El Greco

The National Gallery's sixteenth-century Greek doesn't need dressing up in Britart clothes.

Josie Appleton

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When I saw the UK National Gallery’s exhibition of El Greco, some of the paintings were surrounded by a scrum of visitors, three rows thick. People were lingering, too, rather than just taking a glance and hurrying on.

The National Gallery has tried to sell El Greco as a proto-modern painter, thanks to his garish use of colour and strange distortion of figures. ‘Be inspired. (Cezanne, Jackson Pollock and Picasso were)’, read the adverts plastered on billboards across London. At the exhibition’s launch, curator Xavier Bray said: ‘We’ll be pitching for a Tate Modern audience – if you liked the Chapman brothers you’ll like El Greco, trust us.’ (1)

Whatever it is that is fascinating the crowds, it’s certainly not El Greco’s similarity to the Chapman brothers. In fact, the gallery’s promotion of El Greco as modern is somewhat disingenuous, given that in the catalogue the head curator David Davies states his intention ‘to examine El Greco’s oeuvre in its historical context – religious, philosophical, political and social’ (2). As the substance of the exhibition illustrates, the work of this sixteenth-century Greek bears the indelible imprints of his times. El Greco may use some similar techniques to twentieth-century art, but these are used for entirely different reasons, and to different effect.

El Greco (the Greek), whose real name was Domenikos Theotokopoulos, was born on the island of Crete in 1541. Here he trained as an icon painter in the orthodox Greek tradition, painting saints and religious scenes in gold. Rather than aiming to represent reality or portray beauty, the function of these paintings was to stimulate spiritual reflection.

As a young man El Greco moved to Venice, where he struggled to assimilate the realism of the late Renaissance, with its very different use of form, perspective and light. The National Gallery exhibition shows his early fumbling, on one occasion painting Christ with disjointed and unbalanced legs. Although El Greco is often fêted as a lone genius, he was a keen disciple of fellow artists such as Michelangelo and Tintoretto, and his paintings are peppered with references to their work.

It was in El Greco’s final home, the Spanish city of Toledo, that he painted many of the works that are so popular today. The city was in the zealous grip of the Counter-Reformation, as the Spanish authorities sought to reaffirm Catholicism in the face of challenges from Islam and Protestantism. El Greco, with his strong religious faith, and Byzantine and Renaissance training, began to convey spirituality in a new and powerful way.

While icon paintings hinted at the religious spirit, El Greco used the techniques he had mastered in Italy in order to show it. His figures seem to flicker upwards like flames, their bodies elongated and weightless. Shadows and perspective are almost done away with – light seems to emanate from the people themselves, who are often surrounded only by darkness. His painting, ‘The Virgin of the Immaculate Conception’, shows the ascendance from the earthly to the spiritual, with flowers and landscape at the base, and entwined figures moving towards the heavenly sphere (3). This embodies the Counter-Reformation’s call to spurn material concerns for union with Christ – and El Greco’s paintings were used as altarpieces in Toledo’s churches.

El Greco’s paintings may look somewhat similar to modern works. But the modern distortion of form is a very different matter, which is tied up with the secular individualism of twentieth-century capitalist society. For some modern painters, it was about capturing an instant of subjective experience; for others, it expressed the fragmentation of the individual worldview, into random and dissociated elements. A painter such as Cézanne, meanwhile, sought to portray the underlying structure of reality, removed of the distortions of imagination and interpretation. Picasso borrowed from El Greco’s paintings – just as he did from African masks – but he transformed these motifs into something else.

He might not be ‘modern’, but El Greco’s work reaches out across the centuries. In ‘The Adoration of the Shepherds’, the group’s expressions are difficult to forget: theirs isn’t a posed, reflective adoration, but the messy business of losing themselves to bigger forces (4). This was passion painted for Counter-Reformation Toledo, but – because it is painted so wonderfully, or perhaps simply because it is human – we can understand.

The National Gallery shouldn’t be afraid of selling El Greco for what he is, rather than trying to dress him up in Britart clothes. Today you often find this disparity between museums’ promotion on the outside and the artefacts on the inside. There is a kind of duplicity here: an idea that people have to be tempted in by the promise that it’s just like the Chapman brothers, and then – once they’ve paid their tenner and can’t escape – you can tell them otherwise. (Given that one Chapman brothers’ Turner Prize offering was a model of two plastic-looking dummies engaged in fellatio, visitors might be perplexed by the connection.)

Museums tend to worry about subjects being too difficult or foreign for visitors to understand, and try to make them seem ‘relevant’. The success of exhibitions such as last year’s Aztecs at the Royal Academy (5), which had people queuing around the block, shows that they are just as easily drawn to subjects that are distant and mysterious. And this sixteenth-century Greek certainly doesn’t need to prove his relevance to fill the galleries.

El Greco is showing at the National Gallery until 23 May.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Museums and galleries

(1) 400 years on, is El Greco still too modern for UK?, 5 November 2003

(2) El Greco, National Gallery Company, November 2003

(3) See The Virgin of the Immaculate Conception

(4) See The Adoration of the Shepherds

(5) Aztecs, by Josie Appleton

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