Bacchus and Ariadne is one of the best-known Titian oil paintings, currently located at the National Gallery, London. The painting is part of the mythological series Baccanali (Bacchanalia), commissioned for Alfonso I d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, circa 1520. The picture shows Cretan princess Ariadne wandering on the beaches of Naxos, bidding a desperate farewell to the lover who abandoned her, Theseus. Bacchus, depicted in the center of the picture draped in red, leaps fantastically from his chariot, drawn by two cheetahs. The Roman god is followed by a procession of mythological Dionysian characters: Silenus, usually represented as drunk and asleep; Leoconte entangled by a sea serpents and numerous satyrs. According to the classical sources of Ovidio and Catullo, Bacchus takes Ariadne with him in heaven, turning her into the Corona Borealis constellation – stars, painted by Titian, above the heroine’s head.
This is the conventional description of Titian’s greatest painting, an almost-untouchable interpretation consolidated with the studies of the Renaissance art, widely perceived as the most noble artistic period in Europe, and the pride of Italy. Contemporary art sometimes struggles to reinterpret the history of art and Old Master pictures, despite the recognised and well-established relationship between classical and contemporary practices. Elise Ansel’s work finds its time and space within this insoluble connection.
While it is definitely challenging to spot Titian’s characters in Elise Ansel’s Studies for Bacchus and Ariadne, we are forced to reimagine the typically conventional way we see the painting. Ansel’s oil paintings and watercolours draw from well-known artworks derived from the history of art, engaging with the painting not as a passive viewer, but actively abstracting and reimagining the artwork. Her process consists of progressive abstractions of the familiar paintings while staying true to composition and colour.
Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne is considered the cornerstone for the study of colour techniques and its uses, which flourished among Venetian painters in the 16th century. In this period Venice was the greatest harbour of the Mediterranean sea and the fulcrum of maritime trade, which gave Titian access to a wide variety of pigments: malachite green, verdigris, resin copper, ultramarine, azurite blue, vermillion red and realgar orange.
Ansel displays an awareness and solemn respect for Titian’s use of colours and composition; her work filters this through her own artistic lens. Eventually, the vivid, fresh and lively red brushstrokes in the middle of the composition reminds the viewer of the chromatic greatness of Bacchus’ drapery; the numerous and intense tonalities of green suggest the vegetation surrounding the mythological procession; the scale of light blues describes the seaside landscape in contrast with deep blue of Ariadne’s garments.
Nonetheless, Ansel adds her contemporary mastery of the optical properties of colour as a medium for improvising and communicating sensations. She embraces Cézanne’s theory of “La petite sensation” and translates gestures and emotions into spontaneous patches of colour. Ansel explains “[The paintings] resolve into abstraction as the representational content is transformed and ultimately eclipsed by focus upon colour, composition and the materiality of the paint”.
Ansel’s practice suggests a different, challenging perspective through which to look at the art of the past; the narrative, characters and iconography are emptied of their significance to leave room for the endless possibilities of colour.
By Giada Pasqualini