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The evolution of El Greco

El Greco: Catalog of the Exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of New York; Edited by David Davies; National Gallery/Yale University Press: 320 pp., $65

November 30, 2003|Theodore K. Rabb | Theodore K. Rabb is the author of "Renaissance Lives: Portraits of an Age."

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.

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