Andrew Butterfield's review of the current exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice, for The New York Review is a reminder of just how banal our tastes in the erotic have become when put in a historical context. This is particularly the case with the Titian "Danaë" from the Museo di Capodimonte in Naples. The only bad news is that the image of this painting reproduced in The New York Review does poor justice to Butterfield's vivid prose; but the good news is that the Capodimonte Web site has an excellent reproduction (too large to be incorporated here) in which one can see every tantalizing detail discussed by Butterfield. The irony is that late nineteenth-century Boston was so obsessed with loose morals that the phrase "banned in Boston" became common enough to rate its own Wikipedia entry. I was actually living in the Boston area as an undergraduate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology when this movement had its last hurrah, banning William Burroughs' Naked Lunch in 1965. The Wikipedia entry does not cite any instances of the Museum of Fine Arts being involved with a morals charge; but my guess is that they were pretty good at self-censorship when this obsession with vice was at its peak. From this point of view of state-imposed standards, however, it is interesting to reflect on Butterfield's observation that one of the greatest admirers of this painting was Hermann Göring, who liked it so much that he stole it in 1943. This was about five years after the notorious Degenerate Art exhibition, mounted by the Nazis in Munich; but that propaganda maneuver was only directed at living artists. Besides, Göring held enough power that he could turn to Titian to feed his baser instincts with impunity!
Butterfield's account makes me wish I could be in Boston before the exhibition closes. This is not just for the opportunity to see a painting that is in the United States only for the second time, particularly when I own up to the fact that my eyes are now beyond any optometric correction beyond getting me through all the reading I do. No, I am more interested in watching people encounter a canvas like this, which elevates eroticism to a level of "high art" in ways that now elude contemporary artists in any medium. Since Titian created this work on a commission from Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, who, in a spirit probably not unlike Göring's, just wanted a nude as "stimulating" as the "Venus of Urbino," he probably never thought of the work having a public viewing. Thus, I find it interesting when a work intended for "private consumption" goes on public display; and my interest is further whetted when that work may have been a product of those aforementioned "baser instincts!" Do people today give in to Titian's eroticism and appreciate the power of its effects when compared with more recent efforts; or do they abstract away the visceral in the interest of "art appreciation?" If the latter tends to prevail, I worry that contemporary worldviews may have desensitized our perceptions of the past (as I fear it threatens to do in the ways in which we listen to music), offering yet another instance of how our obsessions with present and future seem to blind us to the lessons and joys of the past.