|El Greco, An Allegory with a Boy Lighting a Candle in the Company of an Ape and a Fool, 1577-79|
Having tried unsuccessfully to see the El Greco exhibition at the Grand Palais on several occasions, only to find it was closed thanks to the general strike, I conceded and saw Toulouse-Lautrec, which was a pleasant, if somewhat exhibition. The El Greco around the corner is, however, magnificent.
The exhibition seeks to create a new narrative around El Greco’s work, departing from the often attributed stereotypes—the mystical genius, accursed artist, ascetic lunatic, early pioneer of Cubism and Expressionism. Instead, the Louvre and the Art Institute of Chicago have curated the works by placing them within their historical moment. The wall texts and hanging are done to identify the influence of Michelangelo on the Greco-Spanish artist’s work, as well as his apparent influence by the Renaissance. There is constant mention of his influence by Tintoretto as seen in the Venetian reds and blues, his particular use of light and shadow, and though there is little mention of it, the obvious influence of luxurious Venetian fabrics. There is also a conviction in the display of El Greco’s copy of Giorgio Vasari’s The Lives of the Artists with notes in the margins as proof of his commitment to art history.
|El Greco, Portrait of Felix Hortensio Paravicino, 1609-1611|
For all these efforts, it’s difficult to see El Greco as anything other than an individual who pursues his inner most convictions. The portraits are like nothing else being painted in his midst. The now familiar the loss of perspective coming as early as the 1570s marks his portraits as unlike anything in Rome or anywhere else in Italy. It becomes evident that El Greco’s fascination for capturing ephemeral human soul, creating the the outward expression of internal states, beliefs and morals is what makes his work so unique. But given this individuality, it’s impossible not to see the beginnings of the twentieth century expressionist vision in these canvases.
|El Greco, Saints Peter and Paul, 1605-08|
Particularly striking is the extraordinary pain and agony of the figures. Thus, even in the religious commissions, El Greco is shown to be more interested in the inner emotions than he is in the biblical narrative. In these paintings with religious figures, the iconography saves him from having to give the narrative details, and instead, to focus on the emotions and relations between characters through the intricacy of their hands. In among the sumptuous clothes of Saints Peter and Paul, what matters is their exchange as it is captured in the reciprocity of their hands, particularly their openness to each other following their dispute.
Of course, there are elements in El Greco’s paintings that are unmistakably influenced by the Renaissance. Perhaps the most striking element of the works on display is the use of fabrics. The fabrics frame each figure, dwarfing the figure, cutting the figure off from everything around him, and sometimes her. One gets the sense that if he could have, El Greco would have painted entire canvases of abstract colour fields. The fabrics of the coats and robes are El Greco’s exploration of the folds of fabric, often up close being filled with a multitude of different colours. So often, the fabrics are the most important elements in the image. In addition, the fabrics are not given realistic proportions. All that matters is the expression of the face and hands and then the composition as it is effected through fabric. The backgrounds tend to fade out or comprise a dark grey, rendered minimal and unnecessary to the fullness and power of the moment being painted.
In an exquisite painting of St Francis Kneeling in Meditation, 1595-1600, El Greco brings together his obsessions with cloth, hands and light. No reproduction can do justice to the way that St Francis’s tender face is gently illuminated by the light of the crucifix. It creates a closed and intimate world, giving us an opportunity to see the deeply personal moment in which St Francis is entirely caught. In the very famous An Allegory with a Boy Lighting a Candle in the Company of an Ape and a Fool, 1577-79, the light from the candle not only illuminates the scene, but brings the three figures together in a private, perhaps secret activity. It’s this feeling of intimacy that El Greco is able to create, even when he is painting an allegory, that sets his paintings apart. The works are always about something much larger than the figures, but at the same time, they are closed, private worlds. This complexity makes his works extraordinary. As he continues in his career, the private moments transform into moments of transcendence for the figures. They are always everyday people who are both of the world and ethereal beings.
|El Greco, The Pietà, 1587-1600|
I sensed the presence of a master as I wandered around this relatively small exhibition, an overwhelming presence that makes it challenging to articulate just how powerful the works are. I have never seen religious commissions and public portraits made to be quite so tender, emotionally subtle, and breathtaking in their realism. And yet, as his works become increasingly mannerist, the elongation of the figures and the distortion of the figures also makes them increasingly abstract. This abstraction is indeed identifiable from the beginning. The proportions of the body are already off in the portraits, the long fingers, skewed angles, the small heads and, for example, Paravicino’s massive book.
Lastly, El Greco’s oeuvre is extremely painterly. From the beginning, we find a pronounced brushwork on the canvas, often in his representations of light. Similarly, paint is used liberally to communicate the turmoil around El Greco. The enormous energy of crowds of people on small canvases stuffed with figures, giving each image a sense of urgency. Beyond the brushwork, the depiction and use of light, and fabrics, the painterliness is also found in El Greco’s fascination for color. Of course, his Italian ancestors and Spanish contemporaries are also interested in color, but it is not put to quite the same ends.