El Greco Enigma ; A New Met Exhibition Positions El Greco as Religiously Driven. but Many Art Historians Question His Motivations

By Strickland, Carol | The Christian Science Monitor, October 3, 2003 | Go to article overview

El Greco Enigma ; A New Met Exhibition Positions El Greco as Religiously Driven. but Many Art Historians Question His Motivations


Strickland, Carol, The Christian Science Monitor


The artist Domenikos Theotokopoulos, better known as El Greco (1541-1614), is perhaps more of an odd than an old master. For two centuries after his death, his work, which depicts dramatic religious themes, was disparaged. Critics termed the superheated paintings "delirium" and the style "extravagant."

Then 19th-century romantics rediscovered him, praising his over- the-top expressionism as supreme individualism. And 20th-century artists like Picasso and Jackson Pollock admired his abstract tendencies. The last major survey, "El Greco of Toledo" in 1982, depicted the painter as a Mannerist practitioner of Art for Art's Sake - a worldly man without deep religious convictions. This view attributes his sensational style to his own imagination, ego, and aesthetic ambitions.

Now an exhibition, "El Greco" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York from Oct. 7 through Jan.11, gives us El Greco the spiritually driven painter, at one with theocentric 16th-century Spain, which was rife with mystics like Saint Teresa and Saint John of the Cross.

"El Greco was one of the most original painters of all time, so people want to know: How do you explain it?" says Jonathan Brown, professor of art at New York University's Institute of Fine Arts. On Nov. 9, Professor Brown will give a lecture at the institute on the varying interpretations of El Greco entitled "Will the Real El Greco please stand up?"

The current exhibition presents 80 works from all phases of El Greco's career. In the past, his unusual style has been attributed to madness, hashish, even astigmatism. But the reasons for his style remain an enigma that polarizes art historians. Visitors to the Met's new show can join the debate over whether El Greco was motivated by a passion for art or for God.

Mysterious approach

His signature style of acidic colors, elongated figures, flickering brushstrokes, and bizarre effects of light and space is sui generis. His approach sparks questions: Did he paint to inspire viewers to mystic union with the divine? Or did he push Italian Mannerism to an extreme, concerned with his own artistic evolution?

The British art historian David Davies, who conceived the current show as guest curator from London's National Gallery, believes El Greco soaked up the intense religious atmosphere of his adopted town of Toledo. Davies theorizes that El Greco's images were a ladder from the terrestrial to the transcendental. In "The Crucifixion with Two Donors," for instance, the composition ascends visually from realism at the base to a supernatural realm above.

Davies stops short of calling El Greco a closet mystic, but he believes El Greco was devout. "Because his subjects are scriptural, not personal visions, he seeks their mystical or spiritual essence," he says.

The two who curated the last survey, Professor Brown and Richard Kagan, professor of history at Johns Hopkins University, believe the opposite. Their show refuted the idea of El Greco as a mystic painter with bad eyesight. "The religious paintings have a strong spiritual component," Brown says, "but El Greco was not driven by imperatives of the spirit."

From what we know about the painter's cranky personality and biography (he was born on Crete, studied in Venice and Rome, and created his masterpieces in Toledo), "There's nothing to suggest a different spiritual inclination than garden- variety Catholicism," he says. Views of El Greco are so divergent, "it's like a duel between El Greco the aesthetic and El Greco the spiritual," he adds. "You have this polemic where neither side gives an inch."

For those who believe El Greco was driven by intense religious fervor, "art has turned into a religion, instead of art at the service of religion," Brown adds. …

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