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Weaving threads of light and point of style

By Theodore F. Wolff / July 14, 1981



Even genius has its days off when inspiration fails, skills diminish, interest crumbles, and creating art becomes a leaden chore. When that happens, the artist must either call it quits until his muse returns, or delve into his own particular bag of tricks for whatever he may need to get him through the dry period.

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If he is truly professional and technically accomplished, and has been around for a while, the chances are quite good that he can pull it off and that hardly anyone will be the wiser. The resulting painting may lack the impact and sparkle of his major works, but will still be masterly and, obviously, by his hand.

From all accounts, El Greco was one artist who suffered relatively little from such loss of inspiration. His creative passion and formal vision were so powerful and consistent that he could draw on them at all times -- except, it would seem, when he painted some of his more mechanical portraits, an uninspired "Holy Family" or two, and a few studio variants of major paintings.

There is another work of his that presents him more as an excellent craftsman and masterly professional than as a painter of genius. A work that combines a figure taken directly from a picture he had painted about 10 years earlier, a dashed-off profile figure reflecting the distortions and elongations he was currently affecting, and the bust of a monkey -- added to balance the composition, and, one would imagine, to give the picture a touch of the exotic.

"Fabula" is a lesser-known but nonetheless fascinating minor work which gives us an insight into El Greco's creative processes at those times when he had to rely on professionalism rather than on inspiration to conceive and execute a painting. (The title was never El Greco's; it indicates only that the work has something to do with a fable, or mortal tale.) The central figure of a boy was based on his earlier "Boy Kindling a Flame" (also known as "Youth Blowing on Charcoal"), a work still quite Italian in style (he had studied painting in Venice), and which gives hardly any indication of the uniquely dramatic and ecstatic kind of art for which he would later become famous.

What is particularly interesting about "Fabula" is the way El Greco subtly altered his earlier image to conform to his later stylistic preoccupations. Although, in our version, the boy is still quite realistically painted (certainly much more so than the figure on the right), he actually looks elongated and idealized when compared with the boy painted a decade or so earlier. The face is longer, the neck has been lowered, and the collar simplified in order to lead our eyes more gracefully down to the hand. And the greater stylization of the hands, to say nothing of the open cuff, the glowing fire, and the dark silhouette of the coat, contributes toward making this a more elegant and "El Greco-like" image than the earlier one.

Even so, the boy and the man belong in two separate pictorial worlds -- with the monkey existing somewhere in between. If we compare the boy's linearly precise nose with the slashes of paint used to create the illusion of the man's nose -- then compare the eyes -- and then compare the man's loosely (and formlessly) sketched-in shirt with the boy's more carefully defined outfit, we will see that El Greco was trying to combine elements in one competition that really belonged in two.

In addition, there is the matter of spatial depth. The boy's head juts forward even though it is actually farther away from us than the man's -- something that becomes particularly clear if we hold the picture upside down. While some of this effect is due to the intense light playing over the face, it is even more attributable to the fact that the boy is solidly based on observed reality (and thus dominates his space), while the man exists as little more than a generalized compositional device in human form.

We should also remember that our picture was painted at about the same time as one of his greatest masterpieces, "Burial of count Orgaz," a work in which El Greco's unique style is beautifully and consistently sustained throughout that huge and very complex composition.

So, the question remains: why did this extraordinary genius create this pastiche of a painting with its stylistic and conceptual inconsistencies and contradictions when he was fully capable of (and had already painted) far better and greater things?

We will probably never know the answer, although it does seem likely that he was illustrating a fable or a proverb and did so for ready cash or to please a particular person. At any rate, his heart wasn't really in it, and he ended up concocting a work out of bits and pieces, and not really pulling it off.

Quite frankly, I'm pleased about that, because it gives us a rare opportunity to see a great artist during one of his lesser and more human moments. El Greco is one of the few artists to whom the word "sublime" frequently applies. It is good therefore for us to see that he had his pr oblems, too.