Among Platonists, man is mind, intellect, above all else. Man is ordained to think. His province is learning and true wisdom. The rest is flesh and appetite, or, in the phrasing of Timaeus , an Eros of begetting. A common, ignoble thing that resides in the lower precincts of the body and pulls us earthenward, away from our celestial affinity.

Christopher Johnson, in the comment section to the previous post, alludes to that ancient polarity. Speaking of El Greco’s St. Martin and the Beggar, he notes that the painting transports the scene from a mere act of charity to an encounter between the mortal and the divine.

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El Greco. St. Martin and the Beggar (1597-99). National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.

Frank Gonzalez-Crussi, a practicing pathologist and a graceful essayist, comments on the way that thematic polarity, between mortal and divine, informs the visual structure of El Greco’s work:

Having learned his art from the Venetians, El Greco painted bodies that naturally experience all the gravitational pull that earthly beings suffer. Living in the rigidly dogmatic society of Catholic Toledo, they are equally subject to an elevating impulse that would drag them toward the firmament, like disembodied souls that left behind their corporeal sheaths, just as the famed Toledan sword blades . . . used to leave their leather encasements with a deadly hissing sound.

Caught between irresistible terrestrial and heavenly pulls, El Greco’s bodies stretch beyond anything credible. As his angels grow in length, it occurs to him that they need huge wings to be supported in flight. Officers of the Inquisition, not well versed in aerodynamics, we are to assume, object to the wing size as contrary to prescribed canons and must be persuaded: functional wings or none at all! His kneeling worshippers, his standing figures, stretch to a degree that seemed objectionable to most of his contemporaries and, in the saying of Maurice Barrs, repugnant to many, who expected to be presented with butterflies transmuted in worship, and are instead presented with long larvae in vivid colors.

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El Greco. The Annunciation (c. 1595-1600). El Greco painted several versions of the theme. This replica belongs to the Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio. Made by El Greco, it is his own copy of the painting that hangs in the Museum of Fine Art, Budapest.

El Greco’s dematerialized, Mannerist forms articulate the mystical ideals of Spain’s Golden Age. Yet the painter, born in the capital of Crete, his eye ripened and hand perfected in Venice and Rome, grappled with accusations of insanity in life and afterwards. The fevered attenuation of El Greco’s bodies became greater as time went on; the opposing pulls, simultaneously earthward and skyward, were felt more keenly as his work progressed. Surely, the painter was mad?

The argument of Spanish erudite Germn Beritens, writing in 1914 on why El Greco painted as he did, influenced reception of El Greco’s work for decades. Entitled El Astigmatismo del Greco, Berens theory of progressive astigmatism lingers on even now in popular discussions of El Greco. Gonzalez-Crussi remarks:

Through the use of glasses that correct this defect, a counter-proof is offered: if one looks at his paintings through such lenses, lo and behold! The proportions will suddenly appear normal. Thus, if we are to believe this thesis, a bad case of genius could have been averted by an opportune visit to the ophthalmologist.

Composition itself is expression. El Greco’s protracted figures exhibit the simultaneous upward and downward pressure of the mind’s aspirations and Plato’s “ploughland of the womb.” Call it a mystic dialogue. The painter’s swirl of exaggerated, even histrionic, forms embody the drama of salvation. To see in them some material, visual or neurological, disorder is not to see them at all.

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El Greco. The Opening of the Fifth Seal of the Apocalypse, or The Vision of St. John (1608-14). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Stay awhile with El Greco. It is one of the oddities of cultural history that this non-Spaniard, buried in an unknown grave and neglected for nearly three centuries, should have arisen in the late nineteenth century to displace even Velasquez as the glory of Spanish painting. While Spain is splendidly possessive of him today, that was not always so. Art historian Thomas Craven, writing in 1931, summarizes:

More profoundly than any artist of her [Spain’s] own blood does he express the ghastly passions and interpret the tragedy of her mystic soul. But while he lived and worked and quarreled in Toledo, she watched his movements with suspicion, eager to bring him before the Inquisition, never thinking of him but as a foreigner, and calling him The Greek .

He, in turn, was neither soft-spoken nor agreeable; prouder even than the Spaniards, he did not fear them, but held them off with high indifference and scorn, telling them they were below the Italians, and adding that the Italians were inferior to his own people, the Greeks. He was, he said, descended from the greatest of all races, and to remind the Castillians of his classical origin, he retained his eastern name, Domenikos Theotokopoulos. Thus, in Greek characters, did he sign his pictures.

Although he could boast of neither the king’s favor nor popular acclaim, El Greco must have been adept at moving his work. He was reported to have lived elegantly in a twenty-four room house. It is known that he was able to hire musicians from Venice to entertain his dining; that he took pride in his cultivated tastes and his erudition. And he was painstaking in his working methods:

. . . he was an extremely deliberate, scrupulous and systematic painter, working from clay models and making smaller and carefully finished versions of all his pictures . . . . Hence the many extant versions of the same subjects showing the growth of his designs and how he worked them over and over again, pruning transposing and accentuating until he had arrived at the maximum of expressiveness.

Little else is known about him except that his only heir was a mistress, not a wife, and that they had one son, an undistinguished painter. What, then, finally awarded El Greco the Breeders’ Cup in Spain’s art historical sweepstakes?

It was Modernism. The early moderns broke the tenacity of realism, and, with it, the ascendency of Velasquez. Impatient with naturalistic standards of depiction, the new movement went in search of an Old Master to call its own. Suddenly, El Greco’s distortions looked prophetically avant-garde. It is hard to pinpoint who were the first to re-evaluate his work as a needed cudgel against the authority of verisimilitude. Cezanne? Unamuno, who declared El Greco “the first apostle of Impressionism”? Others of the Generation of Ninety Eight? Art historian Manuel Casso or Julius Meier-Graefe?

El Greco was on the cusp of revival when that other Spaniard, Picasso, studied The Opening of the Fifth Seal of the Apocalypse while he was at work on Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.

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Pablo Picasso. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). Museum of Modern Art, New York.

By now it is agreed that Les Demoiselles (originally intended to be titled The Brothel on Avignon Street ) owes as much to El Greco as to Cezanne. What matters here is that branching lines of descent from the primacy of realism to the fracturings of Modernism share a major point of origin in the work of one audacious religious painter. Art, a careless courtesan, is such that its favors can attend incandescent devotion or serve, in Picasso’s phrase, as “an instrument of war.”

A tireless anti-Modernist polemicist, Thomas Craven, in 1931, dubbed El Greco the “Messiah of Modernism.” Although he located in El Greco the seeds of a movement he despised, he nonetheless embraced the painter with the ardor of a revivalist preacher:

[El Greco] retains the strong Spanish savor of the environment that preyed upon his spirit; thus he saves himself from the emptiness of abstractions, communicating his experiences in forms which are not merely mathematical units of design but receptacles of human meanings . . . .

The world of El Greco is a furnace in which the soul, hating the heat of the body, struggles in an unearthly passion to release itself. In the convulsive duel, the resisting body is pulled out of joint and elongated into a fiery apparition. His gaunt figures, suffering from some burning malaise of the flesh, are preternaturally tall; their eyes are fixed on God; they throw their arms upward, in the agony of living, to clutch at the celestial throne.

Reading Craven now, some eighty years after he wrote, is a great romp. Sturdy in his likes and dislikes, he was convinced that laymen had been scarred by the aesthetes. Public faculties were pocked and blistered by jargon, by theory, by whatever sacred apparatus sought to sift a self-selected minority from the gross herd. Craven, personal friend of the American regionalists and influential advocate of American Scene painting, argued to reclaim art from the specialists. And he did it with gusto. Read him for his prose, his pungence, and the ease of his erudition. You needn’t share his antagonism toward the School of Paris or the European moderns in general.

Craven was writing at roughly the same time, a few scant years in advance, of Chaplin’s Modern Times and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis . Mistrust of the machine, of industrialization’s material productiveness, was a shared theme of the moment he inhabited. In retrospect, it seems almost quaint. But that is a minor point. Craven’s scholarship and the vigor of his insight stands.

His Men of Art is a sparkling place to begin acquaintance. It is long out of print but available for pennies on the internet. “Have Painters Minds?” is a Menckenesque essay published in The American Mercury , 1927. Harder to find, it rewards the hunt.

Articles by Maureen Mullarkey

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