"The most modern of Old Masters" declares a text panel at the beginning of this fall's stunning El Greco retrospective at the Metropolitan. Hyperbole, maybe, but it's easy to agree when we become engaged by this enigmatic artist's moody, ecstatic devotional paintings, losing ourselves in eyepopping color and crackling tonal shifts, brittle planes and unstable spaces or savoring the expressive exaggerations of confrontational portraits, instead of deciphering iconography or wondering about the identity of the sitters. No matter how much we know about the historical context of these pictures, no matter how firm a grip we have on the permutations of painting in the late sixteenth century, it can be difficult to see El Greco's pictures solely as products of their own time. The passionate touch (especially in the late work), the moonstruck brights and bottomless blacks, the agitated drawing, and above all, the immediacy, intensity, and unignorable individuality of his work can seem more the result of a modern desire for self-expression than a response to Counter Reformation requirements for evoking religious fervor.
It's possible that El Greco's atemporal modernity is particularly conspicuous at the moment because of the timing of the Metropolitan's exhibition, (1) which arrived hard on the heels of MOMA'S Max Beckmann retrospective. With the Beckmann show fresh in one's mind, it is difficult to look at El Greco's mature work and not think about the curious likenesses between the efforts of these ostensibly very different painters: one an introspective twentieth-century Northerner bent on embodying private myths and inner angst in images intended to please only himself; the other a suave inhabitant of the sixteenth-century Mediterranean world, a maker of religious images, to order, according to agreed-upon conventions of decorum.
Why consider them together at all? Beckmann didn't pay particular attention to El Greco, although he did cite as important sources Titian and Tintoretto, who were among El Greco's most potent influences. True, there's the all-stops-out energy common to both painters' work, but there's much more. Both El Greco and Beckmann learned enormously from the most adventurous, inventive artists of their day (who happened to come from countries not their own) and synthesized what they learned into compelling, idiosyncratic work so personal that it makes questions of influence interesting, but ultimately irrelevant. Both were masters of staging disquieting, sometimes hard-to-follow dramas. Both relied on a palette of heightened, abrasive color, and on exaggerated tonal contrasts, tense drawing, and warped spaces to intensify the emotional resonance of their works. The lean, sharply modeled, struggling figures of El Greco's late, eerie masterpiece Laocoon (early 1610S, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC) would look right at home in one of Beckmann's spot-lit sideshows, while one of the most poignant works at the Met, a melancholy "imaginary portrait" of Saint Louis and a young page, from the 1590S, in the collection of the Louvre, seems to anticipate uncannily the player kings and fisher kings of Beckmann's obscure narratives.
Whatever the significance (if any) of these odd similarities, they serve to call attention to one important fact: that even absent the proximity of the Beckmann show it is all but impossible for modern-day viewers to avoid filtering our perceptions of El Greco through our accumulated experience of modernist art. We retroactively interpret his prismatic planes of sky and cloth, his origami spaces, and angular folds of shimmering silk in terms of Cubism. We think about the flame-like contours and elongated limbs of his figures in relation to Expressionism. The dynamic, disjunctive play of dark and light, brilliant chroma, and velvety blackness across the surface of his largest, most complex pictures begs to be seen as prefiguring all-over abstraction. These involuntary anachronistic readings, while admittedly questionable--like the comparison between El Greco and Beckmann--aren't complete misrepresentations. Three of the giants of modernist painting--Cezanne, Picasso, and Pollock--all found El Greco's work provocative and stimulating, so much so that it is not an overstatement to say that the work of all three might have been very different if it hadn't been for their admiration for their sixteenth-century ancestor. The feverish tonal contrasts and even more feverish mood of Cezanne's early allegories, religious scenes, and orgies owe a great deal to El Greco's example, in general, and Picasso's debt to two celebrated paintings, in particular, is well known. The stacked composition, the rows of packed figures, and the weird, accordion-pleated space of an uncanny masterpiece, The Burial of Count Orgaz (1586-1588, Parish Church of San Tome, Toledo; unfortunately not in the Metropolitan's show) resonate in many of Picasso's early works, while the equally uncanny, astonishing Opening of the Fifth Seal (The Vision of St. John) (1608-1614, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) is acknowledged as crucial to the gestation of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. Picasso commented more than once on his interest in El Greco, and since he saw The Opening of the Fifth Seal often in the Paris collection of his fellow Spaniard, the painter Ignacio Zualoga, it is more than probable that the picture's frieze of nervously modeled nudes, its staccato folds of drapery, and its irrational spaces served as a blueprint for the spatial liberties of Les Demoiselles--which is not to discount the importance of Cezanne's bathers, African sculpture, or Iberian funerary monuments in the complicated evolution of Picasso's purposefully incoherent masterwork. In more general ways, El Greco's flame-stitched skies illuminate Pollock's earliest figurative works. It can be argued that their rhythms, expansiveness, and drama persist throughout all of Pollock's work, including his poured pictures. (To underscore the point, the Met has placed on view some of Pollock's sketchbooks with laborious drawings after El Greco figures.)
If El Greco's connections with modernism are well-documented, no one has yet, as far as I know, categorized him as a post-modernist avant la lettre, although there has been discussion of how the deliberately deracinated painter was affected by his nearly life-long status as outsider and his experience of what would now be called multiculturalism. Born to a Greek family in 1541 in the Venetian outpost of Crete, then known as Candia, and trained as an icon painter, Domenikos Theotokopoulos moved in 1567 to Venice, where he became known as "a disciple of Titian" By the end of 1570, he was in Rome, where he spent the next five or six years, registering as a member of the artists' Guild of San Luca as "Domenico Greco"--not surprisingly, since anyone who has ever dealt with Italian officialdom can easily imagine a sixteenth-century Italian notaio throwing up his hands in despair at hearing a difficult foreign name. By 1576, "El Greco" was in Spain, hoping, it seems, for a post at the royal court in Madrid, but his work apparently proved too eccentric for the rigidly orthodox royals of the period. Settling permanently in the university city of Toledo, he quickly became a major presence among its intellectuals, entrusted with countless important commissions and engaged in endless litigation about payments owed, taxes, and the like, until his death in 1614. John H. Elliot's essay "El Greco's Mediterranean: The Encounter of Civilizations" in the exhibition catalogue describes the intertwinings and oppositions of cultures--Greek East and Latin West, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, Catholicism and Protestantism--that colored the painter's world during this personal odyssey from the Eastern end of the Mediterranean to its Western limits.
It's all fascinating and helps to alert us to the complex web of political and social influences of the period, but it doesn't explain the strange originality of El Greco's work. Neither does the most exhaustive itemizing of the equally complex web of artistic influences to which the peripatetic painter was exposed, especially during his formative years. It is possible to find traces of the elongations and ritualized poses of late Byzantine icons in El Greco's work, as well as echoes of the expressive brushwork of late Titian, the dizzy perspectives and dramatic lighting of Venetian painting of the generation after Titian, the theatrical gestures and wrenched postures, elastic space, and the zoom-lens alterations of scale of Mannerism, and more--evidence of everything that El Greco encountered and devoured, sometimes whole (as in his verbatim quotations of figures and poses from the work of artists he admired, especially in his earlier work), and finally digested thoroughly. But none of this really accounts for the peculiar power and mystery of his best work. It's easier to explain why El Greco's unsuccessful works remain inert, or become too wispy and stylish, or venture into the realm of the histrionic, complete with upraised eyes with glittering highlights. None of that is surprising, given his practice of cranking out multiple versions of his most sought-after compositions, like all successful masters of his day, and his need to satisfy the requirements of church patrons eager for devotional images seductive enough to withstand the allure of Protestantism--without, of course, provoking idolatry.
At the Met, we can think about all of this, and more, thanks to a remarkable selection that spans El Greco's entire career, from icons painted before the young Domenikos Theotokopoulos left Crete for Venice to an enormous Adoration of the Shepherds (1612-1614, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid) from the last years of the artist's life. Most of the works on view give us El Greco at his best--there are exceptions, but only a few. He emerges as a distinct individual, but at the same time, if we can stop looking at him as a proto-Romantic or proto-Expressionist or proto-Cubist, the Met's selections also keep reminding us of the many sources from which he forged his unmistakable approach.
The icons with which the exhibition begins are unexceptional, even a little crude, but they are living evidence of the tradition in which the young Theotokopoulos was trained. It's not difficult to see the origins of the flattened spaces, slender proportions, and exaggerated poses of El Greco's mature style in the rigidly arranged, ritualized figures of a panel of the Dormition of the Virgin or to find precedents for his crisp, light-struck drapery in the zigzagging gold highlights of their robes. Yet the next galleries, which assemble works from "Domenico Greco's" years in Italy, bear witness to other, more potent, influences. A small selection of early variations on The Purification of the Temple, a recurrent theme throughout El Greco's career, allows us to watch the young painter working to assimilate the innovations of his Venetian colleagues. His admiration for Titian and his disciples, especially Tintoretto and Jacopo Bassano, is palpable in these ambitious but not quite resolved pictures. Figure types, postures, and gestures all echo Tintoretto's theatrical conceptions, as do dramatic architectural perspectives and streetscapes, and telling contrasts of empty space and jostling crowds. But for all the appeal of these interesting pictures (which were recently seen as a group in an edifying miniexhibition at the Frick), there is also something a little off about them. Some versions, for example, include a Titian-esque blonde reclining in the foreground, improbably oblivious to the riot around her, resting a massive arm on a cage of sacrificial doves; the strangely swollen limb appears to be at least as long as her extended, boneless leg. Yet the "Cubist" interlocking of struggling figures in these pictures both points back to the crowded icons and prefigures the expressive groupings of El Greco's later work; part of the excitement of the various versions of the Purification resides in the lively oppositions of--say--the man bending forward, crushed into the fearer, with the man with an upraised arm straddling the collapsed woman who echoes and reverses his pose, with the violently scourging Christ, and so on. (That many of these figures and poses reappear in various arrangements throughout El Greco's work is simply evidence of thrifty recycling, an efficient practice for a master of the period working to keep up with demand.)
A trio of Italian works, this time secular pictures painted at intervals between the early 1570S and late 1580S or early 1590S, emphasizes light at the expense of almost everything else. The three pictures include a brushy, naturalistic "close up" of a boy blowing on an ember and two increasingly stylized versions of an impenetrable allegory involving a similar boy lighting a candle, a silky ape, and a ferret-faced "fool" with an overbite. The slightly cartoon-like depictions of the characters in the two versions of the "fabula" are atypical, as is the carefully observed naturalism of the boy with the ember, but together, the group underscores how important cinematic lighting and unexpected viewpoints will be to El Greco's later work. Other Italian period paintings make his interest in Mannerist artists such as Il Parmigianino or Baroccio unequivocal, while his avowed dislike of Michelangelo is challenged by the abundant evidence of the sculptor/painter/poet's influence on El Greco's muscular, athletic, albeit elongated nudes, from the Roman years on.
The painter's arrival in Spain is signaled by a giddy Adoration of the Name of Jesus (c. 1577-1579, Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial), believed to be a bid for a position of court painter to Philip II, who appears in the picture. It's possible to unravel the complex theological and iconographical references with which this peculiar, engaging, jam-packed picture is loaded--there's an informative catalogue entry that explains just about everything, including who is who--but the real power of the painting resides in the way El Greco has turned a continuous surface into a palimpsest of shifting spaces. Up, down, in, out, near, far, and very far are all represented, not seamlessly--quite the opposite, in fact--but with odd conviction. The viewer is kept off balance. It's the first time in the exhibition that we encounter something that will become a hallmark of El Greco's most compelling works: he makes us unable to locate ourselves in relation to the picture, so that, by implication, we enter some kind of transcendent state in which we become pure observers, free of corporeal constraints. Here, this sense of illogic and disorientation is intensified by downright bizarre color; a spill of chalky tangerine which leaps forward to the eye, is, in fact, justified as the fiery abyss of Hell, an ambiguous vaulted pit populated by tiny figures whose size identifies this radiant, expanding zone as the most distant part of the picture. Here space, like light, far from being descriptive or naturalistic, verges on the psychological. No wonder we persist in seeing El Greco as a modern trapped in an earlier period, despite such evidence to the contrary as the saccharine devotional pictures made not long after the painter's arrival in Spain, half-length saints most notable for sappy expressions and up-cast eyes moist with piety.
The last sections of the show are the most absorbing. The array of important, often very large, multi-figure altarpieces and striking full length images of saints is impressive, but the gallery of portraits and a small room of half-length apostles from the Spanish years, mostly disciplined likenesses of severe, bearded men, set against straightforward, minimal backgrounds, are just as impressive. Moreover, the sobriety of the pictures in these sections is a welcome antidote to the extravagance of busy altarpieces whose eccentric spaces and improbable figure relationships demand a great deal of the viewer. ("Extravagant" was apparently a word applied to El Greco in his lifetime, not intended as praise.) Which is not to say that the best of the most overtly spectacular works in the show are not immensely rewarding. The Prado's glorious Resurrection (late 1590S), for example, which reprises some of the gestures from the early versions of The Purification of the Temple, is a tour de force of tumbling figures whose unstable scales and splayed and folded limbs diagram an incomprehensible but thrilling space; the tall, narrow proportions of the canvas intensify the impact of the tangled bodies by seeming to squeeze them toward us.
Among the portraits, wildly uneven quality and wildly different approaches-varying degrees of naturalism, a range of touches, variables in modeling--are explained, at least in part, by a selection that includes works from the late 1570S to the painter's last years, as well as by occasional doubts about attribution. But we are also told that these differences reflect El Greco's responses to different individuals, a notion inextricably bound up with a modernist conception of self-expression that is a little difficult to accept. None of this matters in the presence of the best portraits, which are among the high points of this well chosen show: the Prado's head of an elegant "elderly gentleman" with beautiful, liquid gray eyes and a wisp of silver beard, the Met's steely, bespectacled cardinal, with his roughly brushed red vestments, and Bostons glorious Fray Hortensio Felix Paravicino (c. 1609), with his sidelong glance, enormous book, and rigid pose. Fray Hortensio's handsome head, poised above the folds of an enveloping white cowl, is trapped between the skewed dark rectangle of the chair back and his dark cape; the tension implicit in this wonderful picture, emphasized by the insecurely balanced books and sharply bent wrists, is almost worthy of Cezanne. I kept thinking about that early full length portrait of Cezanne's friend, the painter Achille Emperaire, with his oversized, rather beautiful, bearded head, seated uncomfortably in an enormous, stiff armchair. Confronted by pictures like that of Fray Hortensio, we can easily understand why Manet, who, despite his enormous appetite for Spanish painting, had trouble with El Greco's religious images, was a fan of the portraits.
It is impossible to fault an exhibition that brings together the Met's Opening of the Fifth Seal and the National Gallery's Laocoon, allowing us to eavesdrop on the dialogue between these two marvelous late pictures, one an exalted religious vision, the other a febrile reimagining of the antique--with Toledo standing in for Troy. (The inclusion of the Met's iconic View of Toledo [c. 1597-1599], with its inky sky and haunted masonry, enriches the mix and allows for further comparisons.) The agitated nudes in both Laocoon and The Opening of the Fifth Seal, with their nervy, undulating contours and expressively angled limbs, are deeply dependent on the exaggerated anatomy of Michelangelo's most ferocious figures, and, at the same time, completely original; they are rather like dancers whose gestures and postures communicate emotion abstractly. Seeing these canonical masterworks together, however, underlines the inadequacies of the exhibition's other immensely ambitious late works, such as the huge Adoration of the Shepherd, intended by the artist to hang above his tomb and the equally large, swirling Virgin of the Immaculate Conception (between 1608 and 1613, Museo de Santa Cruz, Toledo). In both of these late extravaganzas, Mannerist attenuations of form, contraposto poses, drapery so brittle that it seems to have a life of its own, and "jewel-tone" hues, all seen under theatrical spot-lighting, produce images that seem to be less driven by religious fervor than by a desire for consistent style; the attenuated proportions of the figures in these pictures invoke the fashion sketch more than they do aesthetic eloquence.
The show is so full of wonderful pictures and so intelligently installed that it is ill-mannered to complain about any of it. My only regret--apart from the absence of The Burial of Count Orgaz--is that the great El Greco altarpiece at the Art Institute of Chicago was unable to make the trip to New York. (Ardently requested but too big to travel, I was told.) But the rest of the exhibition more than makes up for any omissions. Add an excellent catalogue, for once of manageable size, with essays by a roster of international El Greco scholars, good plates, and enlightening entries that include useful directions to "essential bibliography" and we have yet another reason to be grateful to the Metropolitan.
Forthcoming in The New Criterion:
Lengthened shadows: a series essays by Robert H. Bork, Michael J. Lewis, Roger Kimball, Jay Nordlinger & others
Art: a special section in December essays by Marco Grassi, Roger Kimball, Jeffrey Meyers, James Panero, Kenneth Wayne, Karen Wilkin & others; an interview with William Bailey by Mark Strand
How good were the Founding Fathers? by Marc Arkin Rereading John Clare, by Paul Dean Richard Yates today, by Eric Ormsby Poetry chronicle, by William Logan
(1) "El Greco" opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, on October 7, 2003 and remains on view through January 11, 2004. The exhibition will be on view at The National Gallery; London, from February 11 through May 23, 2004. A catalogue of the exhibition has been published by The National Gallery, London, and is distributed by Yale University Press (320 pages, $65).
Karen Wilkin is the editor of Ascending Peculiarity: Edward Gorey on Edward Gorey (Harcourt Brace).…