THE TERROR OF BEAUTY
TITIAN,THE DEATH OF ACTAEON, ca.1565-76
(National Gallery, London)
The journey toward an understanding of the power of art begins with an experience of artistic terror:
One quiet morning in the London National Gallery, after studying Titian’s Death of Actaeon for about half an hour, I suddenly felt my body shudder with an instantaneous, horrifying recognition of what was happening right before my eyes. The hunter Actaeon, transformed into a stag for the crime of seeing the virgin goddess Diana at her bath, is shown being mauled by his own dogs under the stern, vengeful gaze of the pursuing goddess. He is dying horribly, in unimaginable pain, torn apart by animals. And even more shocking than this subject matter is the single detail by which Titian communicates the full horror: the ferocious black dog nearest the ground has already sunk its teeth into Actaeon’s waist and ripped open his flesh from hip to knee. The bloody viscera of the hunter’s thigh stands out in rust-colored contrast to the shiny brown deer fur covering the rest of his body, and the sharp slash of white paint across his hip can be read as the exposed ridge of his pelvic bone. Actaeon is being flayed alive. Like the satyr Marsyas, suspended upside down from a tree and methodically skinned in another of Titian’s late works, he pays an outrageously high price for offending the gods. But unlike Marsyas, he cannot even call out in agony, "Why do you strip myself from me?"1 Actaeon must mutely suffer this unbelievable pain, his undimmed human consciousness trapped inside the body of a beast.
Standing in the gallery, trying to understand what I’m seeing and feeling, I’m reminded of a favorite passage from Rilke’s Duino Elegies:
...For beauty is nothing
but the beginning of terror, which we still are just able to endure,
and we are so awed because it serenely disdains
to annihilate us...2
With these lines in mind, we can interpret the painting as one scene in a larger narrative characterized by dialectical reversals: the doomed Actaeon’s vision of Diana’s beauty leads directly to his transformation and destruction (Diana does not disdain to annihilate him); the object of Actaeon’s erotic gaze (Diana) transforms him into the object of her own thanatotic gaze. Hunter becomes hunted, seer becomes seen, passive object becomes murderously active subject, an epitome of beauty becomes an agent of shocking terror. And on the other side of the painting’s glass, we viewers, safely removed from Titian’s imaginary world, are also powerfully affected by what we see. If we look long enough, we might feel something falling inside ourselves as our initial impression of the painting’s beauty slips into a realization of its terror. Terribilita is what the Italians called such terrible beauty when they saw it in the late works of Michelangelo–especially the Sistine Last Judgment, with its awesome, massive Christ standing amidst a cyclone of damned and pleading bodies. The eighteenth century and the Romantic era opposed this same quality to their conception of the Beautiful and called it Sublime.
Until its recent removal to a more central location in the museum, The Death of Actaeon hung beside Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne, and the two paintings provided a perfect lesson in the distinction between Beauty and Sublimity. Painted almost five decades before Actaeon, the Bacchus is dazzlingly beautiful. The jewel-like colors of its draperies, the lush greens of the trees and landscape and the infinite blues of sky and sea combine for an effect as intoxicating as the wine god’s signature drink. Even the Laocoon-inspired foreground figure, a Michelangelesque nude ringed with serpents, doesn’t dampen the celebratory mood. This is a vision of passion under the sway of harmony, a fantasia of naked, natural desires controlled by love. It is as pleasant as a Mozart concerto or an English garden on a sunny spring day. It is the Beautiful captured in paint and handed down the centuries to show us all what Beauty means.
What a contrast, then, when we shift our gaze across the wall to The Death of Actaeon. Here is one of the greatest examples of Titian’s late, dark, loose style. The colors are muted, shadows encroach, autumnal yellows and browns predominate, and the light has that close-to-the-ground quality of late afternoon. In the Bacchus nature was mostly beauty; here it is all sublime. Nature in its terrible, inhuman fury tears Actaeon apart. Diana’s hatred–the flip side of that instinctual passion that causes Bacchus to spontaneously leap from his chariot toward the lovely Ariadne–has unleashed the horrors of Darwinian nature, and even the surrounding landscape seems complicit in Actaeon’s death. The angle of Diana’s unstrung bow, the symbol of her power, is echoed both in the pose of the falling stag-man and in the angle of the background tree equidistant between Actaeon and the bow. Thus nature is shown as the middleman, the mediator (or better, the hitman) employed to do the goddess’s dirty work. The large tree trunk that climbs up the right side of the canvas both balances Diana in the painting’s composition and closes off that side of the scene. Between the goddess and the dark tree, Actaeon has nowhere to run. He is hermetically sealed into the painting’s darkening sunset harmonies. Even the woods and the sky want him dead.
So The Death of Actaeon is a terrible painting–and a beautiful one, too. If it were merely a Hammer horror show, we could easily turn away, move on to something more pleasant (an old German crucifixion, perhaps). But this painting fascinates, and every closer look is rewarded. Diana’s athletic body, powerful and graceful, appears to spring across the canvas like a runner caught in motion by a camera’s eye. There are wonderful small details: the jeweled bracelet on the goddess’s wrist that carries the wavy contour of the tree through her outstretched arm; the vine climbing up the tree at right, a complex symbol of life in this world of death; the way the curve of Diana’s right arm is echoed in the cloud formation above her, and the way her killing stance is nearly mirrored by Actaeon’s dying pose. We also note the perspective recession through the background trees that leads the eye to Actaeon’s mounted companions, silhouetted against the declining sunlight. Added to these felicities is the overall visual magic of Titian’s late style. The plant at Diana’s feet is barely sketched in, a pyramid of seemingly random brushstrokes that eventually resolves (at a distance of 15 or 20 feet!) into a convincing illusion of sunlight scattered on leaves. Elsewhere, what appear close up to be globs of white paint smeared chaotically across the canvas become at a distance bubbles of white foam erupting on the surface of a stream–again, as if all of nature has been put into a rage. And so beauty leads us once more to terror. Even Titian’s most lyrical brushwork sings the dark poetry of death. He brings to his violent subject a beautifully somber sensibility reminiscent of the tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophocles.
In fact, this painting goes as far as any work of its century toward justifying the concept of the Renaissance as a rebirth of Classical arts and ideas. There is absolutely nothing Christian about it. It is a purely pagan image of a world without mercy or compassion, and as such it arouses in the viewer exactly those emotions Aristotle identified in the katharsis of Greek tragedy: pity and terror. Titian’s source, a tale in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, has all the horror of the painting as well as the additional ironies and rhetorical flourishes we expect from the Latin poet. Like many of Ovid’s stories–Marsyas, Niobe, Pentheus–it recounts the horrible overkill of the gods, their sadistic vengeance upon transgressors, in such a way as to emphasize the horror of punishment while de-emphasizing the victim’s offense. Is the horror of the flaying of Marsyas justified by his foolishness in challenging Apollo to a contest? Is Actaeon’s terrible death a fitting punishment for accidentally wandering into Diana’s grotto? In the latter case Ovid hazards an opinion: "...the goddess was / more violent than just."3 When I read Ovid or look at late Titian, I’m often reminded of my favorite lines from King Lear: "As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; / They kill us for their sport," and that ultimate piece of cold, cold comfort, "The worst is not / So long as we can say, ‘This is the worst’"4 The Death of Actaeon is a vision of the very worst.
It is also Titian’s final image of Diana. He was drawn to the goddess on at least two earlier occasions, and it would be no exaggeration to call her the femme fatale of his later works, the bitch-goddess of his personal pantheon. In Diana and Callisto and Diana and Actaeon (both painted in the late 1550's and both now in the Scottish National Gallery at Edinburgh), the goddess is a stern, commanding presence, but her ferocity is only implied. As in Greek tragedy, the climactic murders happen offstage. The Callisto shows the moment when the nymph’s pregnancy (a violation of Diana’s rule of chastity) is revealed. The goddess’s outstretched arm and accusing finger decorously intimate the vengeful power that will transform Callisto into a bear and hunt her down. Likewise, in Diana and Actaeon we see the moment that causes the later horror. The hapless hunter, stumbling upon the stream of bathing nymphs, recoils and instinctively raises his hands in a gesture of surprise. We sense that he would run away if he could, but Diana’s fierce, even sadistic, gaze has already sealed his fate.
All three Diana paintings–and many other works–were executed for Titian’s most important late patron, Philip II of Spain, a ruler/collector whose tastes ran from the Christian-themed hallucinations of Hieronymous Bosch to the sumptuous pagan nudes of Titian’s late mythologies. One wonders, however, what Philip would have thought of The Death of Actaeon. (As far as we know, the work was never delivered and was still in Titian’s studio when the artist died.) Compositionally, it relates to a work already in Philip’s collection, Perseus and Andromeda (now also in London at the Wallace Collection) in which a large female nude in the left foreground is opposed by a scene of violent action on the right. But something very odd happens to this composition upon translation to the Actaeon myth. In place of Andromeda, displayed fully nude and bound in heavy S-M chains for the viewing pleasure of the Most Catholic Monarch, we now have Diana the dominatrix, free and triumphant, with all of nature at her command. The heroic figure of Perseus descending from the sky armed for battle and dressed in colorful, billowing garments has been replaced by Actaeon ripped helplessly apart by dogs. A composition that formerly offered Philip female beauty and glorious male violence now shows him powerful female violence and male annihilation. The violence alone certainly wouldn’t have bothered the king; as a ruler, historian John Crow tells us, his taste for bloodshed was insatiable, and he already owned Titian’s gorgeous scene of a knife-wielding Tarquin assaulting Lucretia. But that was male violence directed at a woman–a different and more acceptable thing altogether. One doubts that Philip would have reacted favorably to the gender- and power-switching Death of Actaeon, and Titian may have suspected this. Also, an image of a victim of arbitrary power, designed to inspire pity and terror, might have unsettled a monarch who had sent so many people to their deaths. Thus the painting stayed in Titian’s workshop and never made the journey to Madrid.
The painter may have had other, deeper reasons for keeping this work close to home. For The Death of Actaeon can also be seen as a very personal statement: a great artist’s final meditation on the power of art. Actaeon dies after an accidental vision of beauty. He is forced to experience deeply the terrible power of beautiful things, a power that can transform and destroy. Translated to the much more mundane level on which we live, Actaeon is like a visitor wandering through the galleries of the Louvre who is suddenly transfixed by a painted vision of Watteau or Delacroix or Géricault. Intrigued, he stops in front of the canvas, feels its power, tries to understand. Here is Rilke again:
...Let him whose soul is no longer startled
and transformed by palaces, by garden’s boldness, by the rising
and falling of ancient fountains, by everything held back
in paintings or by the infinite thereness of statues--
let such a person go out to his daily work, where
greatness is lying in ambush and someday, at some turn,
will leap upon him and force him to fight for his life.5
It is terrible to face the transforming beauty of art, but it is also necessary if we wish to know the truth about ourselves. When we gaze long at the best art, the meanings on which we’ve built our lives begin to shift and we feel a chasm opening at our feet. This is the Rilkean terror of which beauty is only the beginning; it’s the power that Rilke felt as he stood in the Louvre before an ancient fragment of Apollo and heard an insistent voice commanding, "You must change your life."6
And yet, even as I write these words, my skepticism flows in, threatening to drown my Romanticism. Does art really possess this power? Can a mere image, a representation on canvas or paper, really transform or destroy us, shake us to the core of what we are? How could such a thing be possible?
An answer to these questions takes us away from the Actaeon and toward a general theory of art, its creation and reception. When a work of art affects us deeply, when it unsettles and disturbs us, it is almost always exerting pressure on our internalized ideologies. The challenge of great art is addressed to all those ideas that we have uncritically internalized, the cultural discourses that form and inform our selves. (Self, subjectivity, inwardness, personality, soul...I consider all of these words interchangeable, all metaphors that the human brain has invented in order to think about itself.) Artworks are uniquely capable of touching this level of the self because this is the level from which they have emerged. The art object is constructed of and by the artist’s subjectivity. This may sound overly Romantic--too individualistic and autonomous--but it is not. The artist’s subjectivity, like everyone else’s, is an internalization of external discourses: social and political ideas, emotions, traumatic experiences, the opinions of others. Our ‘inside’ consists largely of things unconsciously or uncritically gathered from ‘outside.’ (And that ‘largely’ may be a hopeful hedge--or a hopeless one, if the other component is genetic programming.) Elements of the artist’s subjectivity, then, are crystallized into a form that is given objective presence through work performed upon a material medium. (We call such work ‘painting,’ ‘sculpting,’ ‘writing,’ etc.) The product of this work is the art object. Adrift in the world, it captures the interest of an attentive viewer. If this viewer’s experience of the object is profound, it will cause an alteration, great or (most likely) small, in the viewer’s subjectivity. There will be some degree of shifting, some change within the viewer’s self. If this alteration is significant, the viewer might project it outward as he acts in society, thus challenging and altering the discourses that define our societies and form the selves within them. This, ideally, is a mechanism by which art might change both ourselves and our world.
Descending now from the abstract clouds and putting Titianesque flesh on these generalizations, we can understand The Death of Actaeon as a product of Titian’s inwardness that acts powerfully upon our own. The painting disturbs us with an indelible image of animal cruelty, of the irruption of nature’s sadism into the human world. Diana is a goddess, of course, but in Titian’s vision she is more importantly a woman, so this image of natural cruelty also becomes a masochistic male fantasy of female domination. The painting thus blurs and overturns some of the most important ordering dualities of European culture, the polarities (which we have all internalized) that privilege human over animal, culture over nature and masculine over feminine. These are the ideas deep inside us that Titian’s painting assaults. But on a more immediate and personal level, what shocks me most as I stand before the painting is the fact that this image of unrelieved savagery hangs within a gilded frame on a wall in a sedate, respectable art museum–just a room away from the Raphaels. The painting makes me think–with an emotion approaching satisfaction–that someone has left a gate open, and the barbarians have entered the city.
I think that The Death of Actaeon should be hung over the entrance to the National Gallery–as a warning. Beware of the Paintings. Inside this staid Victorian edifice are visions of everything the Victorians repressed, all that they forced down into the cultural unconscious: sex, nudity, violence, murder, torture, rape, incest. No amount of reverent, tasteful admiration or scholarly allegorizing can change what comes before our eyes as we walk these rooms. Not even the nearby Victorian ponderousness of Whitehall and Trafalgar Square can tame what lies within these walls. The National Gallery is a dangerous place. The Death of Actaeon shows us that to deeply experience the most beautiful things is to have our preconceptions burned away and be forced to conceive ourselves and our world anew. This is the transformation; this is the thing that makes us shudder. This is the terror of beauty. This is the power of art.
1.Ovid, Metamorphoses, 174.
2. Rilke, Selected Poetry, 151.
3. Ovid, op. cit., 92.
4. King Lear, act 4: scene1.
5. Rilke, op. cit., 215.
6. Ibid., 61.