The condition of Titian
April 17 2012
The background is extremely accomplished, with its line of autumnal trees, receding towards craggy mountains reminiscent of Titian’s native Dolomites, surrounded by sunlit clouds. The group of shepherds, conversing in the shadows in the middle distance, are pure Giorgione in their tenebrous moodiness.
The figures in the foreground, however — Mary on her donkey led by a tousle-headed youth, with a rather stiff-looking Joseph bringing up the rear — progress in a flat frieze-like fashion, the figures rendered in laboured imitation of Bellini. While they have a certain naive charm, the faces are generic, the drapery cumbersome. The magisterial assurance of that extraordinary early portrait The Man with a Blue Sleeve (here called Portrait of Girolamo Barbarigo) is utterly absent. Indeed, it is impossible to believe the two works are separated by only two years, as the exhibition claims.
Background and foreground fail to marry to the degree you wonder if more than one artist was involved, or if the two parts were painted in different periods. Vasari suggests that Titian may have been assisted by a group of German artists — experts in landscape — to whom he gave “hospitality”. But if Titian was still a teenage assistant to Bellini, as the exhibition implies, it’s difficult to imagine him putting anyone up, and the treatment isn’t in any case particularly Germanic.
The answer to this disparity in the quality of the painting is of course its condition. The picture has been substantially abraded in the past in many areas. The figures in the foreground are in parts liberally covered in over-paint to cover-up these losses. So of course it appears at first glance as if some parts are better painted than others. In fact, some parts are simply better preserved than others.
Sadly, so few critics, and increasingly academics, understand condition issues these days. (We saw this most recently in the reviews of the Leonardo exhibition.) And Titian, perhaps more than any other painter , suffers from condition issues. There are two reasons for this. First, he was such a sophisticated artist, and used new techniques and delicate glazes that are particularly sensitive to over-cleaning. And secondly, he has been one of the most sought-after and collected artists of all time, and consequently collectors, dealers and museums have 'cleaned' Titians at a higher rate than works by other artists. This is especially evident in the National Gallery's new exhibition, where two putative Titians on loan from the Hermitage are in the most ruinous state, thanks largely to the Hermitage's old and hopelessly misguided policy of transferring all their panel paintings onto canvas.
I hesitate to say this, but probably The Flight Into Egypt worked more harmoniously (as a whole image) before it was cleaned, when the uniform effect of layers of old varnish knocked back the underlying imperfections caused by loss and abrasion. For example, look at the bottom of the cleaned painting above, and the way the figures seem to float rather uneasily. But in the painting before conservation, there was a subtler degree of shadowing at the lower edge of the canvas, which rooted the figures more effectively in the foreground.