicts the Roman goddess of flowers and highlights Titian’s skill in rendering supple flesh in soft, diffused light. Accom panying the painting are works by other Venetian artists who have largely been relegated to minor importance in the history of the art of the republic, but whose role at the time of the Renaissance is currently being re-evaluated.
One of those is Palma Vecchio, another pupil of Bellini, whose “Flora” (in the National Gallery in London) owes a debt to Titian’s masterpiece. At this exhibition, other works by Vecchio, who perhaps also studied under Titian, are displayed, including his “Judith” (1525-28), which shows a similar flair for rendering the luminosity of flesh and an interest in the texture and color of textiles.
As Titian’s career progressed, the manifestation of his fascination with texture reached the point of an almost abstract expressionism, with the rough, open touch of his brushwork left revealed at at time when the norm was to conceal the work of the painter’s hand. Look beyond the female flesh on display in his “Danae” (1544-46) and you may be struck by the overtly painterly quality of the surrounding drapery. Because of Titian’s innovations in this regard he is considered in some quarters to have been at the forefront of the first moves toward modernism, centuries before Edouard Manet or Paul Cezanne.
Living a long life, most of it in his beloved Venice, Titian’s reputation was such that he was welcomed with great splendor at the Vatican, where he was commissioned to paint portraits of the pope and other important figures. A few of these are in the exhibition, including his 1543 rendition of Pope Paul III looking wise and determined.
The exhibition concludes with a look at other celebrated painters who made their own contributions to Venetian art. Tintoretto shared Titian’s love of exposed brushwork, as is evident in his “Leda and the Swan” (1551-55, on display close to Titian’s “Danae”) and is also known for his use of rich colors.
With the glowing gold hues of his “Holy Family with Saint Barbara and the Child Baptist,” Paolo Veronese also pursued a heightened sense of coloring, though the exhibition highlights how this was tempered with a more classical approach to composition and form.
By tying together these various developments, “Titian and the Renaissance in Venice” offers audiences a solid primer on an aspect of Italian Renaissance art that may be unfamiliar to many.
“Titian and the Renaissance in Venice” at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum runs until April 2. ¥1,300. Closed Mon. www.tobikan.jp/en/index.html