While I certainly went into this National Gallery ‘exhibition’ with more than a few reservations about art programmes, Behind Closed Doors is the first virtual exhibition that I have seen done right. From the get-go the BBC documentary was exciting, appealing to my three favourite parts of art history: sex, drama, and painting.
Through its biographical approach to the life of Titian and his patron Philip II, the documentary gave me everything I needed to appreciate the exhibition, all while staving off boredom. The much-needed historical context added a real sense of life to these paintings. Tracking the journey of both the paintings and Titian’s own life, the documentary is replete with beautiful visuals and dramatic accounts of Philip II’s horny, stingy, princely antics. After all, female nudes were as close to a Renaissance Pornhub as possible, as the programme is keen to remind us.
Aside from the dramatic historical context, however, Behind Closed Doors goes to amazing lengths in researching and analysing these paintings. Presented in a satisfying way, there are interviews with art historians, classicists, and artists scattered throughout. I tend to find Renaissance art rather dry and repetitive, preferring the wacky visuals of contemporary art. But the background presented in the documentary made me really appreciate these potentially bland works – encouraging me to make the pilgrimage to London to see them as soon as The National Gallery reopens its doors.
Through its focus on art history and the narratives surrounding the art, the documentary doesn’t set itself up to compete with the physical exhibition, acting instead as its perfect accessory- the art world’s best wingman. This is where Behind Closed Doors really shines. Other virtual exhibitions tend to do the art no favours, simply copy and pasting chunks of art and text into online formats with as much imagination as lemmings, following each other off the cliff of poor digital content. This is precisely why Behind Closed Doors succeeds where similar documentaries failed; it carefully curates the exhibition to enhance its physical counterpart rather than trying to be it, providing content and opinions we wouldn’t normally get at the physical show.
However, most refreshing is the sensitive way that Behind Closed Doors deals with issues surrounding the paintings it exhibits. Too often in physical exhibitions, the context provided overlooks the troubling background of the artwork, with curators succumbing to the art world’s usual methods of wearing problematic-context blinkers. Instead, they choose to ignore the work’s issues because who cares when its ‘technically brilliant’ or a ‘masterpiece’ – mantras often repeated by old, white, male gallery directors.
However, Behind Closed Doors explicitly acknowledges the problematic context of Titian’s paintings. Along with much of historic western art, the paintings are saturated with misogyny, objectification, and violence. The documentary rounds off on the note that we should think “harder, better, and more productively about what sexual violence is”.
To see the documentary acknowledge these issues is a step in the right direction. Clearly, compared to its competitors, Behind Closed Doors is doing a lot right and makes me more hopeful at the prospect of online exhibitions in the future.
Titian – Behind Closed Doors is available on BBC iPlayer until Monday 4th May, 2020.