by Roderick Conway Morris

| | | | | | | | | | | | |
National Gallery, London
The Agony in the Garden by El Greco, 1590s

El Greco: The Master and the Myth

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 17 July 1999


The Spanish critic Manuel Cossio disarmingly entitled the first chapter of his ground-breaking study of El Greco of 1907: 'What is Not Known About the Life of El Greco.'

Since then additional documents have come to light, and yet numerous gaps in our knowledge of the artist's biography remain. And, although the authenticity of a central canon of his pictures is less a matter of debate than it once was, many mysteries concerning them persist.

This century the artist has also been the subject of nationalistically motivated interpretations, with Greek, Italian and Spanish advocates claiming him as their own, which has done nothing to clarify the nature of his art.

The futility of such passions is illustrated by an absorbing exhibition, 'El Greco: Identity and Transformation,' which aims to display the painter's work at every stage of his career, and demonstrates that all three lands in which El Greco spent time contributed in different ways to his development. The show symbolically retraces the artist's steps back to his homeland: Having started out at the Prado this spring, it is now at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni in Rome (until Sept. 19) and will go on to the National Gallery in Athens (Oct. 18 to Jan. 17).

Domenikos Theotokopoulos, later to be known simply as El Greco ('the Greek'), was born around 1541 at Candia, now Iraklion, in Crete. He was trained in the post-Byzantine style of religious painting that was then enjoying a notable flowering on the island, and was a master painter by his early twenties. The first section of the show has a good selection of the leading lights of this revival in Greek Orthodox art, including anonymous masters, Giorgios Klontzas, Michail Damaskinos and Emmanuel Lambardos, as well as El Greco himself.

The latter, of course, abandoned this style (which, however, was not devoid of Western-inspired elements), but there can be little doubt that Byzantine indifference to verisimilitude influenced him for the rest of his life.

Crete had been a Venetian colony since the early 13th century, and Venice, which had a sizable Greek community, was an obvious destination for an ambitious young man. El Greco was in the Republic's capital by 1568. It is a matter of speculation whether he actually worked in Titian's studio or not, but Titian and Tintoretto's use of color and general technique affected him permanently. And, as pieces from this period prove, such as 'Christ Healing the Blind Man' (from the National Gallery in Parma), his transformation from post-Byzantine icon- and panel-painter to Western artist was remarkably rapid.

Even if the Venetian School was the most powerful single influence on his mature style, it was not the only one. For by the end of 1570, El Greco was in Rome, apparently having seen Verona, Parma and Florence along the way.

The Greek prodigy clearly made an impression in Rome, being described as 'a painter of rare talent' by the miniaturist Giulio Clovio, who intervened to secure for him the patronage of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese. It was here, too, that El Greco was first noted as a portraitist, Clovio recording that he had done one 'of himself which is admired by all the painters in Rome' - if true, no mean feat in a city riven with rivalries and professional jealousies. By the autumn of 1572 El Greco had been admitted to the artists' Accademia di San Luca.

Interestingly, El Greco did not fall under the spell of Raphael and Michelangelo, but was drawn rather to Correggio and Parmigianino, and their daring distortions of the human form, tumultuous compositions and willingness to push mannerism to the limit.

Indeed, the hostile reaction to slighting remarks the Greek painter made about Michelangelo's 'Last Judgment' in the Sistine Chapel, compounded by his contempt for piously held Florentine orthodoxies on art, probably hastened El Greco's departure for Spain in 1577. In any case, the prospect of commissions from the Spanish royal family and the possibilities offered by the Escorial, then under construction, must have been a strong incentive for the young, and by now well-known, artist to undertake the journey there.

But, after a short stay in Madrid, he went on to Toledo, where his contacts through the Farnese circle could guarantee him immediate employment. His dreams of becoming a court painter came to nothing, since Philip II found his work too outlandish, even though the Emperor's advisers were not blind to the artist's exceptional abilities.

El Greco was uncompromising by temperament and his failure to get taken up at court provided the ultimate assurance of his being able to paint in the way he thought best, enabling him to build up the majestically individualistic body of work he left in Toledo when he died there in 1614.

After the painter's demise, according to the 19th-century writer Jusepe Martinez, 'None cared to follow his capricious and extravagant style, which was only suitable to himself' - although, as has long been recognized, Velazquez learned invaluable lessons from him.

There followed an extended period of obscurity, until the Romantics became interested in El Greco as, supposedly, a kindred spirit. But El Greco was not to find his true disciples until the late 19th century, when he became the hero of the Impressionists, Symbolists, Expressionists and Cubists. Since then he has maintained a secure position in the pantheon of Old Masters.

Unfortunately, this recovery of his reputation was accompanied by the dissemination of a series of historically unfounded myths about the artist. The Romantics were responsible for the theory that he was mentally unbalanced. Later interpretations revolved around the painter's putative astigmatism or indulgence in hashish.

In reality, El Greco, in whom his contemporaries failed to note any signs of mental or ocular impairment, was a cultured humanist whose knowledge of languages gave access to the mainstream philosophical and literary works of the day, with which his private library was stocked, and a wealthy and prominent citizen of his adopted town.

Whether the mystical ecstasy suggested by many of his works, which has led to his name being linked to writers such as St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, derived from any personal experiences is a matter for conjecture.

But his profound interest in the human condition, as revealed in his religious works and portraiture, and in the world in which he lived, as represented by his idiosyncratic landscapes, is hard to doubt. And his mode of expressing himself in paint remains, even now, startlingly original.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023