February 20, 2023

Titian's Army

         I certainly don’t think of Titian (Tiziano Vecellio, Italy, 1488/90-1576) as a printmaker.  However, he was well aware of the value of prints as a means of marketing and expanding his reputation.  Relatively few people would ever see his paintings, let alone purchase them, but wood block prints could be mass-produced and sold more affordably.  So it turns out that Titian designed several woodcuts, as well as collaborating on adaptations of some of his paintings to be carved and printed by printmakers.
        Today I have for you his most famous woodcut, The Crossing of the Red Sea.  This was actually twelve wood blocks, and since each one was about 22x16 inches, the total picture once assembled would have been around 4 feet tall and over seven feet wide.  In short, it’s practically wallpaper, comparable to the grand history paintings he was doing for the palaces and government buildings of Venice.  That probably undercuts the whole idea of mass market appeal, and in fact no early impressions are known.  Although it was apparently made around 1515, the earliest impressions date to 1549.  I don’t know exactly what was going on to explain why it wasn’t printed in 1515 or why it was printed nearly 35 years later.
        At any rate, it’s an epic scene, showing Moses in the lower right stretching out his staff over the water and calling the waters back over the pursuing army of the Pharaoh.  It’s an interesting composition with all the action occurring in only about 4-6 of the 12 sheets.  The large areas of sea are presumably to emphasize just how formidable a barrier the Israelites have passed, and just how overwhelmed the Egyptians are now.  I have led off with the tenth panel because I find it the one with the most dramatic scene of action: lots going on, but not so much that it all blends into mush.  I like the details of the horse’s caparison of ribbons, as well as the rearing and confusion of all the animals.  A helmet is being swept away in one direction, possibly belonging to the man who has been thrown from his horse in the other direction.  Here you can see the skill and interest of the design in a way that sort of gets lost when you look at the whole thing.
        Speaking of the whole thing again, I have assembled the entire epic piece from the individual block prints that the Art Institute of Chicago lists only separately, and putting it together for the first time has revealed a few quirks.  The blocks don’t always actually fit together very well.  Perhaps the most glaring oddity is utter lack of transition between the city skyline in the second block and the ocean in block 6 directly below.  There are places with slight gaps, or not quite straight edges, or where you can’t quite make both sides of a pair of blocks line up at once.  Presumably these are artifacts of the method of carving.  It’s likely that the different squares in the grid were farmed out to different carvers, who didn’t check against each other as they each made their own block.
        One final detail to note is in some ways my favorite: the mother in the lower right corner nursing her child.  She’s completely ignoring all the epic drama behind her, of drowning enemies and jubilant allies, as she simply gazes at her baby.  Let’s never forget that the biggest events in history earn their importance for good or ill by their effect on the lives of ordinary families.

[Picture: The Submersion of Pharaoh’s Army in the Red Sea, woodcut in 12 sheets from a design by Titian, c. 1515, printed 1549;

Detail of block 10 (Images from Art Institute Chicago).]

No comments: