El Greco enigma

A new Met exhibition positions El Greco as religiously driven. But many art historians question his motivations.

The artist Domenikos Theotokopoulos, better known as El Greco (1541-1614), is perhaps more of an odd than an old master. For two centuries after his death, his work, which depicts dramatic religious themes, was disparaged. Critics termed the superheated paintings "delirium" and the style "extravagant."

Then 19th-century romantics rediscovered him, praising his over-the-top expressionism as supreme individualism. And 20th-century artists like Picasso and Jackson Pollock admired his abstract tendencies. The last major survey, "El Greco of Toledo" in 1982, depicted the painter as a Mannerist practitioner of Art for Art's Sake - a worldly man without deep religious convictions. This view attributes his sensational style to his own imagination, ego, and aesthetic ambitions.

Now an exhibition, "El Greco" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York from Oct. 7 through Jan.11, gives us El Greco the spiritually driven painter, at one with theocentric 16th-century Spain, which was rife with mystics like Saint Teresa and Saint John of the Cross.

"El Greco was one of the most original painters of all time, so people want to know: How do you explain it?" says Jonathan Brown, professor of art at New York University's Institute of Fine Arts. On Nov. 9, Professor Brown will give a lecture at the institute on the varying interpretations of El Greco entitled "Will the Real El Greco please stand up?"

The current exhibition presents 80 works from all phases of El Greco's career. In the past, his unusual style has been attributed to madness, hashish, even astigmatism. But the reasons for his style remain an enigma that polarizes art historians. Visitors to the Met's new show can join the debate over whether El Greco was motivated by a passion for art or for God.

Mysterious approach

His signature style of acidic colors, elongated figures, flickering brushstrokes, and bizarre effects of light and space is sui generis. His approach sparks questions: Did he paint to inspire viewers to mystic union with the divine? Or did he push Italian Mannerism to an extreme, concerned with his own artistic evolution?

The British art historian David Davies, who conceived the current show as guest curator from London's National Gallery, believes El Greco soaked up the intense religious atmosphere of his adopted town of Toledo. Davies theorizes that El Greco's images were a ladder from the terrestrial to the transcendental. In "The Crucifixion with Two Donors," for instance, the composition ascends visually from realism at the base to a supernatural realm above.

Davies stops short of calling El Greco a closet mystic, but he believes El Greco was devout. "Because his subjects are scriptural, not personal visions, he seeks their mystical or spiritual essence," he says.

The two who curated the last survey, Professor Brown and Richard Kagan, professor of history at Johns Hopkins University, believe the opposite. Their show refuted the idea of El Greco as a mystic painter with bad eyesight. "The religious paintings have a strong spiritual component," Brown says, "but El Greco was not driven by imperatives of the spirit."

From what we know about the painter's cranky personality and biography (he was born on Crete, studied in Venice and Rome, and created his masterpieces in Toledo), "There's nothing to suggest a different spiritual inclination than garden- variety Catholicism," he says. Views of El Greco are so divergent, "it's like a duel between El Greco the aesthetic and El Greco the spiritual," he adds. "You have this polemic where neither side gives an inch."

For those who believe El Greco was driven by intense religious fervor, "art has turned into a religion, instead of art at the service of religion," Brown adds.

The Metropolitan curator of the show, Keith Christiansen, comes down in the middle. He says, "There's no question El Greco was attuned to Mannerist artistic theory, qualities like art for art's sake, exaggerated height in figures, the notion of abstract beauty and elegance, figures in constant movement."

Yet El Greco's late paintings do not look like other late Mannerist works, which Christiansen describes as "very deadening." According to the curator, "An intensely expressive aspect sets El Greco's apart." There's no historical evidence El Greco was a mystic, but the powerful paintings "express something deeply spiritual," he says. "The way he dematerializes the human form suggests a yearning for the spiritual.... It's art with commitment."

The feverish temperature of his Spanish religious works, with their swirl of attenuated forms, dissonant colors, and phosphorescent light, is seen in "The Annunciation" (1596-1600). On the audio guide, Davies explains its abstracting style: "He is trying to paint the spiritual essence of the drama of salvation."

In Brown's contrasting view, the power of the religious paintings results from El Greco's artifice. "He had an exciting style - spiritually and aesthetically exciting."

El Greco developed this style by combining elements from cultures he experienced. He lived in Crete until age 25 and painted Byzantine icons with their iridescent light and stylized forms. In Venice for three years, he learned from High Renaissance masters like Titian and Tintoretto to manipulate light and color and compose in diagonal slashes. During six years in Rome, he absorbed Michelangelo's dramatic rendering of the human form and Mannerist techniques like flame forms.

Hitting his stride

Not until he settled in Toledo at age 35 did El Greco come into his own. Always the outsider, he jettisoned the refinement of both High Renaissance and Mannerist styles to depict religious subjects through his singular, tumultuous vision.

The nine-foot altarpiece he painted for his tomb, "The Adoration of the Shepherds" (1612-14) conveys breathless rapture as figures gesture ecstatically around the Christ child, who emits an unearthly light. Clouds of worshiping angels hover.

Whatever the impetus behind El Greco's creations, "Walking into the show will be absolutely one of the primary artistic experiences of the year - densely beautiful and soul-moving," says Marcus Burke, curator of painting and drawing at the Hispanic Society of New York.

One highlight is the portraits. "No one before the 20th century got the emotional energy of his sitters better," Mr. Burke says. He characterizes a striking portrait of the Catholic cardinal who was Grand Inquisitor, Don Fernando Niño de Guevara, as "something out of film noir."

Christiansen terms the portraits "simply staggering - the finest assemblage of El Greco's portraits ever." He's proud of the rare early icon paintings and calls the large altarpieces "knockouts." He describes the expressive brushwork in "The Virgin of the Immaculate Conception" as "like the Fourth of July." "Everyone who steps into that gallery gasps, 'Oh my'!"

For Professor Kagan, an organizer of the 1982 show depicting El Greco as driven by aesthetic concerns, the painter's lack of special religiosity doesn't negate his achievements. "These are pathways to prayer," he says. "That's what devotional paintings are all about." Whether or not viewers think El Greco intended his works to be manifestations of spirituality, "it's best to leave that point hanging," Kagan says. "You see the painter you want to see."

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