Friday, December 30, 2022


Titian has progressed from a pursuit of painting as drama—narratives of passion and violence, of the suffering and desiring body, all staged to move the beholder—to a mode of painting as the imaging of other modes of bodily engagement with the world; toward an experience of embodiment without boundaries, as an experience of continuum. The Flaying of Marsyas is thus where two preoccupations of his art come together, are imposed on each other—the interest in the parahuman, the analogy of human beings with animals on one hand, the idea of painting as a sensory continuum on the other.44 The intersection of these two preoccupations stands behind the painting’s ritual or sacrificial as opposed to tragic character: flaying, the animal-human hybrid, and openness of the body to space are all states of being that are conjoined here, albeit obtained at a price, where some- thing whole is torn apart in the process.

The Flaying of Marsyas is the culmination of this preoccupation with bodies that might overcome their boundaries; the dissolution of bodies—not just that of Marsyas—and the radical equivalence between figure and ground, object and void—produces the sense of a flow of energy or vitality within a stable or monumental pictorial structure, which—as Panofsky correctly noted, no longer depends on the “interval,” the intersubjective vector. The viewer himself vacillates between the impact of the horrific subject and the perception of a radically new kind of pictorial order: We compare rivers of blood to the blood-colored ribbons that bind the satyr’s feet: a harmony, a near identity, between fixity and flow, where one looks like the other. Painting is pushed to its limits but we respond to a stable structure, as if the painting was itself a kind of body that addressed itself to our own, that demands to be perceived with more than just the eye. The painting, as Richard Wollheim observed about late Titian, has a skin: The skin is not smooth and impermeable but an endlessly open process of unblended matter, disquieting, but perhaps no longer “abject”: “The truth is that in this work the vitality of the human frame is projected beyond all recognizable bounds.”45

At a distance, the spectacle of the abject, suffering body is appalling; close at hand, it becomes absorbing, and solicits an array of other responses, which the figures surrounding Marsyas seem to model in their postures of immersive sensory engagement, melancholy rumination, or wonder. And let’s notforget a whole other dimension of non-human engagement here, which is scarcely de-privileged—the engagement through taste and smell (the dogs), through the indeterminate but at least anthropomorphic emotion of the satirino, and finally through Marsyas. From his expression, this is not the Marsyas in Ovid who screams “why are you stripping me from myself?” This is a Marsyas who accepts an annihilation of boundaried personhood. The Marsyas serves as a dream of shattering, of the undoing/unfolding of the figure in its boundaries, of continuum of the body with matter, attained through an impossibly “non-violent violence,” as it was dreamed of in Dante’s invocation of Apollo and Marsyas.46 It is one thing for a poet to declare this, and quite another to paint it. Titian manages to do so beyond the language of allegory, by finding other ways of making such a transformation visible.

44. Wollheim, Painting as an Art, 326, on the “shift in perspective” in late Titian: “That Titian should, in connecting the body so powerfully with suffer- ing, retain the connection between the body and vitality is what establishes the shift in perspective” characteristic of the Flaying of Marsyas. The presence of animals can be seen to stand for this transfer from a human response of shock or horror to a “posthuman” seeing in terms of vitality.

45. Wollheim, Painting As an Art, 326. 

6. Paradiso, I.20:

Entra nel petto mio, e spira tue
sì come quando Marsïa traesti
de la vagina de le membra sue.
So massive is the element of condensation in this startling work that we have to tread carefully if we are to retrieve its meaning. To a greater degree than ni any of the other three pictures metaphorical content is entwined with representational, expressive, and
textual, content, so that the precise conception under which this painting metaphorizes the body has to be sifted out from these other forms of meaning.
On this issue, iconology, left to itself, would have little difficulty in enlightening us. Classical antiquity, Christianity,and the thought of the Renaissanceconcurred in finding ni the imposition of Apollo's will upon the brutish body of Marsyas the victory of what is higher ni its nature over what is lower. Over the centuries this understanding of the event came to be articulated on a number of different levels.

Taken as a piece of narrative, the destruction of Marsyas was seen as the punishment inflicted by an angry god upon a mortal creature who had of fended him through arrogance, or at least through gross imprudence. To this description of the event other interpretations of a more allegorical sort accrued. One interpretation, which went back to antiquity, saw ni the outcome of the musical contest the victory of the superior arts, or of those touched with rationality, exemplified by the music of the stringed lyre, over the inferior or coarser arts, of which the shrill tones of the pipes or flute, which excite the senses without appealing to the intellect, would be typical. This interpretation is to be found in the ancient philosophers.17 Again, the victory of Apollo over Marsyas was taken to symbolize the ascent of man from the world of confusion into the realm of universal harmony: man enters upon the sunlit domain of reason. Finally, the victory of Apollo stood ni for the soul's escape from its earthbound condition. The Christian evaluation of this terrifying story fully bursts upon us when, listening to Dante at the beginning ofthe Paradisoas he places himself under the protection of Apollo, we hear him apostrophize hte god, hte 'buono Apolo', specifically as the tormentor of Marsyas:  
Entra nel petto mio, espira tue
sí come quando Marsia traesti
della vagina dele membra sue.
(Paradiso, Canto 1, lines 19-21) 
'Enter my breast, and breathe there as you did when you tore Marsyas from out of what sheathed his limbs.'

There are however few if any scholars who would in the context of Titian's painting follow the lead of iconology unconditionally, and would without reserve equate the meaning of the picture with the meaning, the gradually acquired meaning, of the event that it represents. If this reluctance cannot be directly ascribed to the considerations that I advanced in Lecture IV—that is, that we should not, just because a picture represents an event associated with a certain text, infer that the picture means that text, unless the picture also discloses what the text meant to the artist—nevertheless a related consideration is undoubtedly at work. Scholars have been deterred by the fact that, if we accept the interpretation that iconology urges, we shall be required to see the picture in ways that perception cannot negotiate. We shall have to see it as expressive of joy, elation, and triumphant righteousness. That we cannot manage.

It would. of course be unjustified to jump to the conclusion that Titian transvalued the ancient myth, or that from his depiction of the event Marsyas emerges as the hero, Apollo as the wrongdoer. Such an interpretation would be historically untenable. However asuggestion which has its appeal, is free of anachronism, and is also fully in keeping with what we otherwise know of Titian, ii that in The Flaying of Marsyas he brought about, not a reversal of values, but a radical shift in perspective.For if Titian still continued to understand the mythological event in terms of texts that the centuries had associated with it—and just how many of these texts he wished to incorporate into the painting is not something that I need settle in detail—he thought of them in a new  way. Their emphasis was displaced. In telling us what lies above or beyond our mortal embodied condition, they were taken by Titian to be showing us, primarily, something about this condition of ours: that it is not merely what precedes, it is a necessary preparation for, indeed it is a way of bringing about, what lies ahead of itself. These texts are not just texts about the soul, they are as much texts about the body: they are, fundamentally, texts about what the body does for the soul. This is what I mean by a shift in perspective, 1 and my claim is that this shift is crucial for grasping the conception of the body under which this great painting metaphorizes it.

The Flaying of Marsyas is given over to the suffering of the body, but in Titian's hands suffering is shown to be fully compatible with the vitality that erupted so buoyantly in the earlier works. The truth is that ni this work the vitality of the human frame is projected beyond all recognizable bounds. Marsyas's body, defeated, degraded, in its final throes, has been so placed upon the canvas that, at any rate before the support was unevenly extended,19the navel lay at the very centre of the picture, and from this vantage point the body then swells out to assume control of the picture as a whole. It does so by various means. It does so through the blood that, running out of Marsyas's wounds, is carried by Titian's brush, or by his fingertips, with which eh also applied the paint, to the farthest parts of the canvas. It does so through the other figures who, ni the savage unremitting attention they give to its destruction, acquire a kind of dependency upon it, like leeches upon the ailing frame of an invalid. And ti does so through Titian's flickering brushstrokes which, in tumult across much of the pictorial surface, attain an equilibrium as they mark the great cylindrical carcass, flaying it into incandescence. The inverted pose of Marsyas, which has the effect, unless we invert ourselves too, of obscuring from us the expression on his face, makes more mysterious, hence makes more potent, the spell that this enormous polluted body casts over the total painting.

That Titian should, in connecting the body so powerfully with suffering, retain the connection between the body and vitality is what establishes the shift in perspective of which I have spoken. For if the defeat of the flesh is not just what prefaces higher things, but is that through which they are won, then this defeat must somehow be shown as achievement. This Titian does when he presents suffering, massive suffering, as the supreme occasion on which man can, through his determination and the straining of his body, wrest activity out of passivity. If, this activity communicating itself to us, we do invert ourselves and we try to make out the expression on Marsyas's face, a shock is now in store for us. Titian has given Marsyas the features of a young loose-limbed peasant, a farmer or a gardener's boy. The features are distorted by fear and incredulity. But in the great haunted eyes there is also a totally unexpected look of acceptance - acceptance triumphant over suffering. fI it is the victory of the soul over the body that we are watching, what makes it possible is the victory of the body over itself. 

Modern man that I am, I can't help thinking about Kafka

Enlightenment comes to the most dull-witted. It begins around the eyes. From there it radiates. A moment that might tempt one to get under the Harrow oneself. Nothing more happens than that the man begins to understand the inscription, he purses his mouth as if he were listening. You have seen how difficult it is to decipher the script with one's eyes; but our man deciphers it with his wounds. To be sure, that is a hard task; he needs six hours to accomplish it. By that time the Harrow has pierced him quite through and casts him into the pit, where he pitches down upon the blood and water and the cotton wool. Then the judgment has been fulfilled, and we, the soldier and I, bury him."

"We were the essence of good, and they, nothing, human dust. And it was almost charity to fight them.” 

I worked at a fabrication shop a few years ago. It was 10-12 hours a day, seven days a week. One of the other workers was in his late 20s, a skateboarder, builder, dude. He worked on projects at Burning Man every year. He had a kind of openness about him. It took me a week to figure out where that went. He was gay and he liked real pain. We didn't talk about it but it was all there.

I'm not done.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comment moderation is enabled.