The strangeness begins with his name, which was properly Domenikos Theotokopoulos; he always signed his works thus, often in Greek characters, but in Italy he was called Il Greco, and in Spain Domenico Greco or El Griego. The solecism El Greco is what stuck. Born in Crete, trained in Italy, he found recognition and employment only in Toledo, the capital of the Spanish Counter-Reformation, teeming with Neoplatonists and idealistic priests burning to take back Europe from the Protestants or, that hope failing, to make an implacable stand in the Spanish heartland.
In Toledo, in his mid-thirties, he found himself, and was indulged. The king in Madrid, the conscientious and grimly pious Philip II, spurned the immigrant painter’s efforts to become one of the decorators of his pet project, the gigantic monastery of San Lorenzo at El Escorial. The King had ordered the prior to equip El Greco with materials, “especially ultramarine,” for a commission on the martyrdom of Saint Maurice, but rejected the finished work, on grounds that modern critics speculate about: perhaps Philip didn’t like the contemporary portraits the painter had included, or the fact that the martyrdom itself is relegated to the middle background. El Greco, undoubtedly pious, set exalted fees, inaugurated many financial disputes, and operated on the edge of the iconographically permissible. His admirer Francisco Pacheco, who was to become the teacher of Velázquez, found that “El Greco made statements that were paradoxical and contrary to received opinion.” In his Arte de la Pintura, Pacheco wrote that the Greek was “singular in everything, as he was in painting.”
Had El Greco not invented himself, no one like him need have existed. Dutch genre painting might not have produced a Vermeer, or Venetian art a Titian, but the many close approaches would make a gap hard for even the most intuitive art historian to notice. El Greco, on the sparser cultural ground of Spain, looms as a brilliant anomaly, with a large workshop but no followers and his antecedents in Italian mannerism flamboyantly consumed within his peculiar ardor. Yet his name didn’t cross the Pyrenees during his lifetime (1541–1614), and it wasn’t until the nineteenth century (as in the case of Vermeer) that his reputation as a master took shape. Delacroix and John Singer Sargent owned copies of El Greco’s works; Cézanne did a copy of one, A Lady in a Fur Wrap (late 1570s). In the twentieth century, the homage becomes passionate, at the expense of Velázquez: the Met quotes on the exhibit’s walls Picasso (“Velázquez! What does everybody see in Velázquez these days? I prefer El Greco a thousand times more. He was really a painter”) and Matisse (“When I saw [Velázquez’s] work in Madrid, to my eyes it was like ice! Velázquez isn’t my painter: Goya, rather, or El Greco”). Jackson Pollock listed El Greco among his five favorite painters, and in his groping apprentice years copied into his notebooks rather Cubistic analyses of details in El Greco reproductions, focusing on the linear rhythms of the drapery; five pages are on display in the Met’s gallery of drawings, a few steps from the six second-floor rooms where some eighty works by El Greco are handsomely displayed.
On the day of the preview for reporters and special friends of the museum, a mellifluous, mutually congratulatory speechifying from the various experts, directors, curators, and financial powers responsible for the show—the first major retrospective in this country since 1982—drowned out any concern that, for the twenty-first-century art public, these large, lurid, hyper-Catholic canvases, with their tormented compositions and insipidly pretty, pasty faces, might reawaken the qualms of Philip II and seem too singular, and even repellent.
In 1983, the cleaning of an icon kept in the Holy Cathedral of the Dormition of the Virgin, on the island of Syros, Greece, uncovered the name of Domenikos Theotokopoulos, and this small but ambitious painted panel, containing many figures in a partially gilded tableau, together with a damaged representation from an Athens museum of Saint Luke as himself an icon painter, reminds us, at the exhibition’s outset, that El Greco began as a producer of holy artifacts, of icons still Byzantine in their rigid postures, zigzag clothing folds, and rudimentary perspective, though some attempt to render depth in the Italian manner was made.
Crete at that time was a possession of the Venetian Republic; it was to Venice, and then Rome, that he traveled in his mid-twenties, studying the work of Titian and Tintoretto, Correggio and Parmigianino, and reading Vasari’s Lives. He retained, however, an iconmaker’s way of thoroughly using his space and of resorting to stark white highlights, which give fabric in even his later work a coarse and implausible shine; white outlines impart to the cityscape of his magnificent View of Toledo (circa 1597–1599) its spectral ghostliness.
All his life, except for his secular portraits and the celebrated View, he produced religious images designed to be seen in a church’s dim candlelight, at some distance; in such settings his garish colors and failure to provide high-Renaissance perspective were virtues of a sort. His most striking invention, his flattened space, with a twisting, gray, close background spilling down from explosive skies, suits a church niche and the abstracted glance of worshipers. Roger Fry in 1920 wrote of El Greco’s “peculiar power of creating, as it were, a new kind of space, a space of which we have no actual experience, but which we accept as peculiarly enhancing the emotional tone of the scene.” It permits, Fry went on to observe, the large figures to “seem to move freely in a vaster space than any actual scene of such dimensions would allow.”
As the viewer moves through the early rooms, holding works from the 1560s and 1570s, he painfully feels the painter’s struggle with Italianate perspective, its large colorful crowds distributed over receding marble vistas. His several treatments of Christ Healing the Blind and The Purification of the Temple never achieve persuasiveness or the stage-front drama that would become characteristic. The second tableau, with its agitated knot of figures being whipped by a Christ athletically up on one foot, was more congenial to El Greco’s sense of concentrated action, and versions are displayed from as late as (roughly) 1600 and 1610. In the latter, grotesque elongation stretches Christ to an ineffectual slenderness, his whip all but hidden by his upraised hand; the arch giving in other versions onto an outdoor street has been sealed shut; a wildly gesticulating woman and cherub have been added, out of scale, to the extreme left edge; and, higher up on this edge, a marble nude (Adam?) threatens to shimmy right out of his niche.
As El Greco settled more securely into his visionary mode of attenuated anatomy and surreally compressed space, he arrived at a nervous, crumbly brushwork, a dashing dry treatment conspicuous in the monstrously ungainly Laocoön of the early 1610s and the fine, rather homoerotically charged portrait of the poet-priest Fray Hortensio Félix Paravacino (circa 1609). En route to this furry and electric texture his brushstrokes worry in a wormy way at forms that don’t really engage him. The two Pietàs of the 1570s echo the triangular monumentality of Michelangelo’s unfinished sculpture (probably known to the painter through an engraving) without Michelangelesque solidity; the bodies have the weight and tint of chalk while the sky looms in broad slabs one of which, in the Pietà of 1575, actually eclipses, by a feat of vaporous occlusion, the tops of Calvary’s three crosses. Other unpleasant, primitive representations, all from the early 1570s, include The Adoration of the Shepherds, as Stygian as a cellar; Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata, a golden landscape with a leaden flow and a nonplussed saint; and Mount Sinai, tall brown heaps suggesting towers of excrement or mourners wrapped in mud, dabbled with tiny figures and constructions feebly adapted from a woodcut by Titian. El Greco did not have an easy time converting himself from the brittle, formal style of Eastern Christianity to the physical realism of the West.
This triumphant physical realism, of which Michelangelo was the epitome, posed a problem for religious representation: the more vividly anatomical and muscular the figures became, the less spiritual they seemed. Michelangelo’s drawing of a fully fleshed Christ floating up out of the tomb and his sculpture of the beautiful young body lying in the Virgin’s broad lap were as far as visual humanism could be stretched to illustrate the Christian story; the broad-chested frontal nude, with penis, hurling judgment out upon mankind on the great wall of the Sistine Chapel may have been godlike, but he wasn’t the meek, conflicted Jesus of the gospels or the hieratically stiff deity of medieval tympana showing the Last Judgment. How to get past all this more precisely limned sinew and muscle and keep a grip on Heaven, on the immaterial other world? Raphael and Leonardo softened their anatomical mastery with sweet, half-smiling facial expressions, and Pontormo, whom Michelangelo had commended as a successor, brilliantly bestowed an impossible, angelic lightness upon his figures, so that in his pastel-colored Transportation of Christ (circa 1527–1528) the foreground figures carrying Christ’s dead weight support themselves on a few unbending toes.
El Greco, in the ambitious Adoration of the Name of Jesus (circa 1577– 1579), hasn’t yet solved the problem of weight for himself; the sharklike mouth of a teeming Hell, the countless heads of the redeemed like a roadway of round cobblestones, the sickly-white profile of Philip II (who was still being courted by the painter) are dutiful renditions, filled in without flair. The sky above, however, populated by baroquely foreshortened angels kneeling on rock-solid clouds, composes more happily, inviting the eye to travel toward the mystic name. In his much-admired signature piece, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz (1586–1588), still in Toledo but prominent in the catalog, the heavenly upper half is more persuasive than the overly literal, face-by-face depiction of the funeral ceremony. Even in the clumsy Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata, the free- flowing clouds attract our eye. El Greco was at home in the clouds, their visual tumult and their release from the spatial confinements of gravity. His jagged skies feel on the verge of lightning and of the darkness that preceded the veil of the temple being split in two.
At the Met, in the third chamber, our eyes greet at last a masterpiece, echt El Greco: The Crucifixion with Two Donors (circa 1580). A slender silvery flame of skin, Christ rolls his eyes and his nail-pierced hands upward; he is flying, against a background of black cloud, leaving below the two reverent donors, only their torsos in view as they stand on the unseen earth. Against precedent (as the catalog copy points out), there is no trace of landscape. Nor are there the usual mourners, or attending angels, or any sense, as there is in the Michelangelo chalk drawing The Crucifixion (1538– 1541), of any pain or muscular resistance, or, as in a Cellini marble sculpture (1556–1562), of sagged weight, relaxed in the surrender of death. This Christ spectacularly lives, in a transmaterial realm of blanched flesh lit from within, closely looming skies, and minimal terrestrial traces. To this sublime realm belong the paired portraits Mary Magdalen in Penitence and Saint Peter in Penitence, the rather epicene Christ Carrying the Cross (the catalog points out that the cross seems weightless and “the eloquently drawn hands …do not so much grasp and delicately embrace” it), the stagy but eloquent Saint Dominic in Prayer, and The Holy Family, marred by one of the ugliest Christ children ever shown mouthing a breast. All are dated in the 1580s.
In the twenty-five years left to him, El Greco extended his brand of mannerism deeper into the individuality and eccentricity that endears him, with his distortions, nervous brushwork, and unmodulated sharp colors, to the modern spirit. Soaring operatic concoctions like The Annunciation (circa 1597–1600) and The Virgin of the Immaculate Conception (1608–1613) are in their way stupendous, though the vapid expressions and pointy noses of his long-necked females give their cosmic occasions a flavor of Watteauesque fête. The Resurrection (late 1590s), very narrow for its height, has a slender, red-bearded Christ whose levitation out of the tomb knocks a crowd of Roman soldiers clad in skin-tight monochrome tunics flat on their backs; the viewer could more easily assimilate the wild tumble of limbs if Christ were not wearing a slight smirk and gesturing like a debonair stuntman saying “Dig that!”
The Adoration of the Shepherds, in its version of 1612–1614, is one of the last paintings from El Greco’s hand and ingeniously uses the tiny body of the newborn Jesus as the main source of illumination, so that all the witnesses, including two angels and flock of cherubs above, bask in its glow; the ingenious conception loses the intimacy of the manger. In such details as the arm of the tallest shepherd here, and the side figures of Laocoön, and, most boldly, the spectral nudes of The Opening of the Fifth Seal (1608–1614), anatomical truth is brushed aside; these wavery limbs and dwindled heads have less to do with the human body than an idea of bodies, whose basic reality lies behind or beyond their appearance: white shadows in a cave where flares of color patch a basic grisaille. Stiff and shiny robes, smeared with white shine, take on the self-importance of clerical vestments—see the left-hand figure in The Opening of the Fifth Seal, the hasty Marriage of the Virgin (circa 1613–1614), and the nearly Daliesque Visitation (early 1610s), which seems less the meeting of two women than of two hooded robes.
Then there are the portraits, some of them superb: the much-reproduced bespectacled cardinal of 1600–1601; the agreeably misty, wispy Elderly Gentleman (late 1580s or 1590s; see illustration on page 14); the stabbing, near-pointillistic Antonio de Covarrubias (about 1600); the early Giulio Clovio (circa 1571–1572), with a golden crust of facial rework à la Rembrandt; the gallant yet fragile Nobleman with his Hand on his Chest (circa 1583–1585), and the startling Lady in a Fur Wrap (late 1570s), a fur-clad, ivory-faced beauty staring out with her huge dark eyes at the painter as if to recall him from otherworldly visions. Indeed, the authenticity of the attribution to El Greco has been questioned. She is the only female in this sober room of black-suited grandees and robed, rueful clerics. Perhaps for this reason, a woman in the crowd of previewers confided, “This to me is the deadest room in the show.” With its submission to close observation and its concern with individual personality the room was the least El Grecoesque; like the religious paintings of Goya, the portraits remind us that their visionary creator was also a practitioner, a professional adept.
In another passing comment, an acquaintance, a distinguished painter and caricaturist, told me that he, though an atheist, now found himself, after this show, willing to be converted. Was my own relative lack of enthusiasm, I wondered, a product of a stubborn, hard-shell Protestantism? The catalog, in its essay by Donald Davies, briskly sketches the Catholic Counter-Reformation, whose main cause, of course, was the Protestant Reformation. Luther and, more rigorously, Calvin dismissed a vast intercessory apparatus that included the Pope, the supernatural role of the priest during Mass, the transubstantive nature of the Eucharist, confession, absolution, and the selling of indulgences to lessen a sinner’s posthumous term in Purgatory. In place of all this Protestantism substituted fide sola, the Holy Bible, long sermons, and bare church walls. Roman Catholicism answered with its own simplifications and inwardness, notably a concentration upon mystical union with God through Christ. “Thus,” Davies writes, “the narrative cycle of Christ’s life was subordinated to the specifically salvific, to the achievement of salvation. Scenes of his infancy, passion and resurrection, rather than of his min-istry, predominated in Catholic prayers and writings.” When Christendom split in two, both sides sought higher, purer ground in subjective experience, as the tide of materialism—with it, science and atheism—inexorably rose, claiming the universe.
In Spain, the union with Christ took on erotic qual-ities derived, in part, from the love poetry of the Moors. Saint John of the Cross, the greatest of the Counter-Reformation poets, wrote of a night where, “inflamed by love’s desires,” he ventured out to a rendezvous “Amado con Amada, Amada en el Amado transformada,” which my English translation, without the convenience of genderized nouns, renders as “Lover with Mistress, the Mis-tress transformed into the lover!” Something of this ecstatic androgyny permeates El Greco’s images of Christ, with their long-fingered hands, airy gestures, and fine-grained pallor. What I miss in them is a sense of God Incarnate, a walking-around Jesus, a man among others, as we see in Giotto and Titian, in Rembrandt’s etchings and Dürer’s woodcuts. El Greco’s divine personages, once he has reached his stylistic maturity, are like movie stars, perfect and untouchable. His baby Jesus is a light bulb. His art has the slickness of any art that doesn’t subject itself to a constant reality check.
El Greco solved, in singular fashion, the problem of weight. His supernatural bodies lift free of gravity, but at a cost: they seem insubstantial—too smooth, too rapt, too willowy, too elongated. They exist, but up there, in another world, with little of, say, Giovanni Bellini’s calm, gem-bright practicality of draftsmanship. True to his origins as an icon painter, El Greco provides votive images, images that draw our attention out of ourselves, in an aspiring direction. But only occasionally—as in the fiery, frowning, famous Saint Jerome as a Scholar (circa 1600–1614), or in the freely painted canvas of a gaunt, yellow-robed Saint Peter (early 1610s), with his loosely held keys to the kingdom, his bony other hand, his touching little bare feet, and his rueful oblique gaze—do we feel the pinch of the human bind.
November 6, 2003