The Inseparability of Art and Life: A Review of "Titian: Nymph and Shepard"
by Mariam Pari
‘Titian worked like Shakespeare...like magicians, they knew where the human spirit loves to drown itself’
Titian: Nymph and Shepard follows a dialogue between art critic John Berger and his daughter, film critic Katya Berger, through the exchange of letters. It begins with Katya’s postcard from Venice in 1990 regarding the Titian exhibition, in which she is convinced the old man accompanying her around the gallery is the ghost of the great painter. When John replies, they discuss issues of morality, sensuality, and strangeness in everyday life. This correspondence between father and daughter is also in deep dialogue with Titian’s art. The fifty-two-page interchange follows intimate conversations which overlap and intertwine to both ask and answer questions about art, perception, and the endless conundrums of human existence.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book for its focus on the relations between what we see and know and for its important insights into Titian’s work. The use of letters to discuss metaphysical notions is instrumental to the intimate knowledge we as readers are granted by John and Katya. The letters come and go from Venice, Paris, and Athens; their interests and interactions span across a wide area both in geography and theory. The dynamic between father and daughter is especially brilliant as John and Katya stir each other's thinking to organically think up postulations which would not have come to fruition without this collaboration.
John and Katya are both fascinated by the relationship between observer and object and how they communicate. Their expertise and passion in this area were so admirably conveyed as they discussed how the perception of art, and the world surrounding it, never takes just one fact but is constantly receiving messages from an endless field of energy. They also discuss how a work of art, once created, re-enters life, and what this entails for both the painter and humanity.
Although I have long been an admirer of John Berger, enjoying both his non-fictional and fictional writing, I was most interested in Katya’s observations throughout the interchange. She has a profound outlook on the world and eloquently demonstrates the quality of seeing and the power of invitation. She writes that “there is no communication more total than that between an object and the one watching it,” and discusses how the most alive she can feel is when she is able to give herself up to this exchange. Through her capacity to join herself to what she is observing, she is granted immortality from a work of art that will surely outlive her. I was inspired by the way she diffused herself into art: she became the canvas under a painting, a description of a party. Both Katya and John are experts in the inseparability of art from the self. Through reading this book, I learnt a great deal about what it means when certain things speak to our senses and other things stay hidden.
This book does not follow a conventional structure as it has no protagonist, no plot, and no real definable conclusion. However, this uniqueness is what makes it so engaging. Being able to read ideas unfold in real time emphasised to me the importance of mutual collaboration. The exchange of ideas is so fundamental to how we can grow as individuals in both an intellectual and emotional capacity; we get a lot more out of life this way.
I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in how important our relationships to art are and to those curious about the artistic intricacies of Titian’s work. This short, yet highly important collection of letters demonstrates the significance of a continuous dialogue and ultimately, as Katya puts it, how art can seize the essential.
Titian, Nymph and Shepard, 1570-1575. Oil on canvas, 149,6 x 187 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, Gemäldegalerie. Digital photograph accessed 06 October 2023 from <https://www.khm.at/en/objectdb/detail/1950/>.