Thursday, May 28, 2020

Art Eyewitness Book Review: El Greco by Fernando Marias

El Greco: Life and Work - a New History

by Fernando Marias
Thames & Hudson/349 pages/$100

Reviewed by Ed Voves

In 2014, the Prado Museum mounted an exhibition commemorating the 400th anniversary of the death of one of Spain's greatest artists - or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, of one of the greatest artists to work in Spain. El Greco and Modern Art at the Prado surveyed the career and legacy of the Renaissance-era painter who was "rediscovered" during the first years of the twentieth century, as the revolution of Modernism began to gain momentum.

Was Doménikos Theotokópoulos (1541-1614), better known as El Greco, really an ancestor of Modern Art?  Picasso is known to have studied El Greco's Vision of St. John, while he worked on Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. Franz Marc, writing in the Blue Rider Almanac, acknowledged "the case of El Greco, because the glory of this painter is closely tied to the evolution of our new perception on art."

El Greco, The Vision of St. John, 1608-1614

As compelling as these testimonials are, it is open to question whether El Greco's art fitted in with any "perception on art" other than his own.

El Greco is best understood as an "eccentric" painter. This is the view of Fernando Marias, author of what is surely the most definitive biography of El Greco. Marias uses "eccentric" in its sixteenth century connotation.

To be eccentric for the Spaniards of that time was to be different in life habits or  attitudes from the accustomed norms of society. Highly individualistic, perhaps, but not purposefully flamboyant or peculiar.

Gallery view of the 2003 El Greco exhibit, © The Metropolitan Museum of Art 

In reflecting on the use of "eccentric" to categorize El Greco, we ought not to think of him as a Salvador Dali figure, cultivating outlandish personal traits to flaunt in the faces of those who rejected him. Marias maintains that El Greco's eccentricity was "a quality that he deliberately strove for." Yet, this was a feature of his life-long act of self-definition and ambitious personal goals. Marias writes:

Since his arrival in Spain, or perhaps even before, El Greco had developed a new vision of art, one in which the painter ... had the right to give expression to his art with liberty, free from the asphyxiating requirements of iconography or the demands of clients, so often lacking in taste and understanding.

Marias has made a life-long study of El Greco. The present edition of this insightful, lavishly illustrated biography is based on an earlier version, published in 1995. Marias displays a fine command of literary style, as can be seen in the above-quote. But it should be noted that the exhaustive research which Marias has devoted to his task does not always make for easy reading.

El Greco, Portrait of an Old Man (believed to be a self-portrait), 1595–1600

Much of the scanty details of El Greco's life come from the court records of the many, many lawsuits in which he was involved. Most dealt with the payment promised him for works of art created for his clients in Spain. Like Michelangelo, El Greco was forced to devote much time and effort dealing with recalcitrant clients, unsatisfied patrons and demanding creditors. That was a depressing reality of his life and Marias' narrative reflects this.

Fortunately, Marias has been able to use two key sources, not available to earlier scholars. In 1967, El Greco's personal copy of Georgio Vasari's Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects (1568) was located. This was followed in 1981 by the discovery of a copy of De Architectura by Vitruvius which El Greco had also used. Both volumes were heavily annotated by El Greco, providing direct access to his thoughts on art.

Doménikos Theotokópoulos, aka El Greco, was born on the island of Crete in 1641. Crete, or Candia as it was called, was a colony of Venice's maritime empire. Culturally, Crete was a last bastion of the Byzantine Empire. The artists of Crete, closely organized into a medieval guild, painted in the traditional Byzantine style, albeit infused with elements of Western art due to the influence of Venice.

Several of El Greco's early paintings have survived. These testify to the fusion of artistic schools, Byzantine and Venetian, going on in his homeland. However, it is extremely telling to note that hallmarks of his future style in Spain are already present in some of his first efforts. 

El Greco, The Dormition, ca. 1566

In The Dormition of the Virgin, painted around 1566, El Greco showed his debts to late Byzantine iconography. The Dormition or death-bed scene from the life of the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus, is more important to the Greek Orthodox rite than to the Latin form of Catholicism practiced by the Venetians. El Greco infuses a Venetian sensibility to the Dormition by the way he shows the spirit of the Virgin Mary ascending to Heaven. Here, also, is a foretaste of his greatest paintings from the years in Spain, notably The Burial of the Count of Orgaz.

In 1567, El Greco traveled to Venice in search of the patronage and professional success unavailable to him in Crete. Fame, of a sort, El Greco gained but alas not the degree of success which Titian and Tintoretto had attained in Venice. El Greco made a close-study of both of these celebrated painters and may have worked for a time in Tintoretto's studio. But he failed in his attempt to gain favor in Venice and later in Rome, where some ill-advised comments on Michelangelo lost him a place in the household of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, the most influential patron of the arts in Italy.

El Greco, The Modena Triptych, 1568

The decade El Greco spent in Italy, despite all the frustrations he encountered, was crucial in his maturation as an artist, A key work in understanding El Greco's transformation from a painter of Byzantine-style icons to a practitioner of Italianate art is The Modena Triptych, painted soon after he arrived in Italy. Though small in scale, the triptych was illustrated, front and back, with vivid narrative scenes from the New Testament. Several of these episodes would feature in the mighty works of devotional art El Greco later created for the churches in Toledo, Spain.

El Greco's hopes of being appointed court painter for Philip II of Spain were soon dashed after his arrival in 1577. Instead of royal preferment, he had to contract his services for religious paintings and portraits to a wide-ranging network of clients. Many possessed limited financial resources and El Greco had to submit to a rigorous assessment process after each devotional painting was completed. The cash-strapped churches of Toledo constantly sought to have their fees reduces by making carping criticisms of El Greco's "eccentric" works of art.

It would be fruitless to attempt a brief survey of El Greco's career in Spain, which Marias handles so brilliantly. A look at two of his works will suffice: The Burial of the Count of Orgaz and the ensemble of paintings for the Oballe Chapel in Toledo.

El Greco, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, 1586-1588 

El Greco painted The Burial of the Count of Orgaz a decade after he arrived in Spain, for a parish church in Toledo. By virtue of its quality, it deserves to hang in a cathedral. It is a work of stunning dualities: earth and heaven, body and spirit, death and eternal life.

The striking realism of the bottom, earthly, half of the painting sets the stage for the upper, heavenly part. By softening his brush strokes and using cooler shades of color - except for the red dress of the Virgin Mary, who is reaching down to embrace the soul of the deceased count - El Greco created a vision of the celestial realm as imagined by the aristocratic mourners below.

The Burial of the Count of Orgaz is now recognized as one of the greatest treasures of Spanish art. Consequently, it never travels to international exhibitions. However, by an incredible stroke of good luck, I had the chance to visit Spain in 1979 in the company of an art scholar who was determined to see El Greco's masterpiece. The experience of viewing The Burial of the Count of Orgaz remains one of the defining moments of my life.

To fully grasp the magnitude of El Greco's achievement, it is necessary to focus on the late-career ensemble of paintings he created for the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception in Toledo, better known as the Oballe Chapel. It was the last of El Greco's great projects, completed by his son, Jorge Manuel, in 1615. 

Even by the standards of Spain during the early seventeenth century, the building and decoration of the Oballe Chapel proceeded at a glacially-slow pace. Construction began in 1595, funded by the Oballe family, who had made a fortune in the Spanish colony of Peru. El Greco joined the project in 1607 after the original artist, Alessandro Semini, had died. The financial complications of the assessment process were marked by the acrimonious disputes that characterized El Greco's entire career in Toledo. These continued after his death, contributing to the financial ruin and imprisonment of Jorge Manuel.

The Oballe Chapel, however, can only be appreciated by the results, not by the "backstory" of its creation.

Gallery view of the 2003 El Greco exhibit, © The Metropolitan Museum of Art 

El Greco's masterful treatment of the Oballe Chapel artworks can be appreciated by studying their placement in the 2003 Metropolitan Museum exhibition. Soaring in majesty in the center is The Immaculate Conception, with the Virgin Mary rising-up to receive divine grace in the form of the dove of the Holy Spirit. To the left is a powerful portrait of St. Peter and at right, in full church vestments, is St. Idelfonsus, the patron saint of Toledo.

These works were not closely placed, side-by-side, however. The portraits of the saints were positioned on adjoining walls, each at an angle to create a grotto-like effect, centered upon the stunning depiction of the Virgin Mary. 

Positioned above, and completing the ensemble, was one of El Greco's most remarkable paintings, The Visitation. This painting showed the Virgin Mary being greeted by her cousin Elizabeth, a key moment in Christian sacred history. Now in the collection of the Dumbarton Oaks Museum in Washington D.C., El Greco's Visitation is truly an Impressionist work of art.  

El Greco, The Visitation, 1607-13

El Greco's Visitation cannot be fully appreciated by looking at it straight-on, at eve level. Even today, it appears half-formed, almost incomprehensible. But when viewed from below, as El Greco intended, the meaning of The Visitation is readily apparent. The painting guides the viewer's sight line down to the dramatic central image of the young woman, born without sin, who will give birth to Jesus, redeemer of human kind.

To a believing-Christian in Toledo in the early 1600's, the experience of visiting the Oballe Chapel would have been spiritually overwhelming. Even today, with the component paintings separated, El Greco's visual plan is a revolutionary synthesis of concept and articulation. Fernando Marias writes:

El Greco also demonstrated the sculptural possibilities of living, moving, paint, and showed how daring his compositions could be. He rejected static contemplation of a dynamic work of art and demanded that the painting be seen in motion, as if it were a real and living being.

Whether one looks at a El Greco masterpiece with the eye of art or the eye of faith, Marias' statement above is undeniably valid. "Real and living being" is in every brushstroke of El Greco's works. 

El Greco, The Immaculate Conception, 1607-13

The fluttering wings of angels, the look of spiritual rapture on the Virgin Mary's face, even the numinous quality of the Toledo landscape over which these sacred beings soar on their way to heaven, have a vitality that carries us, the viewers, to the celestial realm that is their destination.

Marias concludes his final reflections on El Greco with a cautionary check on speculations about what beliefs, creeds and convictions motivated his artistic expressions. The comments which El Greco made in his copy of Vasari's Lives testify to his intelligence and ambition. Yet the truth remains that the inner El Greco remains an enigma. His paintings are not, Marias asserts, "reducible to his own personality and personal beliefs."

El Greco began his career painting Byzantine icons. While he rebelled against the stylistic formality of the maniera greca, he continued to do what the Icon painters of Byzantium had always done: create a visible space for belief, an interface for humans to commune with the Divine.

El Greco, Portrait of a Doctor (Rodrigo de la Fuente), details1588 

Wherever he went - Venice, Rome, Toledo - El Greco never stopped being Doménikos Theotokópoulos.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved                                                                                           
Introductory Image:
Cover art for El Greco: Life and Work - a New History by Fernando Marias, courtesy of  Thames & Hudson Publishers

Doménikos Theotokópoulos, El Greco (1541-1614) The Vision of St. John, 1608-1614.  Oil on canvas: 87 1/2 x 76 in. (222.3 x 193 cm); with added strips 88 1/2 x 78 1/2 in. (224.8 x 199.4 cm). Metropoltan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1956. # 56.48

Gallery view of the 2003 El Greco exhibit, © The Metropolitan Museum of Art 

Doménikos Theotokópoulos, El Greco (1541-1614) Portrait of an Old Man, Ca. 1595–1600. Oil on canvas:  20 3/4 x 18 3/8 in. (52.7 x 46.7 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art,  Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, 1924.  # 24.197.1 © The Metropolitan Museum of Art 

Doménikos Theotokópoulos, El Greco (1541-1614) The Dormition of the Virgin, ca. 1566. Tempera and gold on panel: 61.4 cm × 45 cm (24.2 in × 18 in). Holy Cathedral of the Dormition of the Virgin, Ermoupolis, Syros, Greece.

Doménikos Theotokópoulos, El Greco (1541-1614) The Modena Triptych, 1568. Tempera on panel: Height: 37 cm (14.5 in); Width: 23.8 cm (9.3 in) (central panel). Galleria Estense  Modena, Italy. # 8095.

Doménikos Theotokópoulos, El Greco (1541-1614) The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, 1586-1588.  Oil on canvas: 480 cm × 360 cm (190 in × 140 in). Church of Santo Tomé, Toledo, Spain.

Gallery view of the 2003 El Greco exhibit, © The Metropolitan Museum of Art 

Doménikos Theotokópoulos, El Greco (1541-1614) The Visitation, 1607-13. Oil on canvas: 96.5 cm. x  71.4 (38 in. x  28.1 ) Dumbarton Oaks Museum, Washington D.C. # HC.P.1936.18.(O)

Doménikos Theotokópoulos, El Greco (1541-1614) The Immaculate Conception, 1607-13. Oil on canvas: 348 cm × 174.5 cm (137 in × 68.7 in).  Museo de Santa Cruz, Toledo, Spain  # DO1277,_Toledo)#/media/File:Inmaculada_Oballe_El_Greco.jpg

Doménikos Theotokópoulos, El Greco (1541-1614) Portrait of a Doctor (Rodrigo de la Fuente), details1588.  Oil on canvas:  96 cm. x 82.3 cm. Museo del Prado, # P000807

No comments:

Post a Comment