El Greco: The Expressionism of His Final Years
The Changing Image: Prints by Francisco Goya
Goya: 67 Drawings
Proud, cultivated, and hedonistic, El Greco was throughout his lifetime rightly considered to be a great and highly successful artist. We first hear of him in 1570, just arrived in Rome from Venice at the age of twenty-nine, as being “rarely gifted in painting. And among other things he has made a portrait of himself which astounds all these Roman painters.” Forty years later, having long since settled in Spain, he and his workshop were turning out such a stream of saints and apostles, annunciations and baptisms, that a modern historian has referred to him as “the Henry Ford of Toledo.”
In retrospect one at least of the many mysteries surrounding the art of El Greco is that once upon a time it was evidently so unmysterious. The king, it is true, did not like The Martyrdom of St. Maurice; theorists disapproved of his defiance of Italian rules of proportion; and officials often grumbled at his prices. But provincial churches and convents kept up a steady demand for pictures which, since their re-emergence early in the last century from almost total obscurity and neglect, have been described as the work of a lunatic, of a man consumed with a passion for novelty at all costs, a sufferer from defective eyesight, and many other mental and physical disabilities. (Ernest Hemingway accused him of being a homosexual.)
Today such charges are dismissed out of hand, and the art of El Greco is called “expressionist.” This is a great improvement, no doubt, perhaps the nearest we can get to an understanding as well as an appreciation of his painting; but the element of glib modernism implicit in the term and the frequency with which El Greco is congratulated on having anticipated late nineteenth and early twentieth century painting should make us at least hesitant, if not downright skeptical, before endorsing it as a figure of praise. Mysteries remain. How far does Ferrari’s extraordinarily lavish book help to solve them for us?
The book has several great merits. Fortunately the subtitle is misleading, and we are by no means restricted to a discussion of the artist’s last years. The color plates vary in quality, but are often very good indeed—the glossiness sometimes disconcerts, but again and again we are given a very reasonable impression of the original, and can surrender to the magic of those nacreous, writhing bodies, delicate and fluttering hands, icy, vibrating colors. The discussion of the paintings pays proper (but not slavish) homage to Harold Wethey’s sensibly “restrictive” catalogue, and avoids the rubbish that unscrupulous dealers and art historians tried some years ago to pass off as early works. The section of the text devoted to “the annals of Toledo in the time of El Greco” provides a helpful and convenient yearly summary of events in the city; and the two essays by the Spanish art historians Lafuente Ferrari and Pita Andrade are thoughtful and contain valuable insights—so much so that it is puzzling to find …