The Modernism of El Greco

By Wilkin, Karen | New Criterion, November 2003 | Go to article overview

The Modernism of El Greco


Wilkin, Karen, New Criterion


"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. …

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