The Danish king Christian IV bought The Fall of the Titans back in 1621. It was pulled out of storage at SMK in the late 1980s. Since then, this vast painting by Dutch artist Cornelis Cornelisz. van Haarlems has been one of the most beloved works in the SMK collection.
There is plenty of oomph in Cornelis Cornelisz. van Haarlem huge, 2.5 by 3 metre canvas full of naked male bodies falling down in heaps. In addition to allowing Cornelis Cornelisz. van Haarlem to express all his artistic ideals about how to depict the nude, muscular human form, The Fall of the Titans is also the story of the battle fought by the titans, cyclopes and giants against the Olympian gods, headed by Zeus. As is clearly apparent from this scene, the titans suffered a crushing defeat: Zeus cast them down into the underworld of Tartarus, from whence they cause earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.
For many years, the painting led a life of obscurity, hidden away in storage due to the insistent drama of its subject matter. However, on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of king Christian IV in 1988 the painting was brought back out into the light of day and restored, the reason being that the king had bought the work himself in 1621. Since then, the painting has been tremendously popular with visitors, and it now ranks among SMK’s ten greatest highlights.
Celebrating the male form
‘This painting was cutting-edge modern back in its own day. The sheer ability to paint figures in such difficult poses – and human bodies in free-fall – would have been very impressive,’ explains curator and senior researcher Eva de la Fuente Pedersen.
The manner of painting is typical of its time, with figures in the foreground framing the scene, followed by several different planes in the centre of the composition.
‘They’re falling down into Hell, and we see the light of the sun shining down into the abyss. The artist has used an almost science-fiction-like mode of expression. They seem to be tumbling straight out at us, and his use of colours and space sucks us into an infinitely deep space,’ says Eva de la Fuente Pedersen.
The painting is also full of strategically placed butterflies. In neoclassical art they would symbolised the soul ascending to the heavens, but according to Eva de la Fuente Pedersen they have a different meaning here.
‘You’ll find oversized butterflies and other insects here, and I think these are among the kind of creatures that people imagined living in Hell. Insects were associated with fire at this time: people thought they were born out of fire because they are attracted to light, flitting into flames.’
No women allowed
The Fall of the Titans is one of Cornelis Cornelisz. van Haarlem’s most important masterpieces from his youth and an excellent example of the so-called Haarlem Mannerist style, which celebrated the artificial and the sensual.
Even though female titans existed, they were not allowed in this scene; we do not know why. But we certainly see how Cornelis Cornelisz. van Haarlem took great pains to demonstrate his skill at combining the study of ancient sculptures and of naked bodies, translating them into pictures that matched the period’s ideas about the ideal body. ‘It’s funny that it should be so popular, but then we also see a similar fascination with the naked male torso today. The image of the beautiful man is also cultivated in our time,’ says Eva de la Fuente Pedersen.