Titian exhibition at the Museum of the History of in Vienna

The Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna has its own vast collection of Titian. There are so many of his paintings in this museum, that only a few of them are included in the main exhibition of the year, “Images of Women: Beauty, Love, Poetry”. As almost each work by the famous Venetian can be interpreted as a statement on a “women’s issue”, one can only speculate if this choice was conceptual or time-serving. In any case, the result will delight any visitor, both those who are aware of the latest trends in interpretations of the old masters and those who just happened to drop in at the museum.

It is obvious that images of beautiful women are attractive by themselves (any adman knows it), so why bother with complicated concepts. Is it just to meet the modern demand to redefine the role of women? Yes and no.

The task of a museum is to present a work of art in a scientific perspective, to give the viewer not only reasons to experience it, but also food for reflection and, ideally, self-reflection. In this exhibition, the curators suggest looking closely at the faces of the portrait subjects to see different aspects of seemingly unambiguous images. This is particularly interesting when different versions of a single painting are presented or when the same character is depicted in different surroundings. The juxtaposition is particularly effective for the portrait of a young Venetian, whose three versions – Viennese, Florentine and St Petersburg – differ strikingly in their costumes, yet unambiguously (such unambiguity is rare) depict the same lady.

The paintings of Venetian life are complemented by jewelry corresponding to the time and place depicted. They allow us not only to appreciate the artists’ skill in depicting textures, but also to penetrate deeper into the symbolic language of the era. After all, rings, bracelets, and pendants often have a meaning that can only be understood in the context of a particular culture.

Titian la Bella

The peculiarity of the female Venetian images – after all Venice was a separate state at this time, with a specific way of life and social structures that distinguished it from its neighbours – is captured in the engravings of Cesaro Vechellio (yes, he is related to Titian). Images with the telling titles “Courtesan”, “Noble Lady”, “Maid”, “Old Woman”, “Bride” and other ladies in the pages from a folio of 1590, provide clues to decipher paintings by other Venetian authors.

The human face is the most interesting image for us and we instinctively seek to understand who is in front of us. Therefore, researchers in this exhibition have added new material on the identity of those depicted. The two portraits of the dignified, corpulent lady are probably those of Titian’s daughter Lavinia, and the blondes with languid eyes were not courtesans at all, as previously thought.

To show that Titian, though a titan of painting, but the creation of a certain aesthetic ideal, namely the “Venetian female portrait” is not a personal invention of the artist, but a local cultural phenomenon, the exhibition features works by other famous Venetian artists Giorgione, Palma Vecchio, Paris Bordone, Jacobo Tintoretto, Paolo Veronese and others. Some sections of the exhibition, such as “(Lovers) couples” consist exclusively of paintings by Titian’s contemporaries. The word “lovers”, by the way, is not taken in brackets for nothing; all the couples presented seem either a parody or a joke. With the exception of Tulio Lombardo’s relief “Bacchus and Ariadne”, wandering from exhibition to exhibition as a rare Renaissance depiction of a sincere feeling, understandable to a modern viewer, also without the comments of art historians.

The largest room is dedicated to the subjects that for decades were hidden in so-called “salas reservadas” – private chambers full of paintings, which at all times raised questions from moralists. The antique themes Diana and Callisto, Danaë, Vulcan and Venus in Vienna are presented in the usual discourse of stylistic innovation and antique heritage in continental Europe. The curators of the Vienna exhibition have chosen to ignore the recent American experience of thinking about gender topics in art outside of a historical context.

So if you’re expecting a classic museum experience without over-the-top critical interventions, this exhibition at the Museum of Art History is sure to give you a lot of excitement

Museum of the History of Art: Burgring 5, 1010 Wien
The exhibition runs until January 30, 2022, from 10:00 to 18:00 daily, Thursdays until 21:00.
Exhibition website

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