This painting by El Greco shows the Pope, the Doge of Venice and Philip II kneeling in adoration of the name of Jesus, shown in the heavens as IHS, the first letters of Jesus in Greek: http://bit.ly/1gx9bE9
He helped pave the way for Manet, Cézanne, Picasso and Pollock.
Did you know we're open all Easter weekend? There's plenty to see in the gallery, like this free El Greco display in room 30 http://bit.ly/1Dk9uMW
Come and see our new, temporary El Greco display in Room 30. The display includes an exceptional loan from Musée du Louvre, as well as some El Greco paintings from our own collection, like this image 'Christ driving the Traders from the Temple': http://bit.ly/1GKKADb
“El Greco in New York” commemorates the four-hundredth anniversary of the death of El Greco. The exhibition provides a panorama of his art unrivaled outside the Museo del Prado in Madrid.http://met.org/1yWW4Ce
El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos) (Greek, 1540/41–1614) | View of Toledo | ca. 1598–99
Cardinal Fernando Niño de Guevara (1541–1609). Photograph: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, HO Havemeyer Collection
There are painters we now think of as timeless, but who spent long centuries in the shadows and storage closets of western art history. Piero della Francesca, say: top of the charts these days but until 1900 a minor, even forgotten figure. Or Johannes Vermeer: now popular enough thatScarlett Johansson will don pearl earrings, undistinguished for centuries.
But with El Greco, the toughest and trendiest artist of the late 16th century, it’s a little easier to understand the wild gyrations in his reputation. At his death in 1614 he was a distinguished though not mega-famous painter of religious scenes and portraits. Then he fell into obscurity – too dark for his Baroque successors, too unnatural for the Enlightenment. By the dawn of the modern age, however, El Greco was back. In his 400th anniversary year, he has been feted like a superhero.
The biggest celebrations were in Toledo, Spain, El Greco’s adopted hometown, which earlier this year hosted the largest exhibition of his paintings ever assembled. Up the road in Madrid, the Prado organized the revelatory El Greco and Modern Painting – which showed how the Greek-Spaniard was rescued from insignificance in the mid-19th century, and then inspired everyone from Manet and Cézanne to the German expressionists and even Jackson Pollock. Right now in Washington, the National Gallery has gathered paintings from the surrounding area for an anniversary show, including his early, Tintoretto-esque Christ Cleansing the Temple and his bonkers Laocoön. This summer in New York, the Frick mounted an important display of an early El Greco alongside Italian portraiture; it’s now displaying its three works by the artist together, from the stern Vincenzo Anastagi to the elongated St Jerome. (The Frick, per its founder’s will, cannot loan anything from its core collection.)
Across Fifth Avenue, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has assembled an important exhibition that merges its El Greco holdings – the best outside Spain, as his long neglect meant that Americans could buy all the good stuff – with major loans from one of the most neglected cultural institutions in the city. The important but unloved Hispanic Society of America, stranded in a Beaux-Arts penitentiary way uptown, gets about 20,000 visitors a year (the Met gets 300 times that). But it owns six killer El Grecos, including a Holy Family against an apocalyptic sky, and when you add them to the Met’s paintings you get something very close to a proper retrospective, and as good as it gets outside Spain.
It’s good to work chronologically with El Greco, because it helps to dismantle a later misconception: that he was a tortured, solitary genius, and that his unorthodox compositions speak to some private, mystical vision, or else insanity. (Or, even dumber, that his elongated figures resulted from a problem with his eyesight, an ahistorical myth as absent of art-historical evidence as The Da Vinci Code.) He was no mystic, no madman and definitely no hermit. On the contrary, he ran a well-staffed studio – some of his assistants’ works are on view in the Met show. He had a huge ego: in Rome, he proposed painting over the Sistine Chapel ceiling. And he was constantly in debt thanks to his lavish home and a taste for luxury that led him to swan around Toledo in regal velvets.
The torqued figures and the spatial imbalance of El Greco’s paintings – everything that makes him feel so modern to us – are not the work of some crazy spiritualist. They come from a worldly but deeply devout artist who was keen to establish painting as more than just a craft; as a philosophical, intellectual and above all religious undertaking.
Doménikos Theotokópoulos, as he proudly signed his name to the end, was born in 1541 on Crete, then a colony of the Republic of Venice. Venice in the 16th century wasn’t just the capital of the most powerful trading empire of the age; it was also an ethnically diverse arts destination on its way to rivaling Rome. At home in Crete he painted nothing but icons. None of them are in the New York shows, unfortunately. But in Venice, where he may or may not have studied with Titian (then pushing 80), El Greco proved a quick student.
Christ Healing the Blind, from around 1570 and on view at the Met, has the trademarks of Venetian colore: erotic drapery, vibrant blues and oranges and a Jesus so natural in his benevolence he appears to be dancing. In Rome too, El Greco learned the local style fast, though in both Italian cities he had trouble securing commissions.
I happen to like the Italian pictures: the Frick’s portrait of the military officer Anastagi especially, with its impressionistic lace ruff and blinding white light on silver cuirass. But El Greco needed somewhere more isolated than Venice and Rome in which to develop his idiosyncratic and unsettling style. Habsburg Spain in the late 16th century didn’t have much of an art scene, but it was rich thanks to its military prowess and genocidal exploitation of the New World. He tried Madrid first. Toledo, however, had the money, the church, and – in the midst of the Counter-Reformation, whose leaders had called for a new religious art at the Council of Trent – the power base El Greco needed. He arrived in 1577 and never left.
Such is the great El Greco irony: it was conservative Toledo, rather than multicultural Venice, that afforded him the freedom to abandon conventional representation and start deforming his figures in the way we find so modern. His Adoration of the Shepherds, for example, has the flying putti and the bold chiaroscuro of his Venetian forebears – but Bethlehem seems beset by a nightmarish storm and the shepherds and maids have turned into etiolated, almost incorporeal figures. His disturbingView of Toledo turns his new hometown into a scene from the Revelation: the crazed sky, white-black-white-black-white, is pulsing with God’s grace – or rather his judgment. The end of the world is seen more literally in his all-out Vision of Saint John, in which the ecstatic apostle torques and extends beyond all human proportions, while out-of-scale naked martyrs in unhealthy white tones writhe in space. Only half of it survives, but nothing coming out of the young galleries of the Lower East Side is as strange or as compelling as this.
The Vision of Saint John entered the Met’s collection in 1956. Before that it was in Paris, in the studio of a Spanish artist who bought it cheap. In 1905, Pablo Picasso came by to check it out. He came back, and came back again. Two years later he finished Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, the shotgun painting of the 20th century – whose ghoulish prostitutes, for all their echoes of African sculpture, twist and loom in a fashion indebted to El Greco. But the Vision of Saint John isn’t deformed for deformation’s sake. Those tortured and writhing figures, that terrible sky, those endless extended arms: these are the signs of souls exceeding human boundaries, and of the world we know giving way to a world without end.
Can we see that now? What makes El Greco feel so contemporary to us derives, pretty much in its entirety, from a religious conviction so intense that it broke all the conventions of western painting. The challenge today, for us secular museumgoers, is to see not just the broken conventions but the vision and passion that birthed them – to look beyond these paintings’ surfaces, and all the way to grace.
• El Greco in New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art; El Greco at the Frick Collection, both through 1 February