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Titian’s visual poetry – or how to repaint an Emperor.

At the Royal Academy at the moment there is a magnificent exhibition of King Charles the First’s art collection. The undisputed star here is Anthony Van Dyck. As esteemed as he is, on the evidence of this show I would say that he is still underrated. The 3 massive equestrian portraits in the same room, brought together for the first time ever, are all knockouts and alone are worth the price of admission. Seeing all these Van Dyck’s together brought home to me how well Van Dyck had learned the compositional lessons of Titian. It is this that I’d like to talk about, because there is a painting in this show that offers an unparalleled insight into Titian’s decision making process.

On the evidence of this exhibition, Charles I owned at least a couple of Titians. One of these, his 1533 portrait of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, is unusually revealing about Titian’s thought process because it is a copy, or, more accurately, a reinterpretation of another man’s portrait. The new version pleased the emperor so much that he immediately made Titian his official portraitist. By comparing it with the earlier one by Jakob Seisenegger, we get to see Titian’s original subject matter before he sets to work with his unrivalled ability to create visual harmony. It provides a unique insight, as we get to see exactly what changes he has made, and infer why he made them. 

Most obvious when comparing the two is that Titian has simplified the work. He has darkened passages and made it more atmospheric; passages completely and precisely delineated in the Seisenegger now drift off into shadow. On a straightforwardly narrative level, Titian has made Charles taller, and he now completely dominates the space of the canvas. Instead of droopy eyelids he has a more intense, intelligent gaze. Flattery of this sort is to be expected. Although a brilliant ruler, Charles V was not the prettiest; he suffered from his Hapsburg family’s enormous lower jaw, to the point where he could not close his mouth. But flattery is not why this is the better picture.     

In terms of colour, Titian has simplified the whole work into a harmony of copper and silvery grey, and has massively downgraded the bright green curtain. The sliver of curtain that remains is still green but has been bronzed with the addition of the (overall) brown. As basic colour theory tells us, cool colours recede and warm colours come forward, so Titian makes sure that the brightest warm colours are Charles’ exposed skin, his hands and face. He is very careful not to let anything outshine them. In comparison Seissenegger has made some marble tiles on the floor the hottest element. The effect is to drain the blood from Charles’ flesh.

But the most powerful tool in Titian’s picture construction armoury is his control of light and dark. In the top part of Titian’s picture there is nothing remotely as bright as Charles’ face, whereas in the Seissenegger Charles’ visage competes for attention with a big white feather, several bright folds of curtain, and a lit section of wall. Your eye is a sucker for powerful tonal contrasts and tends to be drawn to the places where those contrasts are highest – where the lightest lights meet the darkest darks. Titian was supremely aware of this and took immense care in fashioning the borderlines between light and dark into clear, pleasing shapes. Lines are either made very straight or smoothed into unfussy curves. Just one example – compare the two faces, specifically the line along the top where the light of the forehead meets the dark of the cap and hairline. Seisenegger’s bumpy ride from left to right is transformed by Titian into a clean arc. Titian tidies up like this all the time, which makes for a more pleasurable viewing experience.

But creating clear shapes is only half the story. Titian makes sure that these shapes are placed in clear relationships with one another – the edges of shapes either rhyme with each other (parallel), or flow into each other (align). You may not notice these relationships but, because they are there, you feel a strange sense of “rightness” to the picture.  

An obvious straight line, in both pictures, is the edge of Charles’ silver coat on the (viewers’) left. Titian decides to make full structural use of it by extending the straight line all the way to the top of the picture. He invents a highlight in the curtain above Charles’ shoulder that aligns with the coat edge; but what to do about the arm that juts out in between?  To continue the line he shades the part of the sleeve just above the coat edge, and then, when the line hits the puffy shoulder, he cleverly darkens the pattern on the material, which allows the straight line of the cloak to continue through this silver balloon and on into the curtain. I love the ingenious ways Titian deals with awkward, messy reality in an effort to structure his pictures. It would be easier for him if he were an abstract painter. Once you realise what he is doing it becomes a delight to see how he does it.

This line rhymes with (is parallel to) the straight line which flows up from the top of the thigh and along the edge the black fur coat. Note how Titian moves this fur edge further across Charles’ torso so it ends under his chin, pointing straight to his face. These lines also rhyme with other long straight lines – the outside edge of Charles’ rear lower leg, as well as the dog’s front leg.

The other shoulder is shaded right down so that only the shape of the arm glows. The angle of this arm, resting on the dog, has been widened so that it is now symmetrical with the other arm. The inner edge of the arm is in direct alignment with the dog’s rear leg, and now rhymes with the dog’s chest and the inner edge of the other arm and shoulder (now much straightened). The outer edge of the arm continues down the body of the cleverly shaded dog, all the way down the vertical leg and into its toes. Charles’ doublet (his close-fitting padded jacket) has been shaded right down. Seisenegger paints the doublet as a bright, tan, tilted rectangle; Titian transforms it into a triangle, with Charles’ head at its apex.

Note how Titian lines up, in a way Seisenegger doesn’t quite manage, the slivers of exposed shirt on the torso with the codpiece (no longer a large conch but a white line), and aligns that stripe with the inside edge of Charles’ rear leg. The whole line points straight toward his face. Titian is a master at turning bitty unrelated elements into long structural elements. 

Part of the point of any portrait of a monarch is to project power. In the Titian, a lot of the structural elements point towards Charles’ face, as if it was at the apex of a pyramid. In fairness, Seisenegger seems to attempt this too. Sword, dog, man’s leg all point towards Charles’ face, but there are too many competing elements that diffuse this. Titian is much clearer and more ruthless. 

You would think that Titian would be tempted to keep the straight edge of the sword blade but he obscures it to the point of invisibility. I think he does this for two reasons. One, as we see in the Seisenegger, it leaves a small and pointlessly distracting triangle of dark between it and the dog’s leg, and two, it interferes with a beautiful harmony Titian has created at the bottom of the picture.

Titian has reconfigured the legs into a particularly beautiful passage. He aligns the feet along the bottom edge. The floor has been darkened to near invisibility, as has the much shrunken curtain, so that virtually the only elements we see are the shining, silvery legs of man and dog.  The thigh of Charles’ load-bearing leg has been darkened considerably, giving more prominence to the beautiful mirroring of the angled shapes of Charles’ bent leg with the chest and leg of the dog. The pinching of shadow at the man’s knees aligns with the angle at which the dog’s chest meets its leg. Titian helps this along by painting 3 curved creases on Charles’ rear knee, which, not coincidentally, echo the multiple curves above it on Charles’ thigh. There are so many lovely touches here. Of the four legs the two inner ones are parallel, the two outer ones parallel. Look at the man’s and dog’s facing feet  – every change in direction along these facing contours mirrors each other beautifully.  But most importantly Titian cuts off a good chunk of the right of the canvas. No longer does the line of the dogs stomach pointlessly lead out of the picture. Gone also is the light patch on the wall, which takes the focus away from Charles for no good reason. Arising from the this now new bottom corner both legs of the dog flow straight up into the glowing arm of Charles above. Indeed, Titian must have looked in disbelief at the black band Seisenegger painted on the floor. Titian would never put in a powerful tonal contrast like that unless it served some structural purpose. 

These are just some of the big structural decisions. But Titian pays just as much attention to harmonising elements on the micro level. The whole waist section is full of disparate elements which Titian attempts to put into a harmonious relationship. He changes the dog’s face by squaring it off into a whitened block (compare where nose meets face in the two paintings). He raises the hand and handle to the same level of the dog’s face, thereby creating a kind of mirroring along the vertical axis line of the codpiece. All the angles and straight lines here either rhyme with or mirror each other– sword with the cords on the other side of hips, the shaft and top of the handle that emerges from the hand with the squared off contours of the dog’s head and neck. He obscures the distracting shape of the dog’s ears by shading the back of the it’s head into a flowing curve. This dark band now rhymes with the belt and collar above and below it. Titian’s harmonising zeal is everywhere apparent. Compare the yellow horizontal straps along Charles’ thighs in both paintings. Titian basically lines them up so that those on one leg flow easily into those on the other. The hanging cords of the belt are made into less distracting and prominent entities by being painted the same coppery brown as the doublet (his close-fitting padded jacket), as has the now-shrunken necklace above. In short, Titian keeps the detail but tries to find a way that they no longer draw bitty attention to themselves.

There are too many harmonic details to list; Titian’s unflinching attention to creating relationships becomes more obvious the more you look. It is something he clearly enjoyed doing and was perhaps more sensitive to these things than any other painter. He ties elements together like words in a poem.  His best paintings (and as much as I like it, I don’t think this is one of them) are miracles of this. 

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How the hell do you compose a face?

In an earlier blogpost I talked about Titian’s great skills of composition. Here I want to show that even when he paints a face he is composing, trying like crazy to create a feeling of rightness, of harmony. 
Most people would say a portrait is good if it looks like the person, and the closer it looks like the person, the better it is. Hmm. On the left is a convincingly accurate painting of a little old lady, which I found on the internet. It is copied from a newspaper photo. On the right is a detail of this portrait by Titian. 
Although the first is an accurate depiction, carefully painted, there are a number of reasons why we see the Titian as a more polished performance. One striking reason is Titian’s use of glazes, which gives his portrait luminous depths, while the other has a chalkiness due to the overuse of white – almost a hallmark of the amateur painter. “White in the shadows is the death of a painting” as Rubens once said. But the main reason we feel the Titian to be a “better” painting,  I think,  is because he has composed it.
What does composition mean? With Titian it means dividing his pictures into clear shapes, which then rhyme, echo and flow into each other. He creates clear shapes by two means – by having strong contrasts of light and dark; and by making sure that that demarcation between light and dark, that line, is always smooth and clean – it is never wobbly or uncertain. 
When faced with an ungainly shape, Titian will do whatever he can to make something crystal clear out of it. Look at the right side of the face in this portrait. He has put it into shadow, making the straight line of the nose the dominating outline. It’s a clever idea and it’s something Titian does a lot. He then rhymes this line beautifully with the diagonal hairlines on both sides of the face, as well as the right side of the forehead. The big diagonal of hair along his forehead rhymes with the eyebrow curling off his nose and the line of moustache underneath it. It also seems to flow into the curling semi-circle of his hair at the back of his head on the left. It’s difficult to see in the small image above but the edge of the dark curve under his chin is not beard but the bottom of his curled hair. This curve keeps sliding, unbroken, up along his beardline and the crease of his neck. Have a look at the full portrait again and you will see more of these rhymes and rhythms. It is an education.
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Why do we find some pictures more appealing to us than others? To me this is not purely a question of personal taste; there is something objective about it. For example, no-one could argue that pattern is not innately appealing. We just like it. So when we find the principles of pattern embedded within a painting – things like repetition, rhyming, shape clarity, etc – we can’t help but be more drawn to it than to a picture that doesn’t have them.  In representational painting the unparalleled master of this is Titian. At first glance at the Venus of Urbino (I could have used almost any picture by Titian) we don’t consciously recognise these patterny things. They’re not in your face, but they are there, and they register with us nonetheless. In analyzing paintings I always look for the biggest contrasts between light and dark, because these contrasts are the things that strike our brain first, before colour or texture or anything else. Notice how clear and unfussy every one of these outlines, these shapes, are. Titian always makes any area of light against dark (or vice versa) into a clear, unfussy shape, and he’s always thinking about how these shapes rhyme with each other, and how they flow towards and into each other. 
In front of any amazing artwork I ask myself “Why did the artist paint that bit that way? Why did he/she make that decision?” It seems pretty obvious why Titian chose the design he did on those tapestries hanging in the background. The tapestries form dark and light vertical bands that repeat the adjoining dark and light verticals of wall, sky, pillar and curtain – creating a pleasing, continuous pattern. A lesser artist might have painted intricate pictures on those tapestries, thinking he was making his painting more interesting. In fact he would be lessening its decorative force. 
Little details in a Titian are often giveaways to how clearly he thought through his compositions. Little details often don’t appear to have much reason to be in a picture, so that makes me wonder why he chose to put them there. So why is that standing lady holding her arms like that? Look at the outer edge of the dark of the tapestry behind her. As it touches her neck it flows down the line of her dark robe, which in turn becomes the line along the bottom of her lowered arm, pointing towards the nude woman’s knees. This is just where the shadowed area of her bottom knee begins to curl under her body. We keep following this clear unbroken line along the bottom of her body all the way up to her hand holding the flowers. There are so many details like this – the line of the top pillow flowing perfectly into her hairline; the line of her pubic area rhyming with both the bottom of the lowest pillow and the shadowed diagonal of the knee. Relationships like these are everywhere throughout the picture. I could go on and on. It is virtually endless.
But what makes all this truly amazing is that he puts it at the service of the painting’s emotional point. There is no doubt that the purpose of this picture was to arouse the man who commissioned it. Tastes in beauty change, so this particular lady may not be our cup of tea, but man, Titian really does his best to make it erotic. A lesser artist with this brief might have painted a piece of pornography. Titian, like a painterly Flaubert, arouses by suggestion. Look at the lady’s fingers over her pubic area. This could be taken as the lady covering her modesty. But the fingers of her other hand, in the same position, disappear within the bouquet of flowers, nestling inside the bush. The pun is unintended, but appropriate. If the viewer empathises with the actions of the woman, pretends, that is, to be the woman and feel how those ten fingers would feel, you start to get the point. (And while we’re on the subject of that hand, one tiny detail – look at how the light bands of her index and second fingers flow unbrokenly into the lights of the flowers, extending into a longer, flowing curve).  
But just in case you were in any doubt that  the pubic area is the real focus of the picture, look at where the big, black line of the curtain ends up. Horizontally, her ‘sexuality’ is the exact middle of the picture. It’s also in the middle of a straight horizontal line between the hand in the bush and the soft, warm, fluffy puppy at the end of the bed. The canniest detail is the sheet beneath her. If you squint, the tucked-in sheet forms a dark triangle on the left, rhyming, as an almost perfect copy, with the pubic area. Imaginatively, the act of tucking in the sheet, the two mattresses squeezing around your fingers as you push it in……. blimey. It’s hotter than I thought today. I’ll just open a window.
Squint again and turn the picture on its side, with her head at the bottom. The mass of her body, with diagonal lines of shadow coming in from one side, then the other, then the other, give the impression of twining, like cords of a rope coiling around each other, tapering to a point at her toes. Coiling, entwining – you get the picture; or rather, subliminally, the feeling.

I have a new book coming out – “Peter Duggan’s Artoons”! It’s available from the 29th of October, published by Virgin Books. A French version will be published by Flammarion in Spring 2016, with hopefully more languages to follow. You can pre-order here: (USA) (UK) (UK) (Australia) (New Zealand)