Saturday, January 3, 2015

Dürer's Rhinoceros: Art, Exotica, and Empire

To kick off the new year, I want to examine Dürer's rhinoceros, which was created 500 years ago, in 1515.  It began as a drawing (now in the British museum), and was then rendered a print and widely distributed.  Indeed, it was among the most successful prints of the time, and it fixed a conceptualization of the rhinoceros in the European imagination for the next few centuries.  It was created at the height of the high renaissance.  This was also an age of imperialism and discovery.  Battles were waging for control of Europe, Christianity was dividing, and new territories were being conquered across the globe.  Dürer's rhinoceros reminds us that the renaissance was a time of upheaval and expansion: European powers were fomenting global aspirations.  Those efforts recruited the talents of artists. Artists were called on to glorify European imperial power and to present the untamed allure of foreign shores.  At the same moment, a new notion of art was emerging, one that remains with us to this day.  Dürer's celebrated beast can help us see a link between art and empire.

Dürer never saw a rhinoceros.  There had been none in Europe since Roman times.  That changed in 1515 when an Indian rhinoceros was brought to Lisbon and put on display.  It attracted crowds for several months before being shipped off to Rome in 1516 where it was intended as a gift to Pope Louis X (see Raphael's portrait on the left).  The boat never made it.  Crashing off the shores of Italy, the rhino, whose legs were chained to the deck, died along with the crew.  Its carcass was soon recovered, stuffed, and delivered to the Pope.  It then disappeared.

Shortly after its arrival in Lisbon, a drawing of the rhino (now lost) arrived in Nuremberg, the birthplace and home of Albrecht Dürer.  Dürer sketched the animal (below) and, with the help of his assistants, made a print.  Now 44, the artist was at the peak of his powers, and he was one of the principle artists working for Emperor Maxmilian I.  His acquaintances include major figures of the renaissance: Michelangelo, Raphael, Giovanni Bellini, and perhaps da Vinci.   He also met Martin Luther and Erasmus.  Dürer's work was widely known and distributed.  Though cherished as a painter, he preferred printmaking.  Prints would sell for the price of a meal, making them affordable to all, and lucrative for their creators.  Dürer's wood blocks were sold throughout Western Europe and often imitated (he fought lawsuits to stop forgers and plagiarists, and, while in Venice, he feared being poisoned by rivals).

Dürer's rhinoceros print was a colossal success.  It sold up to 5,000 copies during his lifetime, and it was widely copied.  As early as 1516, a small cartoonish copy appeared in to a map of the world (below).

Dürer's rhino soon found its way into paintings, encyclopedias, and even a Medici seal (below).

Other print versions were widely circulated, like this one from 1598 by David Kandell:

As such examples make clear, Dürer's functioned as a kind of template.  It was the primary source for European artists who wanted to depict rhinoceroses.  It retained that role, even after another rhinoceros, named Abada, appeared in Europe in 1577.  Sent by Indian viceroys to the Portuguese King, Sebastian I, the animal was ultimately passed on to Spain's Philip II when he took the Portuguese throne.  It lived in captivity until 1588 and was seen by many.  Two years before it's death, it was also drawn by Philippe Galle:

Galle's more accurate image did not seem to have much impact.  Artists continued to use Dürer's model for well over a century.  For example, it appears in the background of the cover image on this 1658 Dutch manuscript about medical botany by Gulielmi Pisonis (see cover left, detail right):

And this drawing from 1684 by the English artist, Francis Barlow, shows Dürer's rhinoceros fighting an elephant.  Such battles are described with great relish in the text that adjoins Dürer's original print.

We even find Dürer's beast in a 1738 painting, Les Nouvelle Indes, by Frenchman, Alexandre-François Desportes.  Such images testify both to the longevity of Dürer's image, and to its wide international dissemination.

Dürer's influence on European conceptions of the rhino does finally wane, however, in the 18th century.  For example, his version is explicitly challenged by Balthazar Lakeman in 1727.  Based on a detailed description of an African rhinoceros Lakeman published a comparative illustration, showing how "normal" depictions of rhinos (i.e., depictions based on Dürer) looked compared to his more faithful depiction.

I don't know whether Lakeman's corrective had any impact, but it wasn't necessary.  By mid-century, many ordinary people were able to see a rhino for themselves.  A lovely creature named Clara was imported from India, and became a star attraction in Europe.  She arrived in Rotterdam in 1741 and died in London in 1758, touring all the while in between.  Her stops included Stuttgart, Brussels, Vienna, Zurich, Paris, Prague, Krakow, Copenhagen, and Rome.  Of course, she had a layover in Nuremberg as well.  Here is Clara with some adoring Italian fans, rendered by Pietro Longhi, in 1751:

After Clara, images of rhinoceros began to change in Europe, but Dürer continued to exert an influence.  For example, the theme of rhinos fighting elephants continued to fascinate.  A English book from 1807 on "Oriental Field Sports" dedicates much of a chapter to such violent encounters, indicating that they are only confirmed by hearsay.  The author includes a fanciful image by Samuel Howitt, in which a rhino audaciously attacks five elephants; the rhino looks like Clara, but the them evokes Dürer's text.

The fame of Dürer's print was not diminished by the arrival of captive rhinos or more accurate portrayals.  Indeed Dürer's image has remained one of the most treasured animal portraits in the history of Western art--perhaps the most famous of all.  It is universally recognized and highly valued.  A copy recently sold for $866,500 at Christie's, breaking all previous records of Dürer prints by a considerable margin.

The enduring authority and impact of Dürer's image in surprising.  His depiction is inaccurate in many respects.  Most obviously, he has covered the animal's skin into a constellation of armor-like plates. The plates on Dürer's rhino have cytological patterns and striped fringes, which seem more aesthetic than functional.  Indian rhinos do have some markings on their skin (above), but Durer has converted these into something more like a printed textile or chain-mail armor.  Indeed, the overall affect closely resembles the the armor (or "barding") used by military horses in Dürer's day (below).

The central plate on Dürer's rhinoceros has a motif that fans outward from the top, and ends in a neatly arranged pleat along the belly; this pattern is sometimes referred to as a dragon stripe, but it also resembles patterns found on armor (see the muzzle in the horse barding above).  A plate on the posterior extends into a triangular point, which evokes a tortoise shell, or, again, the body armor on a horse.  There is even a faint suggestion of a saddle on the rhino's back.

The animal's face is a curious network of textures, and concentric sheets extend from its cheeks, culminating in a pair of leaf-like forms that hang like an exotic necklace.  The nose and lips of the rhino are curiously scaly, and scales also cover its four sturdy legs.  Strangest of all is a plate that sits on the animal's back, just above the fin-like projection that crowns its shoulder.  The back plate hosts a diminutive spiraling horn, which complements the grand horn that sits upon its snout.  Granted, some rhino species have two horns, but Indian rhinos do not, and none have horns on the back.  Careful attention also reveals a row of small spikes--like a punk rock bracelet--leading up from the menacing main horn, back towards the smaller horn, interrupted by a sheath of vertebrae that protect the upper neck.  This creature is part animal part war machine.  Its decorative carapace anticipates contemporary images of futuristic robots designed for battle.  The text atop the print explains that, despite an affable personality, this beast is a fearsome warrior.  We are told that elephants are defenseless against it.

The source of these inaccuracies is unclear.  Dürer may have based his image on a poorly executed drawing that invites an armor-like interpretation, but many details are clearly artistic embellishments, including the second horn.  This embellishment story gains support from the fact that an alternative rhinoceros drawing was produced by another leading artist in Maximilian's court, Hans Burgkmair.   His version is more accurate in every respect (above).  The legs are wrinkled, not scaled; the plates of skin are textured, but not neatly gridded or fringed; the head has a uniform texture, and the neck has folds of flesh rather than a necklace of geometrical projections; the upper neck has short tufts of hair, rather than a second horn. Burgkmair has also included a chained rope around the animal's forelegs, indicating that the creature was drawn in captivity, not in the wild.  There are also striking similarities between the Dürer and the Burgkmair: their proportions; their hoof nails and leg configuration; the arrangement of the plates; the ears, tail, and whiskers; even the way in which the ground swells in the background.  The images were created around the same time from the same source image.  At least one of the artists had clearly seen the rendering of the other.  It is tempting to speculate that Burgkmair's came first, given its greater accuracy, and Dürer then took significant artistic liberties for his version, as if to render the creature more exotic, and more bizarre.

This augmentation of reality may also help to explain the comparative success of Dürer's image.  Burgkmair was a well-known artist at the time, but he was more of a naturalist.  Dürer's style implies clinical precision, but he regularly exaggerates and idealizes.  In Art and Illusion, Ernst Gombrich uses this example to challenge the view that artworks are mere imitations of nature.  Artists do not simply copy what they see; they use their ideas and ideals to render reality into a form that will be intelligible and palatable to viewers of the time.  Dürer has transformed the rhinoceros into a renaissance knight (see Burgkmair's depiction of Maximilian I, above, for comparison).  I think Gombrich is right about this, but there is more to the story.  Dürer is not just making his creature recognizable, by superimposing contemporary armor; he is at the same time making the creature more alien and more threatening, since no animal in Europe looks anything like that.  In so doing, Dürer is both constructing a notion of the exotic, and he is enacting a newly emerging conception of the function of art.

To better appreciate Dürer's motivation in making his rhino exotic, it is useful to return to the story about how the animal came to Europe in the first place.  How, one might wonder, did an Indian rhinoceros end up in Portugal in 1514?  Portugal was a major sea power at the time, and its explorations had moved from the Atlantic into the Indian Ocean.  In 1510, Portugal captured the Indian port of Goa, on the southwest coast, and it set up a colony there, which would remain under Portuguese control control until 1961, when Indian forces invaded.  A year before the conquest of Goa, the Portuguese sought to capture a strategically located island in the north called Diu, with the help of  Egypt, Dubrovnik, Turkey, and Venice.  The plan failed.  In 1513, a second unsuccessful attempt was made.  In 1514, The Portuguese governor in Goa, Alfonso de Albuquerque (above, left), tried to negotiate with Sultan Muzafer II, who controlled India's northwest coast.  They wanted to open a fort in Diu.  The Sultan refused, but in an diplomatic exchange of gifts, he offered Alfonso an Indian rhinoceros.  Embarrassed at his failure to secure Diu, Alfonse sent the animal on a four month journey to Lisbon, as a consolation gift to Manuel I, King of Portugal (above, right).  Manuel I evidently appreciated the gesture, and was undoubtedly impressed by the attention his new pet received.  But he decided to part with the creature, in the hope that he could win favor with Pope Louis X in Rome.  The Pope had earlier received a white Indian elephant, whom he adored, and Manuel I presumed that he would delight in a new addition to his papal menagerie.  Pleasing the Pope might win his favor during heated border disputes with Spain.  His failed effort to expand borders in India might be compensated by propitious shift in borders at home.

The gambit to win papal favor was not successful, however.  First, the ill-fated rhinoceros died in transit.  Then the Pope fell on hard times.  France had invaded Rome the year before, and ongoing battle ensued, aided by precarious alliances with England and Spain.  There were also a number of major religious upheavals.  There was an Ottoman threat from the east, and a charismatic leader of a Christian cult had entered Rome and denounced the Pope and his key cardinals.  One year later, in 1517, Martin Luther (painted by Cranach the Elder, right) published a tome that would incite the Protestant reformation.

Shortly thereafter, in 1519, Dürer's patron, Maximilian I, would die, and the Holy Roman Empire would come into the hands of Maximilian's grandson, Charles V (his mother was next is line, but she was both female and deemed to be insane).  Charles V (depicted by Titian, left) went on to wage costly wars against the Protestants, but, when he failed to pay his soldiers, they decided to sack Rome.  This happened in 1527--a year before Dürer's death.  As a result, the Pope (Louis's successor) became a puppet of the Holy Roman Empire, which has once done the Pope's bidding, and the Holy Roman Empire began to split, because some of its territories became Protestant; Dürer himself became a devotee of Luther.  These events set the stage for the 30-Years War, one of the most devastating conflicts in human history.  That war began a century after the stuffed rhinoceros was delivered to the Pope Leo X, but the events that destabilized his papacy were indicative of trends that would lead toward that end.  European powers were competing for control both within Europe and beyond.

The rhino arrived at the epicenter of these conflicts, and its disappearance is likely a consequence of the ensuing instability (compounded by the poor quality taxidermy that was practiced at the time).  There is no record of its presence there.  There is, however, one depiction of a rhino in the Vatican created during this time period.  It appears in Raphael's painting of God creating the animals (above).  Raphael's rhino appears in a cluster of animals that includes the Pope's elephant, a camel, a squirrel, and a fanciful giraffe.  It looks strikingly more naturalistic than Dürer's (see detail below).  It lacks the speckled side plates, and geometric necklace.  It also seems to lack the extra horn.  Perhaps Raphael saw the stuffed original.

If we situate Dürer's depiction in the social context that I have been describing, several things become immediately apparent.  First, he was employed by the Holy Roman Emperor, a chief player in the bid to control Europe (see his portrait of Maximilian I, below).  Depicting the rhinoceros as a mighty, armored war machine, fit with his mandate to portray empirical strength.  Second, the beast was itself a consequence of European imperialism.  The ability to visually capture a foreign creature was a symbolic stand-in for imperial conquest itself.  Europeans who bought the image could revel in their conquest of distant lands.  Portugal was not part of the Holy Roman Empire, but it was an ally, and Portuguese conquests in India could be embraced as an advance for all of Europe.  The Americas were being divided up by European powers at the same time.  Third, by presenting the rhinoceros as radically different from European animals, Dürer was able to both express and influence the idea that Asia was an exotic place.  As with later orientalist trends in Western art, the exotic served to make Asia both seductive and incommensurably foreign.  Similar attitudes were fostered towards Africa and the Americas.  Exoticism was used to encourage colonial expansion.  The world outside Europe was abounding with natural and human-made treasures, but also dangerous, unenlightened, and savage--in need of Europe's civilizing force.

A year before he drew the rhinoceros, Dürer sketched the picture of two Turks (below, left).  The figure standing behind them is a slave, perhaps from Africa.  In 1521, Dürer sketched another African slave named Katharina (below right), who was owned by one of Manuel I's representatives in Antwerp.  There is great dignity in this portrait, but it is also a reminder that Dürer was living in a time when European expansion was opening up new possibilities for extreme exploitation.  His work reflects these changes without any overt critical commentary.  Such images help to construct new notions of Europe's place in the expanding world.

Dürer's rhinoceros is an instrument of colonialism.  It carries the message that Europe can and should expand.  Four years after it was created, Spain would attack the Aztec Empire in Mexico, and Dürer would later be dazzled by treasures brought back from there.  In 1520, Dürer visited an an exhibition of Aztec treasures that had been presented to Charles V.  He exclaimed:
All the days of my life I have seen nothing that rejoiced my heart so much as these things, for I saw amongst them wonderful works of art, and I marvelled at the subtle Ingenia of men in foreign lands. 
In the same period, European countries were setting up colonies in South America, Africa, and the Middle East.  King Manuel I, who established the Portuguese colony in India, was also in power when Portugal discovered Brazil.  A man of deep faith, he funded the work of missionaries who were being sent to remote reaches to spread Christianity.  In addition, he issued the edict that demanded the conversion of Portuguese Jews, leading to the Inquisition.  Manuel I also played a role in establishing chattel slavery.  The transatlantic slave trade was operating by 1502.

In choosing to depict the rhinoceros as a quasi-mythical beast, Dürer was doing the bidding of the expanding European empires.  His distortions are almost certainly intentional.  They systematically depart from presumed source materials in ways that exaggerate the oddity of the animal.  It is interesting to contrast his rhinoceros with his earlier depictions of a hare, squirrels, and a beetle (above), which show nearly unprecedented sensitivity to animal anatomy.  Dürer was capable of accuracy in depicting the natural world, but he was also fond of fantasy, as the dragons and griffins in his prints attest (below).  He chose to place his rhinoceros in this otherworldly realm, and that decision accords with the colonial project.

But Dürer had another motivation as well, and this brings us to the topic of art.  Before the renaissance, European art primarily served ecclesiastical functions.  With secularization, questions about the function of art inevitably arose.  Art had already been a commodity.  Those with means could buy lavishly illustrated books of hours, for example.  With the renaissance, people with wealth could also commission portraits, or buy religiously themed work for their homes.  But the renaissance also made art accessible to those who were not in a position to pay large sums to painters.  Two developments fostered this democratization: one was advances in printing technology, which allowed artworks to be reproduced in large quantities.  The other was the development of places for viewing art outside of religious contexts.  In the 16th century, cabinets of curiosity became immensely popular, and large collections were amassed, which were viewed by the public (though perhaps still restricted to the middle classes).  Dürer was actively involved in both of these developments.  He was an avid printmaker and an avid collector.

Dürer's interest in printmaking was almost inevitable.  His home of Nuremberg was one of the printmaking capitals of Europe (along with Venice, where he briefly resided).  His family lived down the street from Anton Koberger, the most successful printer at the time.  Koberger was not merely a neighbor; he was a close friend of the family and Dürer's godfather.  His fame arose in part because he was the printer of the Nuremberg Chronicle, a compendious history of the world, told through a Biblical lens.  The lavishly illustrated volume was immensely popular, it represents a transition from the age of exhorbitantly expensive illuminations to secular art, available to the masses.  It is also an interesting document in light of European expansion.  While focusing on Europe, the book also presents information about other parts of the world, including a catalogue of human oddities found across the globe (right).  Dürer would have been familiar with these images and descriptions.  They contributed to an emerging sense of the monstrous "other."  Dürer's own printmaking practice can be seen as a continuation of the Nuremberg Chronicle.  His prints are populated with secularized biblical themes and fantastic creatures designed to amaze and delight.

Dürer's interest in collecting is evident from his travel journals, where he describes the acquisition of numerous natural and artificial curios.  Here are some diary entries from around the time he drew the rhinoceros:
Judicae Rodrigo gave me 6 large Indian coconuts, a very fine stem of coral, and 2 large Portuguese florins. 
In return for the 3 books which I gave him, Herr Lazarus von Ravensburg has given me a great fish-scale, 5 snail-shells, 4 medals of silver, 5 of copper, 2 little dried fishes, a white coral, 4 cane-arrows, and another white coral. 
I gave the new carrier ( Vicarius) the great turtle shell, the fish-shield, the long pipe, the long weapon, the fish-fins, and the two little casks of lemons and capers to take home for me. 
I have given 1 florin for a little ivory skull, and 1 white pfennig for a turned box. 
I paid 3 stivers for twp buffalo horns and 1 stiver for a two Eulenspiegels [trickster figures].
These are precisely the sort of items that would have been presented in a cabinet of curiosities.  One can presume that Dürer had such a cabinet, though it is not clear whether he shared it with anyone other than close friends.  It is known that he sometimes gave horns as gifts, that at least one friend coveted items in his collections, and that he sold a trove of curios to Charles V, when he became Holy Roman Emperor.

Cabinets of curiosity (see example above) reflect the core theme we have been considering here: a fascination with the exotic, fueled by and conducive to an expanding European empire.   Coconuts, ivories, buffalo horns, and foreign weapons all reflected access to distant lands.  By displaying such things, one should oneself to be worldly, and, at the same time, endorsed the global expeditions that allowed such items to be collected.  Such expeditions were often linked to colonialism, and as an artist on the Imperial payroll, Dürer was part of the system that ushered in this new world order.

Dürer's cabinet of curiosities also reflects the new conception of art, to which I eluded.  Such cabinets were precursors to the modern museum concept.  They were places where ordinary people could go to look at objects for the mere pleasure of beholding them.  Unlike modern museums, which are functionally divided into art museums and natural history museums, cabinets of curiosity were a mix of naturalia and artificialia.  They combined functional artifacts with dazzling minerals, animal specimens, antiques, and things we might now recognize as artworks (e.g., European paintings and sculpture).  A 17th century example, mixes paintings with natural curiosities, is reproduced below.

Such assemblies might seem incongruous to modern viewers, but they were united in the renaissance mind by their capacity to induce wonder.  For Dürer, horns and fish scales were objects of wonder, and they deserved a place along side the kinds of objects he was in the business of creating.

From this perspective, it is easy to see why the rhinoceros would have appealed to Dürer, and why he would have depicted it as he did.  The rhinoceros was a curiosity par excellence.  It was an object of wonder imported from mysterious foreign lands.  The thrill of beholding such a beast was akin to the thrill of seeing art: beautiful, intriguing, inexplicable, marvelous.  (Compare the 1611 goblet on the left, which is made with a rhino horn). By depicting the rhinoceros as a frightening, armor-clad, monster, he was enhancing these aspects, and, thus, making it into something more special--making it into art.

Dürer lived at a time when artists were learning to "accurately" depict nature, but the notion of accuracy should not be misread here.  The very ability to recreate nature on paper was regarded as a marvel.  And the recreation was always governed by aesthetic choices, prevailing theories, and cultural values.  Ideas and ideals.  The artist was never a mere mirror of nature.  Every image is a construction.  When it came to domestic objects, like rabbits and squirrels, the goal may have been to domesticate: present these as benign, cuddly and familiar.  Creatures from the boundaries of the empire were a different matter; there strangeness was paramount.  Both are ways of creating wonder.  Both aestheticize the world, and induce visual experiences that tantalize as they instruct.  By creating images that excited the visual imagination, Dürer was helping to advance a conception of art as an experiential activity.  Art was no longer a didactic tool for church walls.  It was now something we could seek out in order to have certain kinds of experiences.  The idea of collecting art, or going to see collections was new.  New then, but it remains with us today, and the very idea of a museum emerges from this shift. (Below is a rhino statue outside the entrance to the Orsay Museum in Paris; note the hanging neck folds, facial articulation, and strong skin textures, which owe something to Dürer.)

In summary, Dürer's rhinoceros reflects two central aspects of renaissance culture.  One is rampant imperialism.  The renaissance saw the emergence of powerful empires that vied for power within Europe and around the globe.  These efforts raised awareness about distant lands, but also encouraged European exceptionalism.  Foreign shores were seen as exotic, untamed, and inferior.  The renaissance also introduced secular ideas about the function of art, and with these came a new focus on wondrous experiences.  These two aspects are related.  Expanding empires fed the emerging appetite for curiosities.  Both themes converge on the notion of the exotic, which Dürer exploits in his rendition of the rhinoceros.

In the half millennium since its creation, much remains the same.  The rhino remains a symbol of the something alien, intriguing, even absurd (think Ionesco).  Dürer's ambition to make art accessible to all has been largely fulfilled.   As in his time, printing technologies allow ordinary people to decorate their homes with artworks, and cabinets of curiosity have evolved into a booming museum business.  The imperialist dimensions of Dürer's image also remain in place.  We also continue to present other cultures as exotic.  The Western artworld has embraced "post-colonial" art, but we welcome non-Western artists into our museums only when their work resembles what we produce locally.  Indeed, art itself is an instrument of imperialism, just as it was in Dürer's day when missionaries brought Christian iconography to the New World.  Christian control of Europe collapsed shortly after Dürer's life time, but the cultural export business continued.  The 1950 image above in by Nandalal Bose, a pioneer of Indian modernism; it pays homage to Dürer and reflects other sources of European influence.  Western modernism could not have happened without the influence of Asian and African art, but those sources of inspiration were clouded by an exorcizing gaze, and now the West does more exporting than importing.

These days, digital technologies help contemporary iconography reach every corner of the globe, advancing the hegemony of Western values.  Technologies allow for new wonder shows that captivate audiences everywhere.  Computers have become our digital cabinets of curiosity; they give us access to endless exotica.  They also spread our visual culture more effortlessly than ever before.  Renaissance masterpieces, Picasso, and Warhol are now universally recognizable, but few in the West can recognize masterworks form locations of colonial conquest.  Colonialism is now on the wane, but this asymmetry remains.  As museums go virtual, art remains an instrument of empire.


For further reading, see:

Friday, December 26, 2014

El Greco's Revelation: An Anniversary Appreciation of the Painting that Inspired Modernism

The Metropolitan Museum is currently hosting an exhibition to celebrate the 400th anniversary of El Greco's death.  Largely drawn from the Museum's collection, the most impressive work on display is known as, The Opening of the Fifth Seal.  Indeed, this is arguably El Greco's finest painting.  It is also among his most influential, credited with inspiring Picasso to create the work that launched modernism.  The Fifth Seal is also celebrating a 400-year anniversary, since it was under way when El Greco died.  This is an opportune occasion to reflect on its impact.

The Painting

The Opening of the Fifth Seal depicts a scene from the Book of Revelation.  In represents a vision of St. John the Divine.  According to the story, John saw a great book closed with seven seals.  Each time he opened a seal, he experienced a vision.  With each of the first four seals, a horseman appeared: a bowman, a swordsman, a rider carrying scales, and death.  When the fifth seal was opened, dead martyrs rose, asking God for vengeance.  The sixth seal brought meteorological cataclysms: great earthquakes and a shower of stars falling from the sky.  When the seventh seal was opened, seven angels sounded their trumpets announcing the apocalypse.  El Greco has captured a moment during the vision of the fifth seal in which dead martyrs are given robes and told to be patient (Revelation 6:11).  In the text, the robes are white, not yellow and green as they are in the painting (though El Greco includes a token white cloth in the upper right).  The color choices may have been made for stylistic reasons: bright hues contrast more effectively with the white clouds and pale skin of the naked martyrs.

The theme of this painting was not identified until 1908.  Before that, it was known as "Profane Love."  Clues came when an inventory of El Greco's work written just after his death revealed that he had accepted a commission to paint visions of St. John for a chapel at the Hospital Tavera in Toledo.  The commission had never been finished, and this unfinished canvas had horizontal dimensions that matched the intended space. Vertically it was much shorter, but the painting had been cut down in 1880, because its upper register (now lost) was incomplete and in disrepair.  It is unclear what would have been depicted there, but we can get clues from other treatments of the subject.  Most artists depict Jesus at an alter addressing the martyrs, and some depict a lamb with seven eyes and seven horns, a creature described in the Scripture as the only one worthy of reading the apocalyptic book.  It is also conceivable that El Greco depicted another scene from the text, such as seven angels trumpeting.

Stylistically, the painting is a marvel.  By the end of his life, El Greco has reached the culmination of tendencies that were already developing during his earlier years: elongated figures and loose, expressive brushwork.  Here the anatomical distortions reach an extreme, with limbs that billow like smoke, stretched torsos, inconsistent proportions, and hands that flutter like bird wings.  St. John, kneeling on the left, is impossibly larger than the other figures, and, were he to stand upright, his legs would be nearly twice the length of his arms, and his body would be 13 times the hight of his head.  This adds to the impact of the image.  Standing at its base, viewers would have the experience of exaggerated foreshortening as they looked upward, seeing the wailing martyrs and, perhaps, the heavens above.  None of the bodies looks like it could hold its pose for more than a second, which gives the impression that they are writhing.

This dynamism in increased by the geometry of the work: John forms an arc on the left which joins the blue arc of the sky, and the martyrs form an undulating curve, familiar from El Greco's Burial of Count Orgaz.  The fabric elements, including a red cloth beneath John, cluster together creating a coherent bundle in the center of the composition, but they are chromatically discordant, creating dramatic tension rather than calm.  The fabrics also fold, twist, and protrude improbably.  There is no effort to create the illusion that these are actual bits of drapery.  They are more like a turbulent sea. This is intensified by a frenzy of brushwork, which can be discerned at a glance.   One has the impression that the old painter was himself in an ecstatic, visionary state when he applied paint to this canvas.

Becoming El Greco

El Greco's work is among the most distinctive in the Western canon.  His departures from retinal realism are so extreme and his handling of paint so impressionistic that one gets the impression that he was born in the modern era and traveled back in time.   But it would be a mistake to assume that El Greco's style emerged ex nihilo.  His innovations are substantial but not entirely inexplicable.

Born Domenikos Theotokoupolos in 1541, and he began as an icon painter in Crete.  He achieved success there by his early 20s before moving in 1567 to Venice, which had governed Crete since the 13th century.  He is believed to have worked in the studio of Titian, who was already nearly 80.  El Greco then moved to Rome in 1570.  There his reputation grew, but so did his arrogance.  He boasted that, if he could repaint the Sistine Chapel (detain above), he would do a better job.  This  assertion offended local artists who revered the recently departed Michelango as a god.  El Greco was forced to leave in 1577, and he wound up in Toledo, where he remained active until his death nearly forty years later.

El Greco's style draws on his training in the Byzantine icon tradition, on various schools of Italian painting, and even on Flemish and German art, which he would have seen in the form of widely circulated prints.   The theme of the Fifth Seal was popular in Byzantine art (see example above); St. John received his visions in Patmos, Greece, and they are depicted on temple walls throughout the region.  There are also many frescos depicting The Forty Martyrs of Sebaste (also above).  The horizontal rows of naked bodies in these Byzantine examples evoke the organization of El Greco's painting.

St. John's visions were also depicted in a print series by Dürer.  The detail above shows his version of the opening of the fifth seal; note the nude martyrs on the left, and their clothed brethren on the right, with Chirst in the center.

El Greco's style was also informed by his years in Italy.   Especially evident is the impact of mannerism.  Artists such as Pontormo, Branzino, Sebastiano del Piombo, and Sofonisba Anguissola were gaining acclaim for their elegantly elongated figures, departing from Renaissance strictures about ideal proportions.  Michelangelo's highly saturated palette was also taken up by the mannerists.   El Greco's daring use of color may owe some debt to Michelangelo, despite his conviction that Michelangelo couldn't paint.  In Venice, El Greco would have also seen the mannerist works of Brassano and Tintoretto.  The latter was an especially strong influence with his unusual compositions, generous use of black, and vigorous brushstrokes (see example above).

Speaking of compositions, El Greco was also known to have adapted elements of his superb Resurrection from the Flemish painter, Anthonie van Blocklandt, whose work he would have seen in wood block prints (see comparison above).   The Fifth Seal also bears a resemblance to another Flemish paining: The Judgment of Paris by Rubens (1606), which now hangs in the Prado (below).  Both include a central register of nudes.  There is a figure on the right (Mercury in the Rubens, and John in the El Greco), followed by a nude in profile, two facing forwards, and another in profile.  The third figure from the left in Rubens' painting closely resembles the third figure in El Greco's canvas: both have an arm raised over head beneath an arch of yellow drapery lifted by a floating cherub.

The Fifth Seal might also have been compositionally inspired by Titian.   It bears some striking similarities to Titian's Diana and Actaeon (below).  Both have a large male figure on the left, with a flank of sitting and standing nudes running across the center.  There is a prominent use of drapery in Titan's canvas, which creates an inward arc on the left, resembling the geometry of the El Greco.  Likewise, there is network of raised arms creating an undulating pattern.  There are even some angular and loosely painted clouds visible in the background.

I don't mean to imply that El Greco was a derivative painter.  Like any well-trained artist, he borrowed techniques and ideas from those around him, but he also developed a distinctive approach by integrating divergent sources of influence and building on what had become before.  He combines elements of icon painting, such as his stylized faces and flattening of the picture plane, with the methods of matterists, such as unnatural colors, graceful elongations, and a painterly style (which may have come from Tintoretto).  These combinations are novel--for example, El Greco handled paint like Tintoretto, but the Tintoretto's figures are bulkier and his compositions are more angular and dimensional.  El Greco's approach to composition was often highly original.  His Disrobement of Christ got him into trouble because some figures appear higher than the Christ figure on the canvas.  The Fifth Seal is equally innovative.  Despite its resemblance to works by Rubens and Titian, the dramatic play on scale and flagrant rejection of classical balance are a trademark of El Greco.

El Greco's Modernist Resurrection

El Greco is a classic case of changing fortunes in art history.  During his lifetime, he was immensely successful.  Indeed El Greco was the most acclaimed artist in Toledo, which was a former capital and the most affluent city in Spain.  He produced hundreds of paintings in his workshop, which were eagerly collected in the region.  He was also revered by Velazquez, who appropriated some of his compositions.  Shortly after El Greco's death, however, he lost favor.   He worked at the tail-end of mannerism, but he lived into the rise of the baroque.  Mannerists eschewed naturalism in painting, and El Greco took this to an extreme.  The baroque artists rebelled against this trend, and many pursued a greater degree of realism than had ever been achieved in art.  In this climate, El Greco's work may have looked hopelessly out of date, even primitive or bizarre.  He soon drifted into obscurity and remained unsung for the next two centuries.

In the 19th century, El Greco experienced the first of several subsequent resurrections and reinventions.  He was rediscovered by the Romantics, who valued his expressive style.  Delacroix acquired an El Greco painting, and the poet Théophile Gautier penned superlative commentaries on his work.  El Greco was equally admired by symbolists, like Baudelaire.  He was also taken up by a number of painters who were challenging the photographic realism that dominated academic painting in the mid-century: Millet, Manet, and John Singer-Seargent, among others.  One of his admirers was Cezanne, whose Bathers (above) can be compared to the nudes in the Fifth Seal.

By the turn of the 20th century, El Greco had something of a cult following.  Art dealers were eagerly buying and selling his work.  An art historian named Manuel Cossío published the first catalog of his paintings (see spread above).  With this, El Greco was poised to influence a new generation of painters.  He was embraced by German expressionists, like Ernst Kirchner and Franz Marc, and keenly admired by artists in France who regarded him as a forerunner to Cezanne.  A young Spaniard named Picasso lined his Parisian studio with photographic reproductions.

Picasso's obsession with El Greco began when he was still in Spain.  In 1898, he rendered a series of portraits in the style of the Cretan master (see above comparison with El Greco's self portrait).  When he moved to France, his work became more original but, the influence also deepened.  The elongated and sinewy figures that populate Picasso's rose- and blue-period (below) paintings owe a debt to El Greco, as does his tendency to reduce background scenery to vague suggestions.

Picasso's blue- and rose-period paintings are stylistically distinctive, but not revolutionary.  Picasso went from being a good artist to the artist of the century in 1907.  In that year, he created a painting that would change the course of art: Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (below).  Remarkably, Picasso biographer John Richardson has argued that this work was inspired by El Greco.  More specifically, that it directly echoes the Fifth Seal.  In 1907, the Fifth Seal was owned at the time by Ignacio Zuloaga, a Spanish painter who was friendly with Picasso (though their political views would later put them on opposite sides during the Spanish Civil War).  Zuloago had acquired the painting in the prior decade from the collection of the Spanish Prime Minester.  He was now living in Paris, and brought it with him.  Picasso came to see the El Greco in 1907, the year he began work on Les Demoiselles.  Picasso was enthralled.

The compositional parallels between Picasso's masterpiece and the Fifth Seal are striking.  The Picasso presents a horizontal row of four standing nudes, with one in near-profile facing rightward toward the others, two facing forward, and the last in profile, facing left.  They have bent or outstretched arms.  A fifth figure is seated awkwardly on the right.  There is also what looks like a fabric curtain opening on the left, and fabric-like networks of lines above and around the figures.  The picture plane is flat, with no indication of depth beyond some points of overlap between the central forms.  The El Greco is much the same, except that his left-most nude is sitting, and there are a few additional elements.  On the far left, El Greco includes a large gesticulating St. John, who is the only clothed figure in the scene.  Early studies (below) reveal that Picasso had originally planned to includ a clothed male figure on the left of his composition, just as El Greco had done.  El Greco also included a second seated figure, with his back facing the viewer, and another standing figure, on the right, along with some floating babies (perhaps cherubic angels delivering clothing to the adult nudes).  These elements are absent in the Picasso, but Picasso's seated nude has her back to us, much like the second seated figure in the El Greco.  It is noteworthy that these omitted elements are compositionally extraneous, especially once the large St. John is removed.  It is as if Picasso has zoomed in on the central cluster of figures, omitting the rest.

Les Demoiselles D'Avignon is Picasso's most important painting, and regarded by many as the most influential painting of the 20th century.  It was a watershed departure from earlier styles.  Even fauvism, though regarded as shocking, was a fairly linear outgrowth of Post-Impressionism.  Picasso's painting announced the arrival of cubism, opened up possibilities for abstraction, and instigated a successive series of avant garde movements that we now know as modernism.   If Picasso was quoting the Fifth Seal, then El Greco's masterpiece can be regarded as the work that inspired this breakthrough.

It might be objected that Picasso's achievement owes more to the influence of African art than to El Greco.  Under the influence of André Derain, he had come to appreciate the aesthetic value of African masks, and he incorporated them into his composition.  This source of inspiration should not be understated, but El Greco's impact must be recognized as comparably important.  In fact, the faces in El Greco's paintings are strikingly mask-like.  Moreover, African iconography was not the main factor that made Les Demoiselles so impactful.  More important was the fracturing of space.  Cezanne is often regarded as the precursor here, but Picasso's affection for El Greco was deeper and, in any case, Cezanne had absorbed lessons from El Greco as well.  El Greco should be recognized as a precursor to the cubist revolution.  The sky and fabrics in the Fifth Seal are angular and difficult to parse.  Rather then creating dimensional volumes, El Greco emphasized the two-dimensional play of forms on the surface of the canvas.

El Greco's contribution to modernism was acknowledged at the time.  An article published in 1911, refers to him as "the first futurist" (a term that was often used widely, though erroneously, to include cubism).  Roger Frye, who brought modernism to the attention of the anglophone work, described El Greco as "not merely modern, but actually appears a good many steps ahead of us."  We've seen here is that El Greco did not merely anticipate developments in 20th century painting; he directly influenced them.  Thus, he can be credited with shaping the course of modern art.

El Greco and Contemporary Art

El Greco's reinvention as a pro to to-cubist was not his first.  As noted, he was adopted earlier by Romantics, Impressionists, and Expressionists.  Nor was the cubist reinvention the last.  El Greco's influence can be seen in the work of Modigliani, the surrealists, abstract expressionists, and post-War Europeans like Giacometti and Francis Bacon.  El Greco is a forerunner to many modernist movements.  But what is his relevance to our post-modern times?  Has El Greco influenced contemporary art?


The answer seems to be yes.  Most obviously, he is a hero to neo-Expressionists, like Schnabel, who picked up where Pollock left off.  His work is also related to Kiefer's post apocalyptic landscapes and Richter's blurred figures from the 1960s.  It is not a stretch to think that El Greco's stark spirituality has inspired Bill Viola, and his painterly distortions find echoes in Richard Prince, William Kentridge, and Marlene Dumas (above left).  A current exhibition of paintings by Kara Walker suggests that his treatment of the figure is also influencing her work.  El Greco haunts the sculptural works of Kiki Smith (above right) as well.  Father afield,  Cai Guo-Qiang (example below) hangs an El Greco painting in his studio.  Gua-Qiang says in an interview:
I’ve always, in my heart and spiritually, felt this affinity towards El Greco. During the Renaissance, dissecting a scene, having proper perspective was revered. But for El Greco, he saw beyond that already; he saw that these were only devices. His work has pride, spirituality, and his own compromises as well. What he has tried to express was beyond what these rational artists were doing at the time. This spirituality is what attracts me the most. This conversation is exchanged with the unseen forces and with the spiritual world.
El Greco also anticipates another important trend in contemporary art: post-colonialism.  His blending of Renaissance naturalism with the iconic tradition corresponds to a kind of cross-cultural eclecticism that is esteemed by the art world today.  Crete was a colony of Venice, and the aesthetic traditions there were denigrated or ignored by trendsetters in the art world.  El Greco defied that, and brought his cultural heritage into his work.

Perhaps Frye was right; El Greco remains ahead of us, and we are still catching up.   Perhaps he will be reinvented by future artists again and again.  Perhaps he will influence us in unimagined ways.  As we ponder these many El Grecos, past and future, we should also recall that each resurrection is also a transformation.  Each generation discovers something different.  Like the resurrected martyrs in the Fifth Seal, he is given new robes.  We may never be able to bring back the original El Greco.  We may never grasp how he was seen by his contemporaries or what he hoped to achieve with his work.  El Greco is the most modern of the 16th and 17th century painters, which makes it easier to relate to his work.  At the same time, he is among the most elusive.  Perhaps that is why we keep coming back to him.