Visions of the Sublime

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One of the great benefits conferred by Modernism on our appreciation of traditional painting is that there is little inclination any longer to ascribe optical abnormalities to artists whose representations of the human form depart from accepted norms. No one, for example, thinks for a moment that the attenuated figures of Giacometti are the result of deficits in the sculptor's eyesight, having learned in Modern Art 101 that his elongated figures symbolize the existentialist despair that inflected European consciousness at the time of World War II. The danger of Modernism is that we often look at what would have been perceived as distortions in traditional art simply as cases where the artists were ahead of their time--if we notice them at all. What appeared, before Modernism, as abnormal elongations in the paintings of El Greco were perceived after Modernism as the kind of expressive gestures viewers had learned to take in stride. El Greco, whose extravagant distortions made him seem beyond the pale before Modernism, appeared to Modernists as one of their own, and modern artists often found in him what they were seeking to achieve in their own art.

We no longer think El Greco must have been astigmatic, any more than that the early Modernists such as Matisse and Derain had to have been mad to paint as they did, unless they were having a joke at everyone's expense. But Modernism has perhaps overcompensated by suggesting that what our grandparents would have seen as abnormalities were merely, if we are formalists, determined by the exigencies of design, or else just had to do with the artist expressing the way he felt. This approach may blind us to meanings in the work to which the artist's contemporaries responded, and that shaped the works' reception in its own time. The chief critical challenge in addressing El Greco is to find a way of addressing him on his own terms.

Years ago I learned an argument from the cagey philosopher Nelson Goodman called the El Greco Paradox, which could perhaps be generalized to deflect any effort at explaining away deviations from presumed norms as the result of ophthalmic disorder. Goodman argued that if El Greco painted normally proportioned figures as elongated because he saw them that way, then we would see his painted figures as normally proportioned--and there will thus be no evidence in his paintings of abnormal vision. Some alternative account must accordingly be given for the elongations that are features of his mature style. I'm not sure the "paradox" was original with Goodman, but empirical psychology and art history tend to corroborate this conclusion. In a recent experiment (published in the journal Leonardo, under the headline "Was El Greco Astigmatic?") the psychologist Stuart Anstis transformed normally sighted observers into "artificial El Grecos" by having them look through a modified cylindrical telescope that stretched their images horizontally by 30 percent. When, with the other eye covered, his subjects tried to draw a freehand square from memory, they "drew a tall, thin rectangle elongated vertically by 35 percent." Instructed to copy actual squares, both original and copy looked to them like squat, wide rectangles. When one subject wore the El Greco telescope over one eye for two days with the other eye covered, her first drawn squares were 50 percent too tall, but she rapidly adjusted to optical distortion, and after two days she drew as if she had normal vision. So, Anstis concludes, might El Greco have adjusted, even if he was born astigmatic.

There is, in fact, no evidence of elongation in El Greco's early work at all, and while this is hardly the main thing to look for in the magnificent exhibition of his work on view at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art until January 11, the signature elongations begin to appear only when the artist was well along in his career and in his 40s. El Greco began as an icon painter in Crete, which at the time was under Venetian domination; and among the great surprises of the show are two recently identified paintings by him, one of the Dormition of the Virgin, the other of Saint Luke painting the Virgin and Child, both from the 1560s, and executed in Post-Byzantine style, under which optical abnormalities could scarcely be perceived. …