Fall in love with the madness

El Greco
April 23, 2004

This catalogue, and the exhibition it accompanies at the National Gallery in London (until May 23), offers the British public its first opportunity to engage in depth with the extraordinary art of El Greco (1541-1614). The catalogue and the exhibition represent the culmination of a long process of acclimatising British taste to the works of this most complex, enigmatic and unconventional artist.

Serious interest in El Greco began in Britain more than 150 years ago, when Sir William Stirling Maxwell published the first attempt at a scholarly account of the artist and his works in Annals of the Artists of Spain (1848). He also bought no fewer than eight works by the artist.

Another 19th-century collector was John Charles Robinson, first curator of the Victoria and Albert Museum, who published a notice of El Greco in 1868.

Yet both these scholar collectors had grave reservations about El Greco's style, especially in his later paintings, criticising the lighting, colour, perspective and proportion as extravagant and eccentric, and perpetuating the myths that these aberrations were due to either madness or wilfulness on the part of the artist.

The visionary painting of the Opening of the Fifth Seal (now in the Metropolitan Museum, New York), one of the artist's last, unfinished works, illustrates their criticisms perfectly: the impossibly elongated figure of St John the Evangelist, in an ill-fitting robe, throws his hands up in ecstasy and awe to the lightning-streaked heavens as he witnesses one of the apocalyptic mysteries described in Revelations. The decision to illustrate this astonishing painting on the cover of the present catalogue and on the publicity for the exhibition is a measure of the shift that has occurred in artistic taste over the past century, which has at last allowed the art of this archetypal "outsider" to be accepted fully into the canon of great western art. Perhaps even more surprising than El Greco's rehabilitation by the art establishment is the fact that there is now a wider, art-loving public that values his work, judging by the queues for this exhibition and sales of its catalogue.

Although the exhibition was shown first at the Metropolitan Museum, New York, and the catalogue includes contributions by American scholars, the project is largely a British affair. In particular, it represents the inspired and devoted scholarship of David Davies, the exhibition's curator and catalogue editor, who also wrote two of the three main essays in the catalogue. He was assisted by, among others, Gabriele Finaldi, formerly of the National Gallery and now associate director of the Prado, Madrid, and by Xavier Bray from the National Gallery.

The catalogue charts El Greco's artistic career, from its roots in the Byzantine icon tradition in Crete, through his assimilation of Titianesque colour in Venice and Michelangelesque form in Rome, to the expressive and extreme mannerism of his late work in Spain, and provides a distillation of current scholarship and interpretation of the artist. As Davies makes clear in his introductory remarks, the aims are "to examine El Greco's oeuvre in its historical context - religious, philosophical, political and social - to appreciate its function (and) estimate its meaning for a contemporary audience".

The catalogue begins with an excellent historical overview of the different Mediterranean civilisations encountered by El Greco on his artistic journey from east to west, by Sir John Elliott, best known for his work on the history of Habsburg Spain and especially the historical context of Spanish art.

It continues with Davies' main essay on El Greco's religious paintings and the spiritual climate in which they were produced, the field to which Davies has made an outstanding contribution over the years. His essay reconstructs this relationship, and demonstrates his conviction that "perceived in its devotional and liturgical contexts, the meaning of El Greco's mystical imagery is clear, as it obviously was for his contemporaries". Another essay by Davies on El Greco's portraits follows towards the end of the catalogue.

The portraits are the genre of El Greco's art that has always been admired by critics, though in many ways they are as challenging as his religious subjects. Edgy masterpieces such as the Portrait of a Cardinal (in the Metropolitan Museum) or Fray Hortensio Paravicino (in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) have a remarkable psychological depth that Davies attributes to the painter's "insistent attempt to reveal the whole being of his sitters". This ideal places El Greco's portraits squarely within the intellectual framework of humanism and the European Renaissance but at the same time links them just as firmly to the spirituality of the Catholic reformation in Spain that Davies and other modern scholars see as the key to understanding the artist's mature and late religious works. Thus, humanism and counter-reformation are no longer presented as conflicting ideologies but as part of the same intellectual milieu in which El Greco's art evolved. This interpretation restores a unity and a cohesion to his oeuvre that 19th-century critics so crucially missed.

The continuing impact of two other ideas that have contributed to present-day perceptions of El Greco's art can also be traced here. David Talbot Rice, the Byzantine art scholar, was the first to emphasise the spiritual focus of the icon-painting tradition out of which the Cretan painter's art emerged and which it continued to reference, despite his assimilation of Italian and Spanish art. This theme is taken up by the present exhibition and catalogue, through the inclusion of some of El Greco's earliest paintings, and in comparisons with later works, such as the Agony in the Garden and Christ as Saviour .

El Greco's modernity is also an effective theme of the exhibition. His relevance to modernist art is clear in works by Picasso, Cezanne and others, as was noted by the art critic Roger Fry at the beginning of the 20th century. Davies revives this idea in the catalogue introduction, pointing out that El Greco's style is characterised by "abstract form", and also suggests his continuing relevance in a postmodern age of conceptual art.

The only other El Greco exhibition held in Britain was a small exhibition at the National Gallery of Scotland in 1989, whose catalogue introduced many to Davies' intense brand of scholarship. There have, of course, been exhibition catalogues on the artist published elsewhere, though the only other one in English was El Greco of Toledo (1982), recording an exhibition at the Prado, and at museums in the US. The catalogue of the present exhibition is, therefore, a must for art historians and students of El Greco's art. It is also clearly aimed at the wider market of exhibition-goers and art lovers. Comparing the present catalogue with its most recent predecessor, which accompanied an exhibition in Madrid, Rome and Athens in 1999-2000, to which Davies also contributed, the earlier catalogue is noticeably weightier, and its entries longer and more discursive. Dedicated scholars of El Greco are likely to consult this and other recent publications, in addition to the present catalogue, for more detailed information and references. Nevertheless, the entries in the present catalogue provide the most useful summaries of current thinking on attributions, dating and iconography of El Greco's works.

The catalogue is lavishly illustrated. Faithful colour reproduction of paintings is always problematic but what Davies refers to as El Greco's "pure" and "intense" colour and "incandescent light" present particular difficulties, even with today's technology. Care has obviously been taken with these colour reproductions, though it has to be admitted that they do not quite match the National Gallery's spectacular success in lighting the exhibition.

The catalogue also provides a useful record of the several additional works that were included in the New York showing of the exhibition. In London, the hanging and grouping of pictures was particularly effective, and reflected the catalogue's useful introductory texts on different phases and types of works. What no exhibition can reconstruct is the very different physical environment in which many of these works were originally displayed, often as part of larger altarpieces designed to be seen from below. Here again, however, the catalogue texts and photography make considerable effort to help the modern viewer to reconstruct the physical, as well as intellectual, context of El Greco's work.

In addition, both exhibition and catalogue explore the many occasions and contexts in which El Greco painted more than one version of a subject. These included several versions of the Purification of the Temple , which reveal the changing focus of his art as it assimilated Venetian, Roman and Spanish elements. Two of these versions were in fact owned by Robinson, who donated the later one to the National Gallery in 1898, the first of the gallery's two autograph El Grecos. Interestingly, the other came from Stirling Maxwell's collection and is the smaller of two versions, also reunited in this exhibition, of the Adoration of the Name of Jesus . The inclusion of these works in the show serves as a further reminder of the importance of these early British collectors on the one hand and, on the other, of just how much we owe to present-day scholars such as Davies in interpreting El Greco for a contemporary audience.

Hilary Macartney is honorary research fellow, Institute for Art History, Glasgow University.

El Greco

Author - David Davies et al
Publisher - National Gallery (distributed by Yale University Press)
Pages - 320
Price - £40.00 and £25.00
ISBN - 1 85709 933 8 and 938 9

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