Last week, on a pale sunny afternoon mid-Olympics, I found myself wandering across Trafalgar Square, heading for the National Gallery. Being a country gal, the opportunity to visit the capital is a favourite but rare activity and this time I could not help but notice the beautiful posters which dotted every tube station showing two intertwining figures and broadcasting the latest enticement: ‘Metamorphosis: Titian 2012’. The word ‘Titian’ captured my attention and off I went to see what this exhibit would involve.

Titian, Diana and Callisto (1556-59) © National Gallery / National Galleries of Scotland. Contributions from National Lottery through Heritage Lottery Fund, Art Fund, The Monument Trust, private appeal and bequests, 2012

I found a small, dynamic, wonderfully unique collection of responses to three of Titian’s paintings, all featuring Diana, goddess of love and the hunt.  As part of a mythological series painted for King Philip II, these three images alone are fascinating but in the surrounding rooms were several different responses, from instillations to performance art. Modern meets the mythological; I was intrigued.

The exhibit had taken a wide variety of media to respond to the star of the show, the story of Diana and Actaeon, (who stumbles upon the goddess Diana bathing and for his crimes gets turned into a stag and torn apart by his own hounds). Titian took inspiration from Ovid’s epic poem and the modern artists followed his example, some even writing their own poems. There are many aspects of this exhibit I could talk about, whether it is the significance of the costumes designed for the ballet response, Chris Ofili’s very vibrant embrace of colour, or even the use of a live nude model. But the one response I found to be challenging, chilling, and creative was Conrad Shawcross’ ‘Trophy’.

‘Trophy’ by Conrad Shawcross

As you walk into the darkened room, the only light to provide some relief is the burning bulb on the wand-like arm of an industrial robot, encased in a glass box. Next to the spinning whirring piece of smooth, high-end technology is an antler. It seems to be growing out of the block of wood, a haunting symbol of Actaeon’s fate. The machine represents Diana, and as it moves, it conveys a sense of gloating. ‘She’ seems to be presiding over her ‘trophy’: her prize of his antlered head. The machine, while both powerful and terrifying, has a strange elegance to it. Shawcross wanted to explore the goddess’s duel nature, and this work concentrates on her hard, unyielding power. Yet what struck me most as I stood next to one corner of the glass box, is that the light on the end of the robotic arm, casts its own huge looming shadow. While the robot is encased, the shadow can escape and in a sense Diana herself can escape. As the robot’s shadow grew larger, my own grew smaller. Soon the predatory shadow completely enveloped my own and I felt powerless to stop her. Just as she hunted Actaeon, my own shadow was hunted and I became a trophy just as he had been. It was a relief to step out into the sunshine of the capital after that.

The exhibition is wonderfully varied and I recommend it to anyone. As you wander the various responses, a slow awe and inspiring realisations creeps up on you and the tragic story of Actaeon comes alive through dance, poetry and painting. Through this, I thought, one’s own sense of reality morphs in response to an ancient story and an artist whose work spans the centuries.

‘Metamorphosis’ continues at the National Gallery until 23rd September



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