El Greco, “The Resurrection” (1596-1600), oil on canvas, 275 x 127 cm. Museo del Prado, Madrid (all images via Web Gallery of Art)

El Greco came back from the dead. “The Greek,” his real name, Domenikos Theotokopoulos, moved to Venice and Rome before finally settling in Toledo, where he became one of Spain’s most well known painters. But when he died, his artwork and reputation died with him. Two centuries later, he inspired writers like Baudelaire and painters like Manet, Cézanne, Picasso, Giacometti, Orozco, and many others, to resurrect him.

Now through February 1st, his life continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in an exhibition entitled El Greco in New York. This exhibit, like one I recently saw in Madrid’s Prado Museum, El Greco and Modern Painting, commemorates the artist’s death 400 years ago. That show provided a vivid sense of the Master of Toledo’s lasting influence. Placed next to homages by Jackson Pollock and Francis Bacon, the image that most moved me was “The Resurrection(1597–1600).

When I first saw this painting in 1974 – the largest canvas I had ever seen – the top edge seemed to challenge the Prado’s sky-high ceiling, as the bottom plunged into a chasm in the gallery floor. But 40 years later in Spain, standing in the same museum before the same image, the painting is no longer the same. It’s still tall, but nine feet high now, not nineteen or ninety. And there are no chasms in the Prado floor. I looked. Clearly, the impact a work of art makes has more to do with personal takes than tape measures.

Square footage aside, the actual canvas is a pain in the neck. At least it gives me one. You see, it makes me look up … a lot. My neck torques like the soldiers’ necks zigzagging to behold the Head of the Church, who is both the detonator and target of the explosion below, rising to the top of the painting. In “The Resurrection, Christ sucks up all the calm on the planet, leaving tomb and tumult in his wake. Of the nine figures portrayed, the only soles that touch terra firma are those of the sentry wearing the blue cloak. One minute all is low-key. Then a powerful highlight drapes the grounded man, as a flash of rebirth whirls the soldiers out of darkness and disbelief.

Hand in hand with his steadfast yet upward stride, the star of the show officiates at this painting’s marriage of form and content. The content part: depending on your point of view, Christ’s resurrection is about a mythical character or a Houdini Most High, or a concept, spirit, or god escaping from his tomb to juggle sun, moon, earth, and stars for . . . ever. I’ve seen this New Testament story portrayed many times by many artists. But regarding the form part: that this artist moves me to participate physically in the idea of going from here to eternity by mimicking with my head the motion of Christ’s ascension . . . that’s rare.

A few thoughts on how he does it. To begin with, El Greco chose a tall, narrow canvas, which lends itself to up and down motion, as opposed, for example, to Piero della Francesca’s square-format take on the same subject, which lends itself to calm. In Piero’s version, Jesus out-unblinks four uninformed, uniformed Rip Van Winkles, who’ve barely budged in centuries. The only action, a trickle of blood from the wound in Christ’s ribcage. In El Greco’s version, on the other hand, the large, compelling forms of Christ and the banners he holds float to the top, sucking toward them the legions of screaming details that make up the awestruck guards, bug-eyed and blinking, all. Well, except for the feather-helmeted one who offers a nod to Piero. Dream on, little man; we’ll get back to you later.

Piero della Francesca, “Resurrection” (1463-65), mural in fresco and tempera, 225 x 200 cm. Pinacoteca Comunale, Sansepolcro.

El Greco halves his composition vertically. But he provides numerous unifying elements, such as the echoing raised arms of the soldiers–especially the skewed triangle formed between Jesus and the two guards in blue bordering him below. Another unifier: all but one of the sentries look up, taking our gaze with them. And then there are those coy elbows, toes, and strips of cloth, hailing from a long line of fig leaves, which create a rhythm of bleeps that lead us up and down. The only time Christ’s body is overlapped, by the edge of the white banner, represents the most obvious and least inventive example of censorship. El Greco painted psychology and religion like no one else. He took revolutionary liberties with sinuous, sensuous forms. But El Greco, a believer, believed in discretion over description.

Like storm-blown trees, the soldiers ring around a spiritual rose. El Greco portrays the individual guards from many expressive angles, but to further differentiate Christ from the sentries, the artist adheres to an “ideal form.” Jesus differs most from the guard collapsed directly beneath his feet. They share the painting’s central vertical axis, but little else. The star of the show, upright and ascending, is sublime; the strongly foreshortened guard beneath him is a great big crumpled doormat to trip over. By exaggerating contrasts and by radically twisting space and color, El Greco pumps up the emotional and spiritual qualities of his subjects while playing down conventional depiction.

Talking about up and down, I don’t see this canvas as necessarily setting up a contrast between the Christ figure on top (holy and important) and the falling soldier below (unholy and unimportant), although I suspect that’s what El Greco had in mind. I respond to the guard sympathetically. Given the circumstances, he sees the world from a distinctive, understandably tumultuous point of view, and he deserves to be seen with distinction and understanding. He is you. He is me. He is a toppled tree, and his twining roots pass beneath Christ, an angel with draping wings, a rose with cloth petals red and white. The soldier is full of passion, awe, fear, and flaws. Ya gotta love him. Yeah, he and his team blew their assignment of making sure a dead man stayed put. But it wasn’t their fault. Eight against one; the eight of ’em never stood a chance. Haven’t we all been thrown off course by circumstances beyond our control? Granted, the beyond-control bar is higher here, but that shouldn’t prevent us from identifying with the faceless toppler. Maybe in the future I will think about him less and look to one of the other seven guards more.

Without the upside-down guard, the painting floats away. Also, without him, there’d be too much celestial sugar. (Picture Renoir painting for the church in the sixteenth-century.) The guards yo-yo from spellbound to panic-stricken in one fell swoop. But even while pulling us down, Christ’s fallen counterpart leads us into the picture. Look at the distance between his head and foot. And to put an even more emphatic stomp on the matter, look at how he kicks his comrade right where the poor guy is most vulnerable, whacking us into the very deepest part of the composition. Then, without even turning around, our sentry introduces us to the host and silent life of the party.

We arrive as Christ leaves. Above, the passage is clear, and we can imagine the slow, sonorous tones of Pablo Casals’ cello accompanying his departure. Below, starting at our greeter’s left arm, our entrance into the picture is stacked with too big or too small limbs (clearly, “too” can be a good thing) that recede and advance like burning branches across a stuttering, yet rapid, diagonal embellished through electric variations of scale, color, gesture, direction, intervals and pauses, all woven into patterns of light and shape and rising and falling forms. Jimi Hendrix would have had a ball with this passage. Hendrix and Casals – I’d pay to hear that duo! Stop and smell the smoke while you listen to the waistband fringe of the falling soldier’s gold tunic braise in the blaze below the white flow of Christ’s banner declaring victory over death. Then follow a saber point to the snoring, way-too-little fellow whom El Greco tucks into a cozy pocket of space, tops with a silly-looking helmet, and blankets within a miracle.

This guy sleeps past the alarm and misses the party. Comic relief? A symbol of preoccupation or melancholy? Perhaps he’s just exhausted from being up all night keeping watch. Could be this sentry is dreaming about a storm-swept tree and a rose with cloth petals. He does not appear to be a believer — unless all that we see in this canvas is meant to stem from this sentry’s imagination. Like the Christ figure, like the overturned guard, perhaps like everyone pictured or heard here, he could be the narrator of “The Resurrection,” each crafting a unique story. If we lighten up and lower our sights, this painting can be regarded as a kind of spiraling cartoon bubble popping out of the “Little Nemo-like” head of the man with the feathers. Why not? After all, aren’t dreams and stories created by the wacky, high-minded, thoughtful, mean, young, old, involved, or distant pains-in-the-neck gods and artists in us all?

El Greco in New York continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 5th Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through February 1, 2015.

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Barry Nemett

Barry Nemett, Chair of MICA's Painting Department from 1992-2017, has exhibited his artwork in museums and galleries throughout the United States, Europe, Asia, and Africa. He lectures internationally...

2 replies on “Stop and Smell the Smoke: El Greco and His Houdini Most High”

  1. How fun to read and discover Jesus as mythological narrative. What a surprise! It seems that no matter where you hang out these days, you will discover an alternate vocabulary in which Jesus is a “Houdini Most High””dead Jew on a stick” or a “zombie” and that any belief in the real Jesus is an arbitrary sham. Funny how you even decided to write about this painting of Jesus and not the equivalent of a recently invented “flying spaghetti monster.”

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