Among the Old Masters, none is more immediately recognizable than El Greco. We may think we can spot a Rembrandt, but Dutch scholars have lately told us we’re mistaken. Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Poussin, Vermeer, Rubens -- the names evoke vivid images, ways of painting unique to each artist, yet all had contemporaries or imitators only the specialist can set apart. It is true that problems of attribution can arise with respect to El Greco. Among the pictures in the current exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, for instance, uncertainty arose about a very early panel and an uncharacteristic portrait of a woman. What is interesting is that such questions come up when a painting lacks his usual trademarks, not when someone else adopts his vision of people and the world.
That he has a distinct vision most visitors to museums will confirm. You wander into a new gallery and at once spot the El Grecos. The elongated figures; the brilliant, smoky colors; the odd, often incomprehensible divisions of pictorial space; the serious, devout faces (nobody ever looks happy) -- these are instantly familiar signs. And the natural question for viewers and scholars alike is “Why?” Why the so easily identifiable manner? Where does it come from and what does it mean? Is it merely a personal style, second nature to the artist? Or can it be related to his context or to some larger purpose?
An early answer -- once El Greco came to be appreciated again in the late 19th century, after long neglect -- was that his vision was astigmatic. That easy answer was soon exploded: If everything looked elongated to El Greco, would he not have seen his pictures as doubly elongated? Could it have been, instead, the influence of Mannerism, a style then much in fashion in Italy and one that prized artificial effects? Especially relevant, perhaps, is the elongation that marked the work of the most famous of the Mannerists, Parmigianino, whom El Greco much admired and who in his day was spoken of in the same breath as Raphael and Michelangelo. That suggestion still carries weight, as does the emphasis on devoutness and mysticism that marked this period of Counter-Reformation Catholicism. But are these connections enough to explain El Greco’s uniqueness, let alone the power his imagination and his construction of the world continue to exert? The exhibition of some 80 of his works at the Metropolitan (until Jan. 11, after which it moves to London’s National Gallery), and the elegant accompanying catalog edited by the El Greco scholar David Davies, give us the opportunity to find out.
The essayists in the catalog suggest answers. For John H. Elliott, El Greco embodies the mixture of cultures -- in his case, Byzantine, Greek, Italian and Spanish -- inevitable in someone who remained in Crete, where he was born in 1541, until his mid-20s; then lived in Italy for some 10 years; and finally settled in Spain for the last 38 years of his life. After all, the young painter of icons in the Byzantine tradition was hardly the artist we know, as is apparent from the two luminous but stiff and stylized scenes of the Virgin’s life that open the show.
Nor was he quite there in his Italian pictures, of which more than a dozen are in the exhibition. In these canvases, the debts to the masters he encountered -- Tintoretto and Michelangelo among them -- are unmistakable. Especially notable is the influence of a popular new art form in Italy: eye-fooling-perspective stage designs. The most famous theater built in this mode, Andrea Palladio’s Teatro Olimpico, was finished after El Greco left Italy, but engravings of the kind of stage setting it housed were readily available, and one in particular seems to have been used repeatedly by the newcomer from Crete. Painting a series of scenes from the life of Christ, four of which are on display in New York, he used receding sight lines along a tiled floor, with a classical arch and columns in the background, to present his protagonist (whether healing the blind or purifying the Temple) as if standing among actors on a stage. There are odd objects strewn around, writhing bodies and dramatic gestures out of Michelangelo, and a precariously perched baby (in “The Purification of the Temple”), looking as though it had migrated from one of the puzzling compositions favored by Parmigianino and other Mannerists of the day. Indeed, El Greco made his gratitude clear by putting portraits of four of the artists he admired, including Titian and Michelangelo, in the foreground of one of the last of these scenes that he painted before leaving Italy.
Once he had settled in Spain, his style emerged in full flower. He returned to certain themes again and again (three versions of an absorbed boy blowing on embers to light a flame, for instance), and one sees how his art had changed when he revisited the Purification. Hints of theatricality remain, but perspective is no longer important; the figures, flatter and more elongated, seem to float; and blocks of color dominate the scene. Moreover, the religious references are now elaborated, with reliefs on the Temple wall depicting two events that were believed to prefigure Christ’s sacrifice and redemptive power: the sacrifice of Isaac and the expulsion from Eden. In a catalog essay by Davies, this shift is linked to two movements El Greco encountered in his new homeland: the drive for spiritual reform associated with the Counter-Reformation in the Spanish Church and the revival of Platonic idealism in learned circles in Spain, a philosophy that regarded “a surpassing vision of beauty” as a means of representing otherworldly perfection.
Like the engagement with the different cultures of the Mediterranean, such influences undoubtedly had their effect on El Greco, but his distinctiveness seems to go beyond them. Thus although his extraordinary “Resurrection” raises a floating Christ of ethereal perfection above a disorderly Earth populated by gesticulating Michelangelesque figures, nothing in El Greco’s past -- not the Byzantine background, not the Mannerist distortions, not the taste for theatricality, not even the religious intensity -- prepares us for the use of dazzling color within an essentially gray-and-white scene or for the way the eye is forced upward through this enormous canvas some 9 feet high. Movements may be distorted, but a sense of motion and drama suffuses the scene. And lest one think that only religion could inspire such effects, one has but to look at “Laocoon,” the episode from the siege of Troy that El Greco painted some 10 years later, to see the distortions and the floating figures creating a different but no less compelling mood. Everything serves the purpose: As in El Greco’s one landscape, of Toledo, the sky itself seems ominous. We are confronted by an artist whose feelings and very imagination seem so concentrated that he cannot help but transport his viewers to his own realm. He may know how to make the physical world look solid, almost tangible -- marvelous details of ivy, fruit, or a horse’s head -- but realism alone is not his goal.
Even El Greco’s portraits (nearly half the show, if one includes biblical or historical figures as well as portraits of his contemporaries), while capturing their subjects, go beyond mere reality. He may have no passionate, searing stories to convey -- no entry into Hell, no opening of the fifth seal in the Apocalypse -- but there is a profound plumbing of human character and emotion. The mournful eyes of a gaunt John the Baptist standing against another tempestuous sky expose the saint’s feelings as powerfully as any of the eyes painted by Rembrandt, the master of psychological insight. A sinister inquisitor general in dazzling red robes, contemplative elderly men, a vigorous young friar -- all come instantly to life under his brush. In this respect, of course, El Greco’s genius links him to other Old Masters, yet his distinctiveness remains: the forceful and instantly recognizable manner pervading this major retrospective. One would never mistake El Greco for a Byzantine artist, or for any of the Italians he admired, or for any of his contemporaries in Spain. Nor can references to pious, otherworldly yearnings explain the style of this hardy, tough-minded intellectual, who never married the mistress who gave him a son. The source of his uniqueness lies, I believe, elsewhere.
When El Greco was maturing as an artist in Italy, the reaction against the calm, harmonious perfection and idealism that animated the masters of the High Renaissance in the early 16th century -- notably Leonardo and Raphael -- was well under way. Even the great exponents of that perfection who lived on into the second half of the century -- notably Titian and Michelangelo -- embraced the distortions and strong emotions that marked Mannerism. But they did so with a power that the younger Mannerists like Parmigianino, with their posing figures and puzzling compositions, never achieved. When, therefore, during the last quarter of the century, Italian artists again tried to create power and immediacy in their work, they moved toward the more highly charged, grandiose style we call the Baroque. This new generation, bent on achieving the qualities Michelangelo and Titian had embodied, went beyond Mannerism to emphasize dramatic contrasts of light and dark, scenes of high emotional intensity and the other elements of the Baroque repertoire.
During these transformative years, El Greco was already in Spain, where he remained true to the Mannerist elongations, gesturing figures and unsettling compositions he had adopted in Venice and Rome. He alone was able to infuse these characteristics with the passion and power his Italian contemporaries found only in the Baroque. El Greco thus brought to Mannerism the unique intensity which, expressed in the ravishing colors of his palette, gave his work the distinct aura that makes him so recognizable. Because the Metropolitan show is arranged chronologically, we can watch as this vision crystallizes; for that reason alone, this lavish display of masterpieces should not be missed. *