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.


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