Tom Sutcliffe: The Titian that was no turn-on

The Week In Culture

Related Topics

I went to the National Gallery the other day, to look at the Diana and Actaeon, by Titian, that might be saved for the nation, and suffered the aesthetic equivalent of a sexual fiasco. Before I went into the room I was, I think it's fair to say, ready for congress – primed by various newspaper articles for an encounter with a great treasure of Western art whose departure from these shores would leave the national collection immeasurably damaged. In short, I was ready to be aroused and moved.

But in the event, I just couldn't rise to the occasion. Naturally, I was embarrassed. I can't honestly claim that this sort of thing has never happened to me before, but I usually manage to muster some kind of response, and Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne is actually one of my favourite paintings in the gallery. This time, though, nothing. And concentrating only made matters worse. Looking hard at Diana, trying to will a rush of blood into being, I simply found myself wondering about her unconvincing anatomy. Does that little head really go with that big body? And if so, how the hell is it connected?

I quite understand that the fault lies with me, not with Titian. In fact, I came away crestfallen. But it also made me realise that I've read a lot of vague assertions about the value of this painting in recent weeks, but very little in the way of specific persuasive argument. I should confess that I'm a national-patrimony sceptic anyway. We have a tendency in this country to become hysterical about a painting if there's a prospect of it being sold off to Johnny Foreigner, and then merely returning it to the obscurity it once enjoyed once the threat has passed.

But I'm certainly open to the idea that there is a great and unrepeatable bargain to be had here, given the Duke of Sutherland's offer of a discount first-refusal. What I haven't seen is the sales pitch itself, an account of this painting that goes beyond the suggestion that it would make our "set" better if we kept it. To protest that it would be "embarrassing" if the picture went abroad, as Tracey Emin did when presenting a petition to Downing Street, is to make an argument about national face-saving, not art. It's the fine-art equivalent of Pokémon, with Britain trying to hold on to a rare card. Blunt assertions about "beauty" and "genius" don't do much good either – they're just buzzwords to which we're meant to respond reflexively, rather than reflectively.

The closest I've seen to what is required are some remarks by Lucian Freud (before the picture came up for sale) in which he enthuses about its tumble of bodies. "Titian," he said, "does wonderfully what is one of the most difficult things of all to do, which is to paint people together. In a bad painting, the figures may be side by side, but are like butterflies in a book – there is no sense that they are really touching. But in Titian's paintings, even where ... knees touch each other, there is the most pleasurable sensation."

Reading that – specific, vivid, unpretentious – I actually thought it might be worth having another crack at consummation with Diana and Actaeon, and even, perhaps, chipping in to the purchase fund. We need more of that and less rhetoric if the public are to be persuaded to do the same.

Caution: truly bad ads about

I don't know whether it's the time of year or my advancing age but the IAI (Irritating Advert Index) seems to be particularly high right now.

There's that irresponsible toothpaste billboard which shows an apple with the word "Caution" stamped across it – idiotically conveying the message to Britain's carious soft-drink guzzlers that they should be wary of dangerous things like fresh fruit. Then there's the commercial for a new London shopping centre (above), which depicts potential customers as light-drunk moths, fluttering helplessly towards the flame of indiscriminate consumerism (although that, at least, can be defended on the grounds of inadvertent honesty).

But the highest IAI goes to the mystifying airline advert in which a shot of a foreign street scene is accompanied by the copy line, "You can't smell a city from a coach". As opposed, one assumes, to the evocative aromas that waft through the open windows of a 747.

It dawned on me that my daughter might be absorbing too much gangsta culture when, after her class had been doing Romeo and Juliet, she said: "Daddy, when we got to the line, 'Give me my long sword, ho!' I was the only one who laughed." I took it as a comment on my parenting skills and on Shakespeare's vulnerability to the flux of language. Given that the text has a hard time anyway with such confusions, I'm puzzled when directors add extra ones. In his new Lear, Rupert Goold has Edgar handing over a video as he says, "ope this letter", which makes Edgar look thick. Why not go the whole hog and have him say, "Check out this vid"?

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: 1st Line Technical Support Engineer

£19000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT and Telecoms company ar...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Manager - Visitor Fundraising

£23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Visitor Fundraising Team is responsi...

Recruitment Genius: Developer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Sales Account Manager - OTE £25,000

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing, ambitious, en...

Day In a Page

Read Next
An investor looks at an electronic board showing stock information at a brokerage house in Shanghai  

China has exposed the fatal flaws in our liberal economic order

Ann Pettifor
Jeremy Corbyn addresses over a thousand supporters at Middlesbrough Town Hall on August 18, 2015  

Thank God we have the right-wing press to tell us what a disaster Jeremy Corbyn as PM would be

Mark Steel
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future
Berlusconi's world of sleaze: The astonishing lifestyle once enjoyed by Italy's former PM

Berlusconi's world of sleaze

The astonishing lifestyle once enjoyed by Italy's former PM
Disney plans galactic domination with endless Star Wars spin-offs

Disney plans galactic domination with endless Star Wars spin-offs

Films and theme parks are just the beginning. Disney believes its control of the now decades-old franchise can bring in merchandise and marketing millions for years to come
Could the golden age of the gaming arcade ever be revived in the era of the Xbox?

Could gaming arcades be revived?

The days when coin-ops were the only way to play the latest video games are gone. But a small band of enthusiasts are keeping the button-pushing dream alive
Edinburgh Fringe 2015: The 'tampon tax' has inspired a new wave of female comedians to reclaim period jokes

Heard the one about menstruation?

Yes, if you have been at the Fringe, where period pieces are taking centre stage