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Book review: “Titian: Nymph and Shepherd” by John Berger and Katya Berger Andreadakis

In 1990, renowned English art critic and novelist John Berger began an exchange of letters and cards with his daughter Katya Berger Andreadakis, a film critic.

Details of Titian paintings "Penitent Magdalene," "Saint John the Almsgiver: and "Bacchus and Ariandne" from the opening pages of "Titian: Nymph and Shepherd"

Details of Titian paintings “Penitent Magdalene,” “Saint John the Almsgiver: and “Bacchus and Ariandne” from the opening pages of “Titian: Nymph and Shepherd”

At the time, the father was in his mid-60s and his daughter in her late 20s. Their subject was their common delight in and reverence for the paintings of the 16th century Italian master Titian. In their back and forth way, they were trying to tease out the essence of Titian’s art — and of art in general.

For instance, their ruminations lead Katya to focus on what makes art art, and she writes:

Pictures by Rothko and Titian, but also by Courbet, possess this quality. They are completely themselves that they contain all the vertical depth of their being. They exclude any reference to rule or obedience. Snapping their fingers at others, they simply exist with us or without us.

In another letter, she writes:

The truth is that Titian’s art is itself untouchable, inviolable. It calls out and then it forbids. We remain open-mouthed.

In 1996, their exchange was published in Titian: Nymph and Shepherd, one of nearly 50 titles in the Pegasus Series of sumptuously illustrated volumes issued between 1994 and 2007 by Prestel. (Alas, the series seems to have come to its end.)

Berger --- TitianThis volume lovingly lays out for the reader 66 paintings and, more often, details of paintings by Titian, the vast majority of them in color. Indeed, no text intrudes on the opening dozen pages of the book. Those are home to eight narrowly focused details from major works, opulent in their specificity.

And throughout the book, the Titian’s images share equal space with the musings of the Bergers. (They also share space with 12 paintings done by John Berger in an attempt to understand and interpret the master’s work.)

So, as the father and daughter converse through their correspondence, the correspondence itself is in a dialogue with Titian’s art. For instance, within a page of each other are a detail of his Nymph and Shepherd and John Berger’s telling reading of the canvas:

Whilst [in Vienna] I went again — of course! — to look at his Nymph and Shepherd. And for the hundredth time, I watched the hand caressing the nymph’s right arm. Caressing is not the right word. Scratching is better…Lightly, lightly scratching. And for the hundredth time, I said to myself: It isn’t her own hand. Its anatomical position, its gesture and the fact that it appears to have a cuff, make it impossible. It’s a roving hand, which belongs to nobody.

Detail fro "Nymph and Shepherd"

Detail fro “Nymph and Shepherd”

Surprisingly, although maybe not so, it is Katya who has the most interesting insights. Perhaps this was her father’s goal — to stir her thinking with their correspondence and then, with this book, to put her ideas on wide display. Proud father.

Of course, as with any dialogue, there is much to be savored from the way in which these two minds interact. That, however, is hard to capture in a review.

Several of Katya’s ideas can be highlighted here, and give an idea of the riches this book holds:

Jewels and death: Jewels remind us, don’t they, of the pleasure we’ll lose when we’re dead, and how they and their precious stones will still be here? They console a body for its vulnerability: Come on, say the jewels, wear us and we’ll lend you some of our immutability.

bergers....2Only a man: [Titian] was the painter of flesh which commands rather than invites. “Take me.” “Drink me,” it orders….He wore the disguise of everything he painted. He was trying to be everywhere. Competing with God. He wanted to create from his palette nothing less than life, and to rule over the universe….His fear was of being only a man, not a god as well, not a woman as well, not a forest as well, not a mist, not a lump of earth. Of being only a man!

The nature of beauty: Could it be that beauty — as distinct from that which stimulates intellectually and feeds on differences, alternatives, paradoxes, conventions being knocked down and rebuilt, categories continually being redefined, every kind of line drawn in order to separate — could it be that beauty is born of a soup of everything mixed together, gushing out without any order or priority, its arm round the waist of life…?

Titian and Shakespeare: No other artist gets so close to making us believe in the palpitating life of what he paints…Titian worked like Shakespeare. You have the impression before their works, that an arm or a word can say everything, because, like magicians, they knew exactly where the human spirit loves to drown itself. In a way, they are greater than God, for they know everything about their fellow men and women! Hence their vengeance.

Patrick T. Reardon

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