Is Titian's painting worth saving?

The campaign to prevent 'Diana and Actaeon' from being sold off assumes that it's a great painting. Tom Lubbock disagrees

So imagine if the Duke of Sutherland owned Milton's Paradise Lost. Imagine if the duke was offering it to us for £50m, and if we couldn't stump up he'd sell it to America, and then – if we wanted to read or hear or in anyway know Paradise Lost – we'd have to go to somewhere in America. Imagine, in other words, that a poem was like a painting, a unique object, which could be bought and sold like real estate.

What would be happening? We'd be hearing a great deal from Andrew Motion, saying how vital it was that Paradise Lost – one of the greatest English poems, what's more a piece of our heritage – should not leave the shores of its birth. Poets and professors would be signing round robins. What we wouldn't be hearing is that Paradise Lost was once and remains a controversial poem, whose value has often been questioned.

With poetry, disputes can be safely held. The poem is in print. Whatever happens, it won't be sold off and taken away. No individual or institution has anything material invested in the reputation of Milton. This is one reason why critical debates are more vigorous in literature than in art. There was a Milton controversy. When was there last a Michelangelo, Leonardo, or Titian controversy?

Titian's Diana and Actaeon needs no introduction. You know the campaign to buy it from the Duke of Sutherland for the National Gallery and the National Gallery of Scotland. You know the price that must be raised by the end of the year. You'll remember the round robin letter, signed by lots of artists, urging us all to chip in. You may also have been to see it during its temporary fund-raising showing in London, which came to an end last weekend. And now it looks very much like the needful £50m will be mustered from various public and private sources.

Well spent? I don't have a problem with the money. It's nothing to the sums that evaporate before our eyes everyday at the moment. It's certainly what the picture is "worth". £50m is a snip compared to what it would raise at auction. And if people want to buy it I don't want to stand in their way. My problem is how the campaign was conducted. You remember all the arguments advanced to persuade you that this was a very great painting, and vital to hold on to? No, me neither.

The case for Diana and Actaeon didn't begin to be made. It amounted to no more to the most general commendations. There was John Leighton, director of the National Galleries of Scotland, who called it "our Mona Lisa". There was Nicholas Penny, director of the National Gallery in London, who said it was "miraculous".

Lucian Freud declared: "I can't imagine anything more beautiful." A long list of artists – David Hockney, Bridget Riley, Frank Auerbach, Peter Blake, Paula Rego, Antony Gormley, Rachel Whiteread, Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin – agreed that it was "among the finest works in private hands in the world". And Colin Wiggins of the National Gallery said it was "one of the greatest works of art on the planet."

Convinced? This wasn't argument but blandishment, a series of glowing testimonials, which add up to: take my word for it, you jolly well better believe it. And if we couldn't raise the necessary, that would only prove what an art-blind nation of philistines we are. As the top Titianist Tracey Emin explained, delivering the letter to Downing Street, it would be "really embarrassing" if some foreigner bagged it.

Doubters were huffed into silence, or into a meek admission that, if they failed to appreciate the planetary greatness of Diana and Actaeon, that must be an fault in them. It's been a magnificent act of aesthetic blackmail.

Of course, when you're dealing with one of the greatest pictures on the planet, giving this or that particular reason why it's so good is likely to diminish it. The trouble with arguments is that they only allow counter-arguments. They give the unconvinced a foothold.

So, as one of the firmly unconvinced, let me make the first move. Let me say what I think is no good about this painting. Look at it. It's all over the place. It's cramped on the left where Actaeon comes in. It falls apart on the right among the goddess and nymphs. It doesn't have any strong focus or gesture.

The picture doesn't establish a decisive action. The central confrontation of Actaeon and Diana is hamstrung between his daft gesticulations and her flamenco flourish. It doesn't establish a defined space either. The setting is an inarticulate add-up of arch, trees, column, bodies. The sloping fountain, the ground area, make no clear sense.

It's cobbled together from bits and pieces in search of a structure. If ever a picture hadn't been worked out yet, it's this one. So, interesting perhaps as an example of a Titian in progress, but the opposite of miraculous. Or tell me I'm wrong. And tell me why.

There are spatial glitches that have no obvious point. Where exactly is the highly prominent pink hanging? It's held on to by a nymph who lies quite a way behind Actaeon. It's also almost in the right hand of Actaeon. Bodies are in confusion. Look at Actaeon's left leg, and the leg of the nymph behind him, and the chin of his black dog: the edges of these three items get muddled up.

Diana's extended leg (which is oddly shorter than her other leg) and the leg of the nymph who's drying it, get joined together, so that the nymph's lower leg looks like Diana's leg below the knee – and now this leg becomes bizarrely long. Is this effect good? Of course Titian, like any artist, can play these games. But to what benefit?

Perhaps none of these things matters. Perhaps the only thing that matters with Titian is flesh – his sumptuous, glowing, rolling oceans of flesh. He is the great painter of the body, the skin, the senses. Only a prude could resist the invitation.

But there is something wrong with these bodies. What substance are they made of? Something manipulable and something vague. It's a kind of putty and a kind of shimmer. It's neither resilient nor vulnerable. This is how Titian fantasises flesh, as a luminous pastry, and oil painting certainly lends itself to this fantasy. Diana and Actaeon is a textbook example of this unfortunate tendency in European art. It's one of the places it starts.

The planet, fortunately, has many greater paintings. Several are by Titian himself – for instance Bacchus and Ariadne and The Death of Actaeon, both already in the National Gallery. Diana and Actaeon is bad Titian. It would be no tragedy if we lost it. It has scholarly value. It's just the kind of thing that belongs in the Getty Museum in California. But what we've now bought for our £50m is not only the painting itself, but the perpetual obligation to believe it's a work of supreme genius. Bingo!

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice