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Monday, November 17, 2003


Apocolypse Then

El Greco, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, October 7, 2003-January 11, 2004, and the National Gallery of Art, London, February 11-May 23, 2004.
El Greco, a catalogue edited by David Davies, Sir John Elliot, Gabriele Finaldi, Keith Christiansen, and Xavier Bray. National Gallery of Art (distributed by Yale University Press), New Haven, 320 pages, illustrations, 2003, $65 hardcover, $40 paper.

In a show remarkable for its inclusiveness and clarity, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has put together a thorough overview of the works of El Greco, whose soaring paintings are available for extended study. It is rare to see an exhibit of such magnitude and focus; the artist’s greatness, evident very early on in his career, is given the spotlight in an exhibition that chronologically depicts his swift internalization of the Italian style. The Cretan-born Domênikos Theotokopoulos (1541-1614), better known as El Greco, was a painter, sculptor, and architect whose reputation as a great artist of the Spanish school has been equaled by a twentieth-century regard for his angular, twisting forms and otherworldly, bluish colors; he has been seen as the most modern of the Old Masters by artists of such stature as Jackson Pollock. Not much is known of El Greco’s early years — there are three icon-like paintings, in the Byzantine manner, in this show — but he was described in a Cretan document of 1566 as a master painter. A bit afterward, he made his way to Venice, and he was living and working in Rome by 1570. Scholarly opinion sees him as influenced primarily by Tintoretto, as well as by Michelangelo, whose high drama appears to have made an impact on the great Greek painter’s imagination.

It is interesting to think of El Greco as a modern artist: his ardent spirituality, with its visual equivalent of slender, straining figures that leap up without support into the air, much like a flame, is not matched by the belief systems of later artists. Instead, we look at the searching forms and eerie light of his paintings and reflect on the nature of belief, and on its ability to infuse a composition with such intensity that the beauty of an internal life is recognized even if we neglect the specific tenets of the faith animating the painting. For El Greco, it seems, everything was a matter of yearning, collapsed into an attempt to render the familiar figures of the Christian creed nearly transparent in their drive to become pure figures of thought — as if belief could, by itself, render the world of the spirit as palpable as the living flesh of Christ and his family, at once so utterly human and so completely Other to our imaginations.

Today, it is almost impossible to consider the Christian holy family as a suitable subject for representation: religious emotion has become swamped by sentiment, making it exceedingly difficult for the artist to address religious belief in a figuratively specific manner. In fact, the tenets of belief have become increasingly abstract if they are held at all by contemporary artists, who have moved entirely away from piety toward a conceptual spirituality whose elements do not support particular doctrines. In the absence of specific elements of belief necessitating specific images, the artist must find a language that will communicate longing and spiritual need without referring to the visual practices that fed art tradition with figures that were universally recognized as religious. That language seems to have been reduced to images of light: the suffused radiance that illuminates Mark Rothko’s paintings is clearly neither a symbol nor even a metaphor, but an attempt to actualize religious experience. Despite the lack of referential specificity, Rothko compellingly claims his place as an artist of profound spirituality, for his paintings communicate both awe and grief, or spiritual pain.

Similarly, we find a language in El Greco, to some extent shaped by an abstract regard for form and color, that spiritualizes the traditional figures of the Christian Gospel and pushes them away from the narrative they represent toward a language of pure form. Of course, it is true that El Greco never goes over into genuine abstraction, but he does abstract the figure in ways that emphasizes its spiritual essence, imbuing the form with a religious significance that is not entirely figurative in nature or implication. El Greco’s spiritual drive is so great, indeed, in the late paintings that he brings to mind the notion of mannerism. Yet, El Greco’s mannerist tendency — his penchant for extreme states of mind and exaggerated forms — is actually held in check, interestingly, by the Biblical stories and figures themselves. I mean by this that historical narrative centers El Greco’s abstract tendencies, so that there is a tension between his spiritualizing tendency and his historical position, which demands that he tell a recognizable story.

The relationship between narrative and abstraction becomes clear if we consider the full career of El Greco’s life; he moves always in the direction of abstraction, and, in so doing, renders his figures in an increasingly mannerist light. Even in a relatively early work, such as the first version of The Purification of the Temple, one can see how all the interest comes to reside in Christ especially, encircled by the crowd, which the holy figure is scourging with a whip. Of course, the tableau is in some ways a stock scene, but the individual intensity of El Greco’s painting tells us a lot about how he made use of High Renaissance composition and filled his painting with images that were significant to him; there is something not entirely Western about his work, conjuring as it does a fluid rather than static universe, in which the Christian belief system is a kind of process, emblematic of but also embellishing faith as it moves away from any set notion of religious meaning.

El Greco’s idiosyncrasy is noticeable from very early on in his career. Even as a young artist in Crete, he was beginning to highlight and elongate his figures, so that they took on a spiritualized cast. In The Dormition of the Virgin (before 1567), you can see the central, haloed figure extended in the lower middle of the painting, the apostles gathered around it. Above the figure, there is another tableau: that of the Virgin being assumed into heaven. While the figures are simplified and very much in the Byzantine manner, the fact that El Greco signed the icon — as the museum catalogue points out, icons were rarely signed — speaks of an ambition and pride that would take the painter to Italy. In a slightly later painting, The Entombment of Christ, done in the late 1560s, El Greco would portray the lowering of Christ into the sepulcher prepared as a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea. As the catalogue makes clear, the image of the group suffers from overcrowding in front of the open cave, and the relative sizing — of Christ against the other figures in the composition — is problematic: Christ’s left arm, dangling outside his coffin, seems overly elongated. Yet the painting, despite its double debt to Byzantine and Italian art, emits a remarkable sense of drama and emotion; Saint John, in a long orange garment on the right, is painted with particular subtlety, the luminescence and folds of his robe prefiguring images in El Greco’s later work.

One of the most telling themes in El Greco’s work is Christ purifying the temple: El Greco painted four versions of the story, in which Christ, armed with a scourge of small cords, drives the merchants from the holy space, which many see as an exhortation to remain pure. The version of The Purification of the Temple shown here (probably after 1610) is much larger and represents what the catalogue calls a “significant technical advance.” The painting shows a better sense of perspective, and Christ is represented with a stronger sense of detail, his red robe and blue sash contrasting dramatically with the darker, even muddy, character of the crowd surrounding him. Strikingly, in the work’s lower, right-hand corner, El Greco pays homage to the masters preceding him, with portraits of Titian, Michelangelo, Giulio Clovio, and Raphael. In addition to the homage, it is fair to say that the inclusion of the four painters is also a statement of equivalence: El Greco seeing himself in the tradition of these great artists.

It is in the devotional paintings that we see El Greco moving from strength to strength, dedicating his considerable painterly and conceptual energies to an iconography made powerful by tradition and faith. El Greco painted two versions of a pietà, one in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum (early 1570s) and the other, a larger version (about 1575), now in the Hispanic Society of America (in New York City). In El Greco’s tableau, the Virgin is portrayed behind Christ, while the two figures on either side of Christ are identified as Saint John the Evangelist and Mary Magdalene; the primary influence is said to be Michelangelo’s Pietà (circa 1550), which shows Christ supported by Mary Magdalene and the Virgin, with the standing figure of Joseph of Arimathea above him. There is a tension in the position of the figures, with the pale, dead Christ turning away from the hill, on the left in the painting, on which the three crosses stand, while the Virgin, in extreme anguish, looks up and back toward Calvary. Looming behind her is a large, dark cloud, in back of which are other powerfully painted clouds; the entire scene is apocalyptic in nature, a moment of great suffering.

Another devotional work, Mary Magdalene in Penitence (early 1580), done after El Greco moved to Toledo in 1577, shows the penitent former prostitute as a beautiful young woman looking toward heaven for forgiveness. Her long hair cascades over her shoulders and falls to the waist, surely a sign of sensuality. Additionally, there is a skull, a reminder of death, in the lower, left-hand corner of the painting. Next to it is a perfume bottle, reflecting the woman’s past as a prostitute. According to the catalogue, the ivy on the rock on the left side of the painting is a reminder of the religious immortality that may be won if a person offers penance to God. In the painting, Mary Magdalene looks toward heaven with glistening eyes, her unusually long neck emphasizing the forward thrust of her head. The fairly complicated folds of her white blouse are echoed in the presentation of clouds in the background. As the catalogue points out, Toledo’s aristocracy was eager for such paintings, and El Greco obliged them, painting images of a penitent Magdalene or a weeping Saint Peter with a real sense of force and dramatic immediacy.

Indeed, in addition to being a master of devotional art, El Greco was a great portraitist, catching the spirit and character of his subjects with both verve and accuracy. The catalogue essay on El Greco’s portraits acknowledges the influence of Titian on his portrait of the miniaturist Giulio Clovio, painted about 1571-72: “The composition, in which the sitter is positioned in the foreground and shown against a darker, neutral background, and with an object or objects set on one side with a window above, through which there is a view of a distant landscape, is a stock motif in Titian’s portraiture” (p. 251). Clovio was a friend and protector of El Greco when the latter worked in Rome; El Greco pays homage to their relationship by painting a remarkably successful portrait, in which Clovio points to a book he holds in his left hand; it is his most highly regarded work, an illuminated manuscript entitled the Farnese Hours (1546). The sitter, in his seventies at the time, is beautifully portrayed; the background is a dull brown with a window on the upper right, through which the viewer can see a tree and a stormy sky. A later portrait, entitled A Cardinal (1600-1601, probably of Cardinal Niño de Guevara), shows El Greco at his strongest: the cardinal, whose refined features also betray the fierce authority and even rigidity of a man who presided over the Inquisition, wearing glasses as well as the red robes of the Church, stares back at us with an unsettling intensity. Behind him is a gold curtain covered with a fine brocade of natural imagery; a letter has fallen before him on the ground as he sits before us. A portrait of unrivaled intensity, A Cardinal is the study of both the man and the power he possesses, making for an unforgettable work of art.

While El Greco left behind only one outstanding landscape, A View of Toledo (1597-99), it is a work of greatness, profoundly expressionist in its treatment of the city. It is seen as modernist in its complicated and highly fractured views, overseen by apocalyptic cloud-cover. Kenneth Clark wrote about this work that “this extraordinary landscape is an exception to all rules….It has the character of nineteenth-century Romanticism, though Turner is less morbid, and van Gogh less full of artifice, and to find analogies we must look back in Romantic music, to Liszt and Berlioz” (Landscape into Art, p. 49). Like many of El Greco’s paintings, this view of Toledo is an idealized view rather than a realistic treatment; it renders the buildings on a hill in dramatic silver gray, with black clouds backing the image, and green and dark green images of grass and trees in the front of the painting. The overall effect is, yet again, apocalyptic, a deeply spiritual but also violent treatment of El Greco’s home and working base. In its unadorned expressiveness, it approaches emotions and forms treated much later in the arts; A View of Toledo offers a lyrical but not realistic truthfulness in regard to the city, it is dominated by a revelatory vision that would spiritualize this and other later works.

El Greco’s late work is, for this viewer, problematic: the artist is so eager to raise his figures to the highest expression of spirituality that he does away with the tense relations between his need to be accurate (figuratively speaking) and his desire to portray a spiritualized reality. The elongation of forms is so extensive that the works pass from being extreme portraits to being caricatures of a spiritualized attitude, whose attributes have been taken over and rendered idealistic to the point of absurdity. But it may be that it is exactly that absurdity that makes El Greco modern to us: his extremism carries with it a remarkable strength of character and a deep reverence for a nearly modernist intensity of emotion. In El Greco’s late painting, Saint Peter (early 1610s), the figure is rendered as a very elongated form, rising up from the very low ground on which he stands. The clouds swirling around Saint Peter match his yellow robes’ voluminous folds, while his small head and bearded face are turned in a gaze toward somewhere outside the canvas; his focus, then, is not of this world. Yet, for all its drama and beauty, the portrait is so extreme in its depiction of the saint that it loses its effectiveness, demanding rather than engaging the viewer’s attention.

El Greco’s greatness is not so much of a period as of individual eccentricity and truth; his spirituality, when in tension with the traditional genres within which he worked, flames out like a beacon. There are devotional paintings and portraits that make him stand out as a brilliant practitioner of his art; it is only in the late work that his studied stylizations, meant to convey spiritual yearning, seem too extreme, although the monumentality and intense emotion of the late paintings do recommend themselves to an expressionism memorable in its effect — even if the forms themselves leave little space in which to breathe. The point is that El Greco brought to mannerism a Byzantine intensity, in which forms were suffused with the sublime and operated within a language close to terrifying, so otherworldly were its mandates. For that reason, El Greco consistently transcended himself, creating fierce drama and holding to high principles in art that were inspiring both in form and belief. The Metropolitan’s fine show demonstrates just how long El Greco persisted in his belief and forms, and just how powerfully his spirituality maintained itself over centuries. Not only does the exhibition shed light on the shifts in style in his art, it provides viewers with enough work from El Greco’s stay in Italy and Spain to give them the chance to consider, in a leisurely fashion, exactly how he took the idiom of Titian and Tintoretto and made it his own. As the show proves, El Greco quickly moved beyond imitation into a language all his own, which is astonishingly powerful, in part because of its vigorous idiosyncrasies.

Jonathan Goodman is a contributing editor to
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