I grew up seeing the paintings of Munch and minor works of Northern European artists in the flesh, most of them tipping the scale at maudlin/austere. Painting was subject matter to me, not object presence, which I thought would only distract with its human reminders of flaw. I wanted impersonal grandeur and overwhelming, invulnerable persuasiveness; I wanted to be silenced, and I wanted to learn from them how to be the silencer.
I saw The Rape of Europa as a projection in a lecture by the art historian Gloria Kury. I knew it only vaguely, and its title prepared me for just another in the long line of opulent misogyny. But she didn’t identify the slide and it took a while for me to recognize it. My English was wobbly then and I missed much, but we looked at the image for a long time. What I remember: note the putto riding a sea monster in the lower left corner in imitation of Europa clinging to the back of the bull on the right. Like the gun in the first act, or an hors d’oeuvre in preparation for the main meal.
As soon as I could I went to Boston to see the painting; hanging high above a door, it was dark, dirty and inaccessible. I felt no intimacy with it, but stocked up on reproductions before going home.
It is a rich dish. Jupiter, in the shape of a bull, abducts Europa from her homeland and carries her on his back to a cave on the island of Crete. (The source has an endless echo: Herodotus quotes a Persian king noting the prevalence of the taking of women such as Europa, Io, Medea, later Helen, and how women wouldn’t be abducted so much unless they wanted it.) Titian doesn’t show the rape. The world in the painting is cataclysmic and vertigo-inducing, though with an off-kilter horizon line and all boundaries between sky and land and sea dissolved. What is above and below, dry and wet, inside and outside, blind and sentient, ecstatic and terrified – I can’t draw the line. Instead of a landscape obeying elemental space, gravity and compass points, I see interiority and the bluish-purple of fascia and bruises. The woman and bull ride the peak of a rogue wave or convulsing muscle, the striations of wet pelt and torn garment run together and become interchangeable. Pieces of red cloth flap like displaced tissue in a Vesalius dissection. The corkscrewed tail emerging between Europa’s legs could be umbilical; at the other end of it, the putto rides his fish. He grips the fins with his limbs, cutely scrambling, whereas Europa’s legs and arms are flung wide open, exposing insides and undersides of the unbearably tender, least defended parts of the body. With its putto decoy, the human/bull pairing has a rhyme that makes you look back and forth, pulled by pattern recognition. While I study the tiny version, the huge, insupportable, monstrous version in my peripheral vision flies below my radar and knocks something loose, something systemic and category-dependent.
Titian was eighty-four when he painted the painting. The same year the Council of Trent set down its rules for the counter-Reformation, one of which says that (religious) painting shall not contain distracting and frivolous details.
I would have recognized the Council’s impulse when I was twenty. Without the cognitive foil, I would see only what I came prepared to see and be confirmed, knowing I was right. That totalitarian ideal would have been mine, not Titian’s. Instead, the too-muchness of The Rape of Europa, its unruly effect on me threatening in several directions at once, continues to irritate and inspire me about painting and thinking. As my attention snags on things refusing their categorization, it offers displacement activities for the brain’s normal defenses. Ploys to make my eyeballs tack back and forth, between putto and Europa in Titian’s case, or between tactile surface information and image in the case of painting in general, provide busy-work for the brain against otherwise unbearable recognitions, a kind of mercy. By inviting the eye to toggle an optical seam over contradictions, paradoxes and wounds, the frivolous and distracting do the job of making the intolerable tolerable.
I don’t have Titian’s material surface to add to the experience of his painting, but I have my own history with it. It follows my studio as a postcard, its iconography made up of paint stains, rips and holes from thumb tacks as much as Titian’s intended image.