El Greco at the National Gallery
Bruce, Donald, Contemporary Review
IN its latest exhibition the National Gallery has mounted, in collaboration with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the most comprehensive display of El Greco's paintings since Le Greco: de la Crete a Tolede in Bordeaux in 1953. A particular success has been in bringing together four versions of The Cleansing of the Temple. For once, the National Gallery has drawn sparingly on its own paintings, perhaps because it has so few El Grecos, and even modestly left out its Agony in the Garden (arguably an autograph work) in favour of the version from Toledo (in Ohio, not Spain). It is a pity that some of the pictures shown in New York did not come to London. The catalogue ([pounds sterling]25.00 paperback) is the customary thick compendium, crammed with superfluous detail. An exhibition catalogue should not become an unsolicited monograph, perhaps unpublishable elsewhere. The authors should remember Lord Chesterfield's advice to his son: 'If you are asked what o'clock it is, tell it; but do not proclaim it hourly and unasked'. A useful and more pertinent account of the pictures themselves is handed out on admission to the exhibition.
In El Greco's gaunt schematic views of Toledo (Metropolitan Museum, New York, and Museo del Greco, Toledo) it is just possible to discern, above the ravine of the River Tagus, the tumbledown and now tumbled down Gothic manor-house where he rented an apartment of twenty-four rooms. They were ramshackle and cluttered, but with some attempt at luxury. His bed was canopied with crimson velvet. He entertained his friends, mostly priests, round a table of rare black walnut. His way of life was shabbily lavish, to the extent of employing musicians to play whilst he dined. He wore a sword, the symbol of his status as a gentleman, or caballero. His presumed self-portrait (Prado, Madrid) in about 1581, his fortieth year, presents a grandee in black broken only by his starched ruffled collar and cuffs and the gold chain and medallion, probably of a religious society, hanging from his narrow shoulders. His bony open hand is on his chest, and at his side is the gilt pommel of a Toledo blade. He has the soulful eyes which are de rigueur in El Greco's work.
When his grandson was born in 1604, his family of three had four servants, apart from his factotum and sole studio assistant, Francisco de Preboste. He may have been used to such muddled grandeur in Rome, where he lodged for two years in the garrets of the palace belonging to Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, the patron for whom Titian twenty-five years earlier, in 1545, had painted his first Danae, giving her the features of the Cardinal's mistress, El Greco, to pay for the profusion which contrasts so pointedly with the severity of his art, exacted high prices, sometimes through litigation, for his pictures. Driven by the need for money, he sometimes painted so fast that the result, such as The Visitation at Dumberton Oaks House, Washington, is only nominally a representation: in a mist two hooded cloaks, with the tips of two pointed noses emerging from the hoods, billow together in front of the outline of a porch. In spite of such expedients, he often had to ask for payment in advance, and left many unpaid debts at his death.
It is likely that this wanderer (known as Domenikos Theotokopoulos in Crete, as Dominico Greco in Italy and Spain, and finally by the nicknames El Griego and El Greco), travelled for financial advancement. When he arrived in Rome his friend, the miniaturist Giulio Clovio had to find him free lodgings. As soon as he came to Spain he appealed for money to the Royal Almoner in Madrid, and his costly way of life led him into frequent borrowing. He left impoverished Crete for Italy, but found he could not compete with well-established painters in a buyers' market. At the Palazzo Farnese he met Luis de Castilla, son of the Dean of Toledo Cathedral, and himself Dean of Cuenca Cathedral, who became such a close friend that El Greco asked him to become the executor of his will. The year before El Greco migrated to Spain, King Philip II finished building his vast Escorial Palace, which he was expected to fill with religious pictures. Spain at that time had few native painters. So, Westward Ho! Dylan Thomas described himself as 'a dollar-mad nightingale' in America, where he went to enrich himself. El Greco was incapable of such self-deprecating humour, but may have thought that the Eldorado the Spanish explorers were seeking was to be found in Spain itself. He was to be disappointed.
As an icon-painter in the Venetian colony of Crete, where he was born, he would have aspired to the opulence of Venice and the freedom of its art, since he left for Venice in his mid-twenties, probably early in 1567. How greatly his painting changed in Venice, replete with the pictures of Titian and Tintoretto, may be seen on entering the National Gallery exhibition, which starts with two of his Cretan icons. A mostly eroded St Luke paints a Madonna with a Byzantine stiffness already softened by Cimabue in Italy over two hundred years earlier (Benaki Museum, Athens). The Virgin in El Greco's Ascension of the Virgin (Syros Cathedral) rises from her chalice-like bier to her transfiguration on a pile of gold-leafed saints, surrounded by apostles, their robes multi-creased into the shining folds familiar in early Sienese painting. Even in Venice the conventions of icon-painting persisted in El Greco's Annunciation (Prado). Around Mary at her fanciful prie-dieu, a cherub-entangled shaft of gold explodes, lighting up a long architectural perspective which the Archangel Gabriel, with a commanding forefinger, crosses, treading a cloud. A slightly later version (Thyssen Collection, Madrid) is larger and better composed. El Greco has cropped the wasteful tiled foreground. A gentler, less aureate Archangel, though still cloud-borne, points at the Holy Ghost descending as a dove. A youthful Mary looks up from her studies with fidelity on her plump Titianesque face. As E.M. Forster rightly said, 'History develops but Art stands still', but that applies only to what is incontestably the sort of Art he adduces. What only aspires to Art does develop.
The time has come to say that El Greco, though accredited as a Master before he left Crete, did not draw well until far later, and even then was rarely an exact draughtsman. That he did not care about his deficiency may be a feature of his extreme individualism. In particular, he could not convincingly portray torsos, hands, legs or feet. Mary's fingers in the Prado Annunciation are all the same shape and all like the tines of a fork. Her hands in the Thyssen Annunciation are like heavy feet with inarticulate tapering toes, and Gabriel's forearms are as thick as his thighs. In both pictures his wings are too leaden to be imagined in flight. El Greco's religious fervour in The Adoration of the Shepherds (Buccleuch Collection) may be sincere or exaggerated or even simulated. What is not open to doubt is his anatomical ignorance, which is also conspicuous in his drawings for the altarpiece for the Convent of Santo Domingo in Toledo (Private collection and Bibliotheca Nacional, Madrid). In his pictures of The Cleansing of the Temple, the knees are uniformly narrower than the ankles. Admittedly such painters as Modigliani and Matisse flouted veracity for particular effects, but they did so informed by a thorough anatomical understanding, and not through incapacity. El Greco was like a writer, sometimes a poet and sometimes a versifier, who had little command of syntax.
In Venice El Greco learned to emulate Tintoretto's figures, long as a lightning flash of arrows; but in El Greco's rendering they are lifeless, with Tintoretto's musculature greyly dabbled in rather than sharply delineated, as in the swirling ectoplasmic forms in El Greco's Resurrection (Prado) and Vision of St John (Metropolitan Museum). The shooting stars of Tintoretto's airborne figures decline into El Greco's static angular huddles in the sky, as in the heavenly band over Toledo in the Museo del Greco. Tintoretto was profounder in thought, more copious in vision and more trenchant in execution than El Greco, but there are fewer exhibitions of his work, perhaps because he lacked oddity.
El Greco's Burial of Count Orgaz (Santo Tome, Toledo) is not exhibited, regrettably, since the lower section shows how ample El Greco's achievement was when he devoted enough time and care to what he could do well. One of the things he did remarkably well was to portray grave-faced gentlemen at quarter length, as in his affectionate rendering of the miniaturist Giulio Clovio (Museo Nazionale, Naples), who procured him a lodging in the Farnese Palace in Rome, and his row of artists (Titian, Michelangelo, Clovio and Raphael) in the right foreground of the Minneapolis Cleansing of the Temple. The powerful dons who mourn Count Orgaz would have been exacting in their expectation of accuracy. Dexterously and meticulously El Greco recorded the sombre dignitas of these hidalgos, restrained but expressive in gesture, and sumptuous in their jet costumes dashed with startling flashes of sharply white lace. The brooding elegance of their clothes finds its counterpoint in the lustrous tapestried vestments of Ss Stephen and Augustine, who have descended from heaven to lower the warrior count, in his damascened armour, into his vault. The brilliance of the miniature of the stoning of St Stephen, on that saint's chasuble, makes one wonder how much El Greco learned from Clovio and what success he would have had with small details, if he had not generally painted in haste.
For all the craftsmanship of the lower part of the picture, in the higher part El Greco persists in his indifference to perspective and volume. On the same plane as the mourners, one of whom has to bow his head to avoid a solid-looking cloud, the firmament drops on the obsequies like a collapsed awning, with angels and saints scrambling into its folds. Seldom were less vaporous clouds painted than by El Greco. St Peter, awaiting the Count in heaven, leans on one cloud, dangling his keys over the summit. St John the Baptist straddles another. Such a reception seems excessive for a Spanish soldier-aristocrat not noted for his sanctity. El Greco insincerely painted the near-beatification of Count Orgaz for pay meanly delivered. His contract stipulated the presence of St Stephen and St Augustine and 'overhead the heavens opening out in glory'. Having observed his contract punctiliously, he was later obliged to sue the parish of Santo Tome for his full fee. He was also at this time conducting a trade in the export of his religious paintings via Seville to South America.
His Crucifixion of 1580 (Louvre), intended as an altarpiece for a convent in Toledo, was funded by two donors who do not distance themselves from the event, but appear as chief mourners at the foot of the Cross. Their effigies would have appeared shoulder-to-shoulder with the celebrant at Mass. As in his Martyrdom of St Sebastian (Palencia Cathedral), painted at about the same time, the perspective of the Louvre Crucifixion is abruptly vertical, with large feet and a small head. The background is equally perfunctory, perhaps to save time: the stunted shrubs and desolate, sun-scorched rocks of the Toledo mountains.
At this period El Greco did not paint from life, except for the heads in his portraits. His friend Francisco Pacheco relates, in his Art of Painting of 1649, that El Greco composed his pictures from bozzetti, or small models moulded in wax or clay. For the shadows he placed the models by a candle or a lamp. He could, if he wished, mentally correct the slippage and wear of the clay and the surface melting of the wax, but the distortion of the forms may have produced novel perceptions. Leonardo advised painters to seek out images by gazing at a mottled wall. Perhaps the distortion of his bozzetti should be taken into account when one considers the fluid extravagance of El Greco's figures, already elongated in imitation of Tintoretto and artists such as Parmigianino, whose work he was likely to have seen in Rome. Aldous Huxley, in his well-known essay on El Greco, suggests that El Greco had an optical defect. If that had been so, the defect would have righted itself in his work, which he would have viewed with the same optical distortion. An artist who saw a square as an oblong, logically would paint that oblong as a square. If El Greco painted at a remove from reality, using figurines as models, that was because he opted to do so.
El Greco did not intend to record what he saw accurately. His Laocoon and his Sons (National Gallery, Washington), anthropomorphic wraiths with twisted anatomies, struggle with sea-serpents, not on the shores of Troy but in front of a view of land-locked Toledo. Throughout his pictures, especially in the scurries of his versions of The Cleansing of the Temple, he depicts floating garments with no form of support, in defiance of gravity. His years as an icon-painter led him to divide a painting into several scenes, as in The Burial of Count Orgaz, where the count is buried below and simultaneously received into heaven, with its saint-thronged clouds, above. One can understand why Philip II, used to the coherence of Titian, was confused when he first set eyes on The Martyrdom of St Maurice, which he had commissioned for his monastic palace of the Escorial. From the crowded and confused perspective St Maurice emerges three times. The martyrdom of the saint and his Christian legion takes place in the recesses of a whirligig composition which retreats into a tangle of icy spectral clouds.
Displeased by such a quirky treatment of the subject, Philip paid for the picture and replaced it with a work by another artist. Philip had been eager to attract Giulio Clovio to Spain and was predisposed to welcome any friend of Clovio. His benignity to El Greco did not last long. He was better pleased with the rounded amplitudes of the Danae and the Venuses painted for him by Titian, than by El Greco's wizened male nudes the colour of fog. He may already have seen El Greco's Adoration of the Name of Jesus (Escorial, Madrid; smaller version in National Gallery, London), which commemorates the Christian victory over the Turks at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. The hectic design would hardly have conformed with Philip's conservative taste. As well as that, although Philip II is the central figure, he appears as a weary balding greybeard, in contrast to Titian's recent portraits of him, which no doubt suited his conspicuous personal vanity, as a hale and dashing man of forty.
Naturally, the Battle of Lepanto in the Gulf of Corinth excited El Greco, a Greek subject of the Venetian Republic and born at the edge of Christendom. It excited him to excess, so that he invoked flights of angels and the mouth of Hell to celebrate a sea-fight which merely retarded the advance of the Turks into Europe. The picture has distinct sections. At the zenith the trigram IHS appears, surrounded by saints and angels on zigzag over-solid clouds. Below on the right is a scene of combat around a pass through cliffs which dwindle away into the vague float of the horizon. The letters IHS in the sky are the beginning of Jesus' name in Greek, which were also said to stand for In Hoc Signo, or 'in this sign': the sign of the cross, under which Constantine the Great won the Battle of Saxa Rubra, and Philip II, with his papal and Venetian allies, won the Battle of Lepanto.
In front of a great curve on the right, formed of revered Christians past and present, Philip tautly prays, black-costumed and gloved, between Doge Mocenigo of Venice and Pius V, the Pope who excommunicated and outlawed Elizabeth I of England in a Bull which was to have a disastrous effect on the Catholic priests discovered there. Alongside the curve is an ellipse formed by the monstrous mouth of Hell, enlarged from the Modena Polyptych which El Greco had envisioned during his time as an icon-painter; although the miserable denizens of Hell have no reason for rejoicing. The smaller version in the London National Gallery differs only in its colder colours and a narrowing of the mouth of Hell, with fewer unfortunates in it. The London version may come from the large room, which Pacheco saw on his visit to El Greco, full of reduced versions of his paintings which he kept for replicating his works or as a record of their authenticity.
As decreed by what was called the Holy Office at that time, the dwellers in Hell included those it had condemned for obdurate heresy. Although the rigours initiated by Cardinal Torquemada had abated to some extent, the Inquisition retained its terror under Pius V and Philip II. In the first year of his papacy Pius V imprisoned his fellow-Dominican, Batholomeus de Carranza, Archbishop of Toledo, in the Castel Sant' Angelo, where Carranza spent nine years. El Greco painted Pius V in tearful veneration of the Holy Name. Pius V, himself formerly a Grand Inquisitor and an avid hunter-down of supposed heretics, was reputed to spend half his time at the Holy Office, tracing those who had so far escaped punishment.
El Greco himself had trouble with the Inquisition over his Despoilment of Christ (Toledo Cathedral; replica at Upton House, Warwickshire) painted in 1579, soon after his arrival in Spain, for the vestry of Toledo Cathedral. As part of the Counter Reformation, the Holy Office had decreed that artists should follow scriptural texts strictly and literally in their biblical scenes. The detail of the three Marys, for whose presence at the disrobing of Christ there is no authority in the Gospels, outraged the local enforcers of doctrine. El Greco, threatened with imprisonment, consented to remove his offending holy women. It is a sign of the joint ferocity and incompetence of the Inquisition that he left them there with impunity, and went on to include them in ten replicas.
The three Marys (one said to be a portrait of El Greco's wife) look on in desperate bemusement as a carpenter prepares the cross. El Greco depicts Christ as blessing the carpenter with a benign face, which conforms to the Gospels less than the inclusion of the three Marys. El Greco was too accustomed to painting improbably ecstatic martyrs. The ordeal at Gethsemane and on the Cross made it clear that Christ in His incarnation suffered, with the worst that could happen to a man, the dread and despair that necessarily accompanied it:
Behold me then, me for him, life for life I offer .... Account me man. (Milton: Paradise Lost)
At the same time, in El Greco's view, the despoiling of Christ is an ascension: Christ in His blood-red robe rises above his tormentors, and also above the two other consecutive episodes of the tripartite icon: the making of the cross and the mourning of the women.
Because of the predicament of Toledo, bereft of its Archbishop, aggravated for El Greco by his own experience of the clerical coercion of his imagination, it is strange that he did not find means to avoid painting Cardinal de Guevara. Don Ferdinand Nino de Guevara, Grand Inquisitor and Archbishop of Seville, was on a visitation to Toledo. No doubt his entourage wanted a portrait of him by a painter famed for his pious sensibility. An ugly man, perhaps he did not want to be painted, especially by an artist whose orthodoxy had been questioned by his colleagues. Perhaps El Greco did not want to paint him, but dared not refuse to do so, and needed the money. The uneasy result was an image of the Cardinal clutching the arms of his episcopal chair in full regalia: toad-like, claw-handed, myopic behind his thick spectacles, but with the self-reassuring side-stare of a bureaucrat aware of the fear his huge power can inspire (Metropolitan Museum, New York). El Greco may have regretted any allusion to the questionable purification of the Church by the Inquisition in his earlier pictures of The Cleansing of the Temple.
There is little difference in composition between El Greco's panel of the cleansing of the temple of money changers, and hawkers of sacrificial creatures, in the Washington National Gallery, and the version on canvas at the Minneapolis Institute; although they plot the course of his itinerary after leaving Crete. The small Cleansing of the Temple at Washington was painted in Venice, with an opulence of colour in the costumes and the sky which he never repeated. There is uncustomary touch of humour in the insouciance of a sparrow (a non-sacrificial bird) as it trots safely across a marble step. The portrait of Giulio Clovio in the Minneapolis version suggests that it was painted in Rome. In both pictures there is a long arcade in the style of Tintoretto, which includes a Venetian palazzo. The languid women traders in the deshabille of Venetian courtesans may be imitated from Paris Bordone. The women who cowers on the floor to avoid Christ's scourge is, curiously, akin to Titian's Bacchante in The Isle of Andria. In the foreground of the Minneapolis picture Titian, Michelangelo, Clovio and Raphael turn away from the scene to look at something Clovio is pointing out in the distance. El Greco's row of half-length portraits does not cohere with the rest of the picture. Although Veronese introduced his fellow artists, among them Titian, Jacopo Bassano and Tintoretto, into his Marriage at Cana (Louvre) as musicians, they are part of the action. Perhaps Clovio points towards Spain as El Greco, soon to embark on a sea-track towards a strange individualism, pays his last homage to the painters who had taught him so much.
The Cleansing of the Temple in the London National Gallery was almost certainly painted, like the Despoilment and The Burial of Count Orgaz, during El Greco's first decade in Spain. It is a recension of the earlier treatments; although, perhaps from his haste to complete a saleable work, and perhaps through limited powers of invention evident in his borrowings from other artists, the main figures are similarly positioned. He liked to finish his pictures quickly and to be paid quickly, which may be why he was so repetitious. (His view of a phantasmal Toledo was a ready-made backdrop to at least five of his paintings.) In the London Cleansing of the Temple, as in his early Annunciations, he has moved closer in, eliminating the foreground, shortening the colonnade and expelling the Bordone-like courtesans. Christ, no longer merely sorrowful, drives out the traders with a fierce commanding stare and an explosive action which explains their compliance, so surprising in the earlier versions.
During the first year of the seventeenth century El Greco was for a while affluent. He had amassed nearly 9,000 ducats for his recent paintings and had been too busy to spend them. Left free from the need to earn money, he had leisure to paint his Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, a picture as lucid and meticulous as the works of his first decade in Spain. Students of El Greco have contended about which of the two versions of Gethsemane (one in the Toledo Museum, Ohio, and the other in the London National Gallery) is by El Greco himself. It is likely that both are originals. The Ohio version is slightly smaller, with a narrower range of colour (mainly tones of blue and green, apart from Christ's red robe) than that in London. We know from a primary source, Francisco Pacheco, that El Greco habitually painted reduced copies of his works for reference. That suggests that the Ohio version is El Greco's personal copy. Apart from the predominant tones of red and brown in the London version and a hazy distant view of Jerusalem over the Cedron or Kidron Brook, as an afterthought in the Ohio version, the pictures are twins. The National Gallery has been too deferential in accepting subjective criticism that its picture is 'too hard' in texture and must be a Studio work. So far as one knows, El Greco's Studio consisted of his assistant, the otherwise unknown Francisco Preboste, and El Greco's son Jorge Manuel, an inept painter.
In both versions of Gethsemane the glow of an occluded moon circles a stark height, unearthly except for two trampled olive-trees, their branches torn and their fruit dispersed on the ground. Above a cavity in the night-misted crag, where the three disciples sleep, an angel kneels. After a night of weeping, Christ lifts his weary face towards the radiance of the angel and a ray of light, whose source is not the moon. Judas and the Sanhedrin's religious police, crossing the brook on a footbridge, approach with their lurid torches held high. When the National Gallery's picture was first displayed, onlookers were surprised with its seeming modernity. The unnaturalistic design of the work and the passion of its expression are, in fact, characteristic of icon-painting. El Greco has returned to Byzantium, enhanced by his experience of Venice and Rome, and painted his one impeccable picture.
El Greco is at the National Gallery until 23 May, from 10.00 to 18.00 daily, except Wednesday and Saturday, when it is open until 21.00. Entrance costs [pounds sterling]10, with concessions. Further information is available at the National Gallery's web-site www.nationalgallery.org.uk or tel. 020 7014 8444.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: El Greco at the National Gallery. Contributors: Bruce, Donald - Author. Magazine title: Contemporary Review. Volume: 284. Issue: 1660 Publication date: May 2004. Page number: 295+. © 1999 Contemporary Review Company Ltd. COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group.
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