Metamorphosis: Titian 2012, National Gallery, London

Titian undergoes a titillating transformation 

Three great Titians, all based on mythological themes found in Ovid, hang side by side in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery for the first time since the 18th century.


They are all furious dramas of lust, exposure, death, sudden transformation, painted with a kind of rash, majestic freedom: the hunter Actaeon erupts into the presence of Diana, that “queen and huntress, chaste and fair” and her nubile nymphs.

He is transformed into a stag for his pains, and brutally hunted down to his death. The nymph Callisto is shamed in public for becoming impregnated by a god. Everything here is ripe for dramatisation.

This show challenges artists, poets and choreographers of our own day to respond to these Titians in ways they deem fitting. In a new suite of large paintings, Chris Ofili transposes Titian to Trinidad.

It is Ovid whom Ofili loves the more, we feel. There is very little echoing of Titian in these luscious, fluid, sexy paintings of phalluses springing up from a green shade. The colours feel oppressively hot, humid. Beings dissolve and re-shape themselves like spillages of water.

Marc Wallinger explores the nature of voyeurism in an installation called Diana, reminding us just how shocking Titian’s treatment of the exposed flesh of the naked female form was often held to be. We find ourselves in the presence of a huge, black box of a room in an almost lightless gallery. Our eye seeks out odd pin pricks of light – there’s a small hole where the door key might have been, and a couple of eye holes in a wall. We look through – to a bathroom scene that we can glimpse only in fragments.

Then, all of a sudden, a naked woman’s eyeball appears opposite ours. She applies her eye make up with tender care. We step back, ashamed of our voyeurism. Titian too was a voyeur, Wallinger seems to be murmuring, behind the respectable mask of mythology. Wasn’t Actaeon a shameless ogler, punished for staring at luscious female flesh?

Conrad Shawcross is a kinetic artist. Things are always on the move. Diana has been metamorphosed into a robot with a circling, wand-like arm, at whose tip is a fierce blaze of torchlight. The wand is part exploring, part taunting a sad antler, raised up on a plinth. Diana is reflecting upon the ritual murder of Actaeon.

Elsewhere, the show opens out further still, into poetic and balletic responses.

To 23 September (020 7747 2885 )