Saving Diana and Actaeon

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I think that we sometimes forget, in our age of cynical cartoons and showboating post-modernists, that the fine arts are a vital connection to our mythic imaginations and the unseen order. It is no coincidence that art has been throughout history the main transmitter of ideas, lessons, and stories relating to both the great polytheistic and monotheistic religions. Could there have even been a rebirth of Paganism if it hadn’t been for artists, from the Renaissance painters to the Romantic poets, keeping that spark of possibility alive? For this reason alone, though there are many others, preserving and sharing history’s great art treasures should be a concern for any who claim to explore the numinous.

“Diana and Actaeon”

Which brings us to Italian Renaissance painter Tiziano (Titian) Vecelli’s masterwork “Diana and Actaeon”, a painting depicting the fateful moment when the doomed hunter Actaeon happened upon the goddess Diana while bathing. The work, while privately owned by the Duke of Sutherland, has been on loan to the National Gallery (and the National Gallery of Scotland) since 1945. Now Francis Egerton, 7th Duke of Sutherland, is threatening to sell the painting to private collectors unless the National Gallery coughs up 50 million pounds by December 31st. This has launched a campaign by the Galleries and supporters to raise the funds in time.

“These may be Italian paintings, based on Greek myth and made for a Spanish king (and the one who sent the Armada over, too), but holding onto them would be to cling to a vital part of British culture. An American expresses this best. When it’s suggested to her that it’s just a couple of paintings and that there are 11 Titians in the National’s collection anyway, Elizabeth says this is “dangerous” thinking: “Think like that, then one by one they’ll go.” And considering the penury of British institutions, be they dukes or museums, this does seem quite likely.”

Supporters of saving “Diana and Actaeon” include several prominent British artists (Like Lucian Freud!), art critic and historian James Hall (who recently released the fascinating-looking book “The Sinister Side: How Left-right Symbolism Shaped Western Art”), and English-born “Sex and the City” actress Kim Cattrall, who recently posed semi-nude (link probably NSFW if you have a prudish boss) for a live recreation of “Diana and Actaeon” to help raise funds. All this along with a 10 million pound grant from the National Heritage Memorial Fund has gotten the campaign about halfway there.

“‘I am very optimistic. I know I’ve said that before, but it might have been slightly less true then than I feel now,’ said Nicholas Penny, director of the National Gallery in London. He refused to reveal just how much has to be raised before the deadline of the end of December, but said that donations or pledges so far amounted to more than £20m.”

If the National Galleries are successful in raising the funds, the Duke of Sutherland promises to repeat the process with Titian’s intended companion piece “Diana and Callisto”, which is also on loan. The Galleries will also obtain permission to display addition works from the Dukes collection for another twenty years (some have critically called this entire process a “ransom”). I can only hope this campaign is successful, it is something of a tragedy when the great works of art fall out of the public’s hands and into the investment portfolios of ultra-rich collectors. The more we treat works like “Diana and Actaeon” as merely expensive assets to be bought, sold, and traded, the more we devalue our own liminal experiences with art. Our creative heritage is there to help inspire, awaken, and provoke us, to guide us through our own internal and external journeys. If we don’t respect that, we lose a part of ourselves.