Skip to main content

Contemporary artists - 'Metamorphosis: Titian 2012'

'Metamorphosis: Titian 2012' featured new work by contemporary artists Chris Ofili, Conrad Shawcross and Mark Wallinger in a unique collaboration with The Royal Ballet.

The display included set designs and costumes for three new ballets at The Royal Opera House drawing on the powerful stories of change found in three of Titian’s paintings – Diana and Actaeon, The Death of Actaeon and Diana and Callisto – which depict stories from Ovid’s epic poem ‘Metamorphoses’.

Hear from the artists

The Artists on the Artist

Three contemporary artists take inspiration from one Old Master
5 mins 40 secs

Minna Moore Ede: One of the fantastic things about the project is that we’ve ended up with three very different artists and three extremely different responses.

Conrad Shawcross: This room is spectacular; to see them in this room together is really beautiful. The two paintings I respond to is 'Diana and Actaeon', the first painting and 'The Death of Actaeon', and particularly 'The Death of Actaeon' is the formal composition in which I’ve arranged my vitrine. So you’ve got Diana on the left and Actaeon on the right. Diana very large and powerful, dominating the picture, Actaeon falling backwards, submissive, smaller, compromised, vulnerable, and the idea is that I've arranged the vitrine in the same dynamic. That was really the formal gestation of the piece.

Minna Moore Ede: I particularly wanted an artist who had an almost architectural take on space and he’s an artist whose work tends to be underpinned by mathematical or scientific ideas. So automatically you’ve got an exciting possibility of someone who will really push Titian in a totally other direction.

Conrad Shawcross: The exhibition has been really well laid out but I knew about where I was from quite a while and I purposefully have arranged the objects in the vitrine so it’s very much like 'Death of Actaeon', when you’re looking at the painting its stage left and Actaeon is stage right. We’ve done all this very subtle lighting to create the reflection of the light off the surfaces, like Titian does so well.

Mark Wallinger: In Ovid, Actaeon is with a hunting party in the woods and he loses his way and he surprises the goddess Diana and her nymphs bathing, once seen forever smitten. And her gesture is somewhere between protection, not exactly a coyness but there’s something that’s about to turn vengeful and very ugly here. And with this blast of light across these female forms suddenly the light makes them vulnerable and I guess that was the moment that fascinated me and drew me to make the 'Diana' work.

Minna Moore Ede: I love the idea in Mark's work, he often just turns subjects on their head, and that really fresh perspective was something I really wanted for this project.

Mark Wallinger: We live in a world of endless titillation if you like, and I guess we also... in the last century cinema and TV has turned voyeurism into a spectator sport. I mean we sit in the dark collectively and watch films and in a way we are being put in the position of the voyeur. If we live somewhere and the lights go on in the flat opposite we look, we want to see what’s going on. So things don’t change, it’s the vehicle by which we get allowed to see a human being naked and vulnerable is perhaps different, but it's about trying to reimagine that encounter and make the viewer momentarily a little uncomfortable.

Minna Moore Ede: We had to have a painter because Titian was a virtuoso painter. So it was always very important to have that legacy and I realised the he was an artist that could go on a really big scale. He’s also an artist who is not shy of looking at narrative subjects, Biblical subjects and that was very important because, you know, that’s quite rare actually with contemporary painters.

Chris Ofili: There was a period when I was trying to think 'Oh, what's the Olympian world like? What would these people actually look like?' I had a little bit of help from a friend in Trinidad who studied Classics in Holland. So he was able to just tell me like the basics of it and that actually there’s nothing special about it. Humans don’t change, we just change our look but we're pretty much do the same things as they did all those years ago, right? So then I was able to exhale and think 'OK, it’s alright, I can just kind of make some of this stuff up'.

Titian made it up too. What I did notice quite quickly was that my approach to the painting changed. That’s when it started to get a bit tricky because I didn’t know if... where I was or where I was going with the work was any good, wasn’t tried and tested. But once I relaxed with that and let go then I was able in the tenth painting to get to this state of just kind of more loose and relaxed.

Minna Moore Ede: It's very much part of what art does, it looks back and it responds, but that response always yields something new or should always yield something new. And that says something about the original source work so it shows you what very rich paintings those Titians are.

Next: Read the artist biographies