El Greco, Messiah of Modernism

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Art, an Earthly Thing

Art is an eminently earthly thing.

—Pierre Revardy (1927)

Beautiful things are those which please when seen—and, of course, I mean mentally seen, and therefore pleasing to the mind . . . . Anything is beautiful if it be made in such a way as to give pleasure to the mind which perceives it, and the question as to what should or should not give pleasure to the mind is no more and no less difficult than the question as to what should or should not give annoyance.

–Eric Gill, letter to The Architects Journal (1931)


Plate 1 of a folio edition of Hogarth’s treatise The Analysis of Beauty printed (1796-1806), It is set in a sculptor’s yard in London with copies of well-known classical sculptures including the Farnese Hercules, the Antinous, the Laocoon and the Medici Venus. The scene is framed by compartments with diagrams relating to the text and illustrating changes in fashion, from corsets to hair styles.

It is a melancholy discovery—readers who take as gospel words put into the fictional mouths of characters in novels. We are endeared to Waugh’s Cordelia Flyte for her abiding loyalty. That does not oblige us to embrace the character’s blanket dismissal of “Modern Art” (those capitals!) any more than her taste for meringue at The Ritz.

What appears in print is indelible, preserved on the page like a fly in amber. Living authors, however, can change their minds even about what they have previously written. Waugh did just that. Five years after Brideshead Revisited (1945) was published, Waugh confided in a letter to Graham Greene that, on re-reading his own novel, he “was appalled” by aspects of it. He introduced a later edition by admitting second thoughts. We are free to hope young Cordelia’s peremptory anathema was among the things retrospection deemed “distasteful” to him.


William Hogarth. Time Smoking a Picture (1761). Guildhall Art Gallery, London. The allegorical figure of Time is faking the age of a painting. It is a satirical comment on Hogarth’s belief that connoisseurs valued art only for its age.

Etienne Gilson delivered the 1957 Mellon Lectures within the same decade as Waugh’s self-reassessment. Published as Painting and Reality in 1959, the lectures are a welcome testament to the fundamental differences between artists and philosophers and, by extension, between making art and—in today’s phrase—doing theology. Gilson opens with a re-evaluation of his own:

My first publication concerning the philosophy of art was written in November-December, 1915, and published the next year . . . under the title Art et métaphysique. That was forty years ago, and during this long space of time, many things have happened to art as well as to my own metaphysics.

Rather than dismiss modern art, Gilson retires the author of the 1915 tract and turns a receptive eye on the intentions of modern artists themselves:

In art, we have witnessed the boldest creative experiment ever attempted during the whole evolution of the art of painting. With admirable and penetrating lucidity, the artists themselves have done their utmost to explain to their public the meaning of initiatives by which, not feeling their inner necessity, even the onlookers of good will could not help being puzzled.

Subtle and suggestive, Painting and Reality is a welcome alternative to the willful myopia—not to say crudity—of “Modern Art is all bosh.” What was an entertaining line in the narrative context of a novel turns sour when it is brandished, more than a half century later, as a considered judgment on the entirety of modern production in the arts. Gilson did sometimes gild the lily in favor of art itself. Yet, overall, he is more compelling—certainly to me—than the oft-quoted Jacques Maritain who more frequently tilted, ponderously, toward art as a handmaiden to metaphysics. (Creative intuition, after all, is hardly located exclusively in the arts. There are instances where it even seems to abandon the arts altogether.) Gilson adhered to a conscientious decision to stay tethered to John Constable’s insistence that the world should “look to painters for information on painting.” That is quite enough.

Both scholars were advocates for the art of their time. Not all of it, to be sure. Still, they refused to look over their shoulder to an irretrievable past.

Gilson deserves the last word in his chapter “Painters and the Talking World”:

As to the never-ending flow of discourse about painting that springs from non-painters, perfectly legitimate in itself as it certainly is, the main question it raises is to know to what extent it truly is about painting.

Aesthetic Drive

Art is the clearest and most immediate reflection of the spiritual life of a people. It exercises the greatest conscious and unconscious influence on the masses of the people . . . . In its thousandfold manifestations and influences it benefits the nation as whole.

Adolph Hitler


image00334 Attributed to Adolph Hitler


Hitler was an aesthete. He would have found much to approve in papal encomia to artists as “custodians of beauty” (Benedict) or “ingenious creators of beauty” (John Paul II).

An ardent patron of the arts, Hitler drew around him men with an aesthetic bent. (Speer was an architect; Goering, an art collector. Alfred Rosenberg had studied architecture; Goebbels had written plays and a novel.) He insisted that artists were as crucial to society as mathematicians and men of science. He kept Germany’s museums, orchestras, theaters and opera companies going until the collapse of the Reich. His generosity to the arts funded music festivals, traveling art exhibitions, grants, tax reductions for artists, even housing and studio space. Drawn to opera as much as to classical Greek art, Hitler considered it a goal of the state to make opera available to every citizen without regard to income. His annual pilgrimage to the Bayreuth Festival is legendary.


0912_vienna_courtyard Adolph Hitler. Old Vienna Courtyard (1922-12)

// //
Hitler’s personal conversation turned frequently to cultural matters; he was fond of declaring an impulse to paint scenic views as he came upon them. Eminent historian of Roman antiquities, Ranuccio Bianchi Bandinelli (d.1975) served as a tour guide to both Hitler and Mussolini in 1938. He recorded Hitler’s expressed desire to rent a villa outside Rome and devote himself to visiting museums anonymously, unrecognized by anyone. Bandelli wrote:

When he spoke this way he left the impression that he might get up one morning and say,”Enough! I have been fooling myself; I am no longer the Führer.” In the case of Mussolini such a thought was inconceivable . . . . But when Hitler spoke this way, he left the impression of being sincere.



Frederic Spotts’ Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics supports Bandelli’s impression:

Over the years Hitler had the same effect on others, who heard him insist again and again that it would be the happiest day of his life when he could take off his military uniform and devote himself solely to the the arts.

The Führer’s distaste for modernist art was widely shared by the bulk of critics of his day no less than the majority of the public. At the outset, modernist art was universally despised by audiences from St. Petersburg to London and New York. Hitler’s aesthetic tastes were hardly unusual. His genius lay in embracing current concepts that linked biological debasement to cultural decline: Degenerate art was the product of genetically unhealthy artists who should be considered social enemies to be crushed. Hitler viewed modernist artists as “criminals of world culture,” “destroyers of our art.” Their works were crimes, creations of diseased imaginations. Modernist culture was a perverse distortion of nature and truth.



The full breadth and specificity of Hilter’s grasp of architecture is stunning. Spotts is especially valuable in revealing the breathtaking extent of Hitler’s architectural ambition, having planned—together with Albert Speer—the rebuilding of every major German city. His love of architecture affected even military strategy. The beauty of Italian cities and art was granted a factor in military plans; concern for damage was paramount: “Each palazzo in Florence or Rome is worth more than all of Windsor Castle. It would be a crime if the British destroy anything in Florence or Rome. It would not be a shame . . . in the case of Berlin.”

In 1943, he reversed standing strategy by giving orders that Florence should not be defended against the Allied advance. It was “too beautiful” to destroy. Paris, too, warranted protection: “To save the old city of culture, we limited our air attacks to the airfields on the periphery.” Spotts quotes this reflection, recorded in December 1941:

Mankind has a natural drive to discover beauty. How rich the world will be for him who uses his senses. Furthermore, nature has instilled in everyone the desire to share with others everything beautiful that one encounters. The beautiful should reign over humans; the beautiful itself wants to retain its power.

In Spott’s exhaustive scrutiny of Hitler’s aestheticism lies a whispered caution against the exaltation of that elusive phenomenon called beauty gaining ever more currency among contemporary theologians and self-consciously Catholic artists. Aesthetic drive and aesthetic achievement are not the same. And the drive can be put to any human purpose whatever.


Blood is either absent or decorously minimized in those images of Jesus’ Passion with which we are best familiar. The death of Jesus is only part of the Christ story; the momentous, history-shattering disclosure comes later. Accordingly, traditional Passion imagery inclines toward a reflective distance from the physical realities of a Roman scourging and crucifixion.


Coppo di Marcovaldo, Crucifix (c.1261). Pinocoteca Civita, San Gimingnano


In the earliest crucifixes, the corpus is dressed in an ecclesiastical tunic and its outstretched arms do not bend with the weight of the body. Straight and firm as they are, the outstretched arms suggests either a welcoming embrace or triumphal acclaim—the exuberant gesture of a victory lap. The fresco below is an eighth century addition to the walls S. Maria Antiqua, built in the fifth century and the oldest church within the Roman Forum:


Artist Unkown. Crucifixion (c.741-52). Santa Maria Antiqua, Rome.


The legacy of Western art is reticent about the actual deed of nailing Jesus to the cross. Few such scenes exist in fresco, on panel, or on canvas. They tend to appear almost exclusively on the conventional pilgrimage series we know today as the Stations of the Cross. These were introducd and popularized—as sculpture—closer to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. This fourteenth century panel from Meister Bertram’s Passion altarpiece for the Church of St. John, Hamburg, is one of the few exceptions. Again, there is little blood despite the violent brutality of the tableau. A calculated reserve dictates the scene.


Master of Minden. Detail of Passion Altar (c.1394). Hamburg.


Our customary crucifix presents itself to us as more an emblem of redemption—sign and symbol of our ransom—than an instrument of torture. Bowing to prototypes from medieval and Renaissance painting, it presents a mental image that permits us to look upon the corpus without cringing. Art’s role extends beyond narrative. It exists to penetrate the challenge to contemplation encountered in witnessing a grisly event.


Peter Paul Rubens. Christ on the Cross (1610). State Museum of Art, Copenhagen

Rubens’ famous crucifixion—to take a single example—presents a muscular Jesus unmarked by the disfiguring whip that left prisoners in a state of half death. Blood runs discreetly from wounds fastidiously marked but deemphasized. Neither in his crucifixion motif nor his deposition does Rubens display the corpus in terms appropriate for a man dehydrated, enfeebled, torn and blood-soaked from the cruelty of the previous day. It is, instead, the figure of an athlete in his prime displaced from a classical gymnasium.

Fra Angelico’s version, universally loved, aestheticizes the flogging with an ethereal symmetry. A transcendent calm infuses the scene. Jesus maintains a graceful contraposto , more like a dancer than a man whose execution is beginning.

Fra Angelico. The Flogging of Christ (c. 1450). Museum of San Marco, Florence.


It would be a great pleasure to feed representative images onto this post for another ten yards or so. That is my favorite thing to do. Prose is a mere handmaiden to paintings. For me. But perhaps not for you. So let me cut to the chase and admit that all of this has been meant as a segue to Franz Heinrich Louis Corinth (1858-1925), known in art history texts as Lovis Corinth. Student of Bouguereau at the Academie Julian in Paris and, later, director of Berlin’s Sezession , Corinth was the archetypical German Expressionist. In short, a modernist.

He was also a painter compelled by the Passion as a creative motif. Crucifixion scenes occupied his imagination over several years. In 1910, he donated Golgotha for the altar of his hometown church in Tapiau, East Prussia. All that we have is the record of the donation. The painting itself disappeared after the Second World War. Tapiau was left intact, unviolated, during the Second World War. Consequently, it is believed that the painting was looted by the Red Army when it invaded East Prussia at the end of the war. No one quite knows.

I would love to see this vanished work. What is left to us is moving enough: Red Christ painted in 1922, just three years before Corinth died. It is not an easy work to look at. Most people see only the subject of a painting, not the paint or the handling—the art—itself. Red Christ is a beautiful painting of a horrendous subject: the depiction of Jesus pierced by Longinus and encrimsoned with the blood of his ordeal.


Lovis Corinth - Red Christ.1922
Lovis Corinth, Red Christ (1922). Staatsgalerie Moderner Kunst, Munich


The painting is a howl of anguish, perhaps the most gruesome of any Western image of the motif. It is a darker and more agonized evocation of what the Son of Man suffered, for your sake and mine, than anything else in the longue durée of sacred Christian art. It surpasses even Beckmann—and Nolde—who had turned previously to Christ’s Passion to find a paradigm for human suffering. The only valid comparison, historically, is with Matthias Grünewald who drew close to the substance of raw agony.

We are unaccustomed to treatments of the Passion which extend beyond the compositional familiarity of what we revere as the Church’s high patrimony. Our nerves have slackened, gone drowsy, from seeing the Passion through the lens of art tamed by centuries. And by an increasingly self-conscious fondness for what is fast becoming a reigning catchword: beauty.


Note : A careful reader wrote to correct my spelling of Corinth’s birthplace: Tapiau. All fixed above. (It is now Gvardeysk, Russian Federation.)


Beckmann’s Deposition, A Modernist Offering

We who live in the Western world at the present time continue to suffer under the reign of a great tyranny — the tyranny of artistic modernism.

New English Review , August 2012


It gets tiring, this lingering need to swipe at modernism. To the extent a date applies, the waning of modernism hovers between the late 1930s and the end of the Second World War. Yet seven decades later, one Quixote or another still gallops forward to tilt at the carcass. Beating a horse in extremis is unseemly. And doltish. It keeps us from recognizing the singular achievements of this fluid and variegated offensive against Victorian-era academies.

In the early decades of the twentieth century, modernism’s heyday, biblical imagery still held purchase on Western culture. One stunning example of modernist reimagining of a traditional subject is Max Beckmann’s Deposition:


Max Beckmann. Deposition (1917). Museum of Modern Art, New York


Beckmann reintroduced the sepulchral, nightmare quality that centuries of familiarity have drained from—to take the closest example—Gerard David’s Deposition :


Geerhaert David. Deposition (1495-1500). The Frick Collection, New York.


David evokes the graveyard that was Golgotha—“place of the skull”—by scattering bones in the foreground. With that gesture he observed the customary iconography which separated skeletal remains from the corpus of Christ. Beckmann, steeped in death as a volunteer medical attendant on the Belgium front in the First World War, reversed David’s diagonal composition. He turned his eye, and ours, to the skull beneath the taut-drawn skin of the dead Christ. The corpus is distorted by rigor. Violent death reveals itself in tortured angularities: feet contorted upward to display wounds from the underside; arms stiffened into unsupported extension, locked in unnatural outreach. Emaciated shoulders and clavicle tell their own tale. Skeletonization has begun.

Julius Meier-Graefe, a modernist art historian—one of the few included by the Nazis in their attack on “Degenerate Art”—commented on the severity of Beckmann’s initial post-war work, so reminiscent of Gothic painting. Writing in 1919, he interpreted Beckmann’s Deposition as a collective indictment on their place and time:

These paintings are anything but decorative. Their disposition is much more violent. An almost mystical embitterment impels such forms. The voluptuousness of pain . . . A fleshless Grünewald—fleshless, not soulless. The details spell out the want of ardor of our machine age . . . Color, which could soften the factual details, is despised . . . The apparition stands with inexorable clarity. But it is nonetheless animated. These terrifying figures [indicate] a prodigious self-conceit . . . embraced by an entire nation, which sinned extravagantly and atones extravagantly, which by means of monstrous instruments of torture has its rotten flesh burned away so that its spirit might come to its senses.

The imitatio Dei is not a matter of copying. It is a matter, first, of comprehending; and, then, of seeking forms to render that comprehension. Modernism did not abandon form. Rather, it sought a means of creating fresh forms for interpreting the world—the world of our own time—not merely duplicating what greets our senses. Or repeating routinely what we love in the art of an earlier age.