Magazine article The Spectator

Seek Those Things That Are Above

Magazine article The Spectator

Seek Those Things That Are Above

Article excerpt

Seek those things that are above

Andrew Lambirth urges everyone to go to the El Greco exhibition at the National Gallery

Something extraordinary and rare is happening in London: we have an incomparable El Greco exhibition in our midst. It doesn't really matter that it's being staged in the rebarbative dungeon-like rooms of the National Gallery's Sainsbury wing basement, for even those inconsiderate walls are alive with the strange music of El Greco's vision. For a few months the dungeon becomes a sacred crypt, filled with the fluttering spirits of El Greco's agonies, ecstasies and visitations, with a wild chant that cannot be stilled. Against such strong magic we are powerless: along with El Greco's saints and sinners our gaze drifts inevitably heavenwards.

The artist John Craxton has spent more than 50 years in close study of El Greco, and has lived much in Crete, the island from which El Greco himself hailed. He believes that the artist's upbringing in Crete was crucial to his development as a painter, that he was very much a Cretan painter, rather than a Greek Byzantine one.

Crete under the Venetians, whose colony it then was, was a culturally liberated land when the young Domenikos Theotokopoulos (1541-1614) began to train as an icon painter. In the first room of the exhibition is a recently discovered icon of The Dormition of the Virgin', from the Monastery of Ermoupolis on the island of Syros. In muted gold and red it greets the visitor with only a shadowy premonition of what will be El Greco's mature style, for it conforms to the accepted template for this subject and presents few opportunities for experiment. Together with the much-damaged panel of 'St Luke Painting the Virgin and Child', with its dim echoes of an emerging Italian influence, the artist's early years are adumbrated. But in the same room hangs 'The Entombment of Christ', dating to the late 1560s, in which the expressiveness of the faces clearly shows El Greco's growing powers of characterisation.

In 1568 El Greco travelled to Venice, where he is said to have studied briefly under Titian. Certainly that master's influence, along with the colour sense and chiaroscuro of Tintoretto, may be increasingly discerned in El Greco's work. By 1570 he had moved on to Rome, where he spent several years drinking at the fount of classical art, but only absorbing what would be useful to his increasingly defined personal vision. (Interestingly, Michelangelo was a key inspiration.) In 1577 he settled in Toledo, the ecclesiastical capital of Spain, where he was to make a substantial reputation with his religious paintings and portraits. After his death his work was forgotten with shocking rapidity, until rediscovered and reappraised in the 19th century. Today his rough brushwork and radical distortions look surprisingly modern. (I have to keep reminding myself that he was a 16th-century painter, a near-contemporary of Nicholas Hilliard.) We are touched upon the raw by his directness.

In a recent letter John Craxton pointed out that it is El Greco's ability to dematerialise flesh that sets him apart from his contemporaries - a quality that was inherent in the Byzantine traditions of the artists among whom he was brought up in Crete. This is why his work seems so spiritual - it effectively renounces the physical world. His flickering attenuated figures writhe upwards like candle flames, aspirant in both senses. Look at the gleaming exophthalmic gaze of 'St Peter in Penitence' and 'St Mary Magdalen in Penitence' hung on either side of 'Christ Crucified' in Room 2 of the show. …

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