On the entrance wall at Greco, the El Greco retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris, is a map identifying four key places in the artist’s career: Crete, where he was born in 1541 (the island was then a Venetian possession); Venice, 1567-1570, and Rome, 1570-1577, where he turned himself into a skilled but eccentric Italian painter; and then Tolèdo, where from 1577 until 1614 he did most of the works that established his reputation and are displayed in this show.
Nowadays, at a time when we take stylistic diversity for granted, and painters regularly train in one visual center and then move to a distant place, it’s hard to imagine how difficult and personally traumatic El Greco’s moves must have been. When at the start of the 20th century Pablo Picasso moved from Barcelona to Paris, he imported some specifically Spanish pictorial concerns. El Greco, who traveled farther geographically and artistically, in some ways never left his Greek visual culture behind.
El Greco’s “Saint Luke Painting the Virgin” (1560-66) and “Adoration of the Magi” (1560-1568), two icons in the show done in Greek Orthodox style, are both badly damaged. But to get a fuller sense of this highly distinctive visual tradition, you need only walk across the street and look at the roomful of icons in the Petit Palais. How would a trained icon-maker who moved to Venice, whose art world was dominated by Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese, respond to that new setting? Icons, painted on wood, often relatively small, with flat golden backgrounds lack the deep illusionistic space or naturalistic figure anatomy of Renaissance painting.
Once in Italy, in works such as “The Annunciation” (1569-1570) and “The Last Supper” (1568-1570), El Greco set out to become a Venetian painter, but without entirely leaving his past behind. The perspectival construction of the floor in the former painting, and the anatomy of the nude Christ in the latter, show what he had learned.
But you need only set the colors and, most especially, the composition of “The Entombment of Christ” (1570-1575), in which the figures are crowded together, alongside those found in any Titian or Tintoretto to identify him as an outsider to Venetian tradition.
Consider, too, the to-die-for, high-pitched colors — the reds and yellows — of “The Annunciation” (1576), and the way that the massive angel floats above the grid of the floor. Or the more distinctive later “Annunciation” of 1600-1605, in which the scene is set against a magnificent gray background, with the angel standing on a massive cloud. If El Greco’s portraits (“Saint Louis and His Page,” 1585-1590, is one example) look less eccentric, that’s because the naturalistically depicted figures are set in a shallow space.
In Italy, El Greco made a tour of the art centers between Venice and Rome (Padua, Verona, Parma, Bologna, Florence, Siena). And he was familiar with Vasari’s Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1550). His personally annotated copy of the text, presented in this exhibition, shows that he read the book closely.
In Vasari’s historicist account of art’s history, Giotto was a good artist for his day, but later figures were the ones who advanced painting. For him the icon was an outdated pre-modern form. And so, within Vasari’s conceptual framework, there would have been no place for a sympathetic understanding of El Greco’s adaptation of this tradition. It’s unsurprising, then, that El Greco was not entirely successful in Italy, where he was a foreigner without a patron. And so he moved to Spain, where his highly distinctive style found a supportive audience.
But even there, where he met less resistance than in Italy, you need but compare his works to those of Diego Velázquez, who also was decisively influenced by the art of Italy, to see that he was always something of an artistic outsider. I grant that his “Adoration of the Name of Jesus” (1578-1579) is marvelous, but how un-Italian is the strange composition in which we see the underworld at the bottom right, a crowd of penitents on the left, and the holy figures who dominate the dazzling heavens at the top.
Or consider “The Adoration of the Shepherds” (1579), with its determinedly odd, expansive composition: saints, shepherds, and donkeys surrounding the Christ Child and the Virgin beneath a heavenly burst of white figures above.
And in the great “Pietà” (1580-90), how un-naturalistic are the spatial relationships between the dead Christ and the three figures cradling him, and how outlandish the planes of color behind them, which might almost come from some Fauvist picture from the early 20th century.
Perhaps the strangest works in this marvelous exhibition are“The Risen Christ” (1595-1598), El Greco’s painted wood sculpture, and “The Holy Face” (1579-84), in which the image of Jesus’s face on Veronica’s veil is mounted in a large golden sculpture supported by two nearly nude putti.
This, the first major exhibition in France devoted to El Greco, is much concerned with his reception in that country, in relation to French modernism. If his Greek background created some problems Italy and Spain, it it did not hinder his championship by 20th-century artist and writers, who made him a modernist French hero.
Set his works alongside those of Paul Cézanne, Edgar Degas, or Picasso, and you can see why they admired and copied him. His backgrounds of broken planes of color, do they not anticipate Cubism? At this point, the obvious eccentricities of his art, so contrary to the ideals of the High Renaissance, cease to be drawbacks.
That said, I am not sure whether it’s useful to present El Greco’s four versions of “Christ Driving the Money-Changers from the Temple” (c.1570, 1575, 1600, 1610-14) in relation to Cézanne’s repeated use of motifs, as done here in the catalogue, if only because modernist subjects are so obviously different.
As I see it, the early modernists’ fascination with El Greco’s old master pictures was one step towards the creation of André Malraux’s “museum without walls,” which made it possible to appreciate art, on purely aesthetic grounds, from every visual culture.
Note: I have learned from John H. Elliott’s essay, “El Greco’s Mediterranean: The Encounter of Civilisations,” in the exhibition catalogue, El Greco (London: National Gallery, 2003), and the essays by Keith Christiansen, “Greco en Italie” and Véronique Gerard Powell, “Greco et la France” in the catalogue Greco (Paris: Rêunion des musées nationaux, 2019).
Greco continues at the Grand Palais (3 Avenue du Général Eisenhower, 75008 Paris, France) through February 1, 2020. The exhibition is co-organized by the Réunion des musées nationaux – Grand Palais, the Musée du Louvre and the Art Institute of Chicago.