There is something at once unsettling and gratifying in the phenomenon of a great artist resisting the categories of art history and of art historians. His art, refusing to accommodate itself to established historiographic structures or to fulfill standard critical expectations, insists on defining its own terms of evaluation. The artist in this case is El Greco (1541-1614), and his art is fully and magnificently presented in “El Greco of Toledo,” an exhibition organized by the Toledo (Ohio) Museum of Art—in conjunction with the Prado, the National Gallery of Art, and the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts—and currently on tour in this country.1

El Greco’s resistance to the controlling formulas of art historiography seems particularly heroic and just, for perhaps no painter of the Western tradition has been so manipulated and co-opted by his modern admirers. Born and trained as an artist on Crete, a Greek island long part of the Venetian dominion, Domenikos Theotokopoulos extended his artistic education in Venice and Rome before moving, by 1577, to Spain. There, he made his home in Toledo, which, although no longer the royal capital, was the most powerful archdiocese in Spain at the time and a major intellectual center. His unusual itinerary seems somehow to confirm the uniqueness of his highly personal style, of which his disturbingly elongated figures are the most obvious expression. Together, biography and style have provided the material for partisan, contradictory interpretations of the painter: as an essentially late Byzantine or quintessentially Hispanic painter, as a mystic contemporary of the great spiritual poet St. John of the Cross (imprisoned in Toledo when El Greco arrived), as the last of the Italian Mannerists, as a visionary or astigmatic (the simplistic fallacy that the artist’s eyesight was faulty keeps finding new life as well-meaning ophthalmologists continue to announce their findings), as Expressionist avant la lettre, or as misunderstood peintre maudit trapped in the Spanish provinces.

“El Greco of Toledo” is an exhibition with a thesis. It seeks “to understand El Greco as a man of his time, not of ours,” as Jonathan Brown writes in his introduction to the exhibition’s catalogue.2 Indeed its aim is to dispel the fog of myths surrounding the artist so that another interpretation may emerge.

Historical contextualism informs each of the essays in the catalogue. “The Toledo of El Greco,” by Richard L. Kagan, sets the scene, defining the economic, political, ecclesiastical, and social situation of the painter’s adopted city; Kagan describes the web of friendships that related El Greco to the most influential churchmen and intellectuals in Toledo and established his important bases of patronage. In “El Greco and Toledo” Brown builds upon that historical foundation and offers a biographical portrait that stresses both the intellectual makeup of an artist schooled in Italian humanist traditions of the later Renaissance and the practical aspects of running a successful workshop. The third essay, by Alfonso E. Perez Sanchez, “On the Reconstruction of El Greco’s Dispersed Altarpieces,” reminds us not only that many of these large canvases were conceived as parts of complex monumental ensembles but also that El Greco’s practice included the building arts, from architecture to carving and carpentry.

Instead of a tormented Christian mystic or a perversely idiosyncratic genius, we encounter a practical master of an efficiently productive Renaissance workshop.

The El Greco that emerges from these essays is strikingly different from the El Greco of myth. Instead of a tormented Christian mystic or a perversely idiosyncratic genius, we encounter a practical master of an efficiently productive Renaissance workshop—in this respect not unlike Titian or Tintoretto, both of whom contributed importantly to El Greco’s development. The transplanted Greek painter now appears as very much the favorite of the elite establishment of Toledo. In that Spanish center he achieved the professional status that had been the ideal of Renaissance art theory since the early fifteenth century in Italy. According to that ideal the artist was no longer to be considered a mere artisan who worked with his hands; the new painter was an intellectual, whose intimate associates were philosophers and poets. Painting was to be counted among the liberal arts. Having lived and worked with such assumptions during his stay in Rome, El Greco took them with him to Spain and—by means of his proud professional stance, particularly in the face of demeaning legalities (usually concerning the fixing of prices for his work)—he set an example that would continue to resonate well into the seventeenth century in Spain. He helped prepare the way for the struggle of Velázquez to elevate his own social position and for the writings of Calderon, who, as late as 1677, actually presented a legal brief in defense of the nobility of painting on behalf of the painters of Madrid, who were suing the tax office.

Like many Renaissance artists of intellectual ambition—not to say pretension—El Greco wrote treatises: one on painting, another on architecture. Neither of them has survived, but some of his ideas on art are preserved for us in his dense marginal notations to two important Italian publications of the sixteenth century: Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists and Daniele Barbaro’s translation of Vitruvius’s Ten Books on Architecture, the only treatise on art to have come down from antiquity. Most of his comments are quite commonplace, repeating standard Renaissance notions on art and the artist; “his ideas,” as Brown puts it, “reveal him to have been a typical artist of his time.” Nonetheless, some of El Greco’s observations, as unexceptional as their first premises may be, strike us as distinctly individual:

Painting is the only thing that can judge everything else because its objective is to imitate everything. In sum, painting occupies the position of prudent moderator of all that is visible.

If such an assertion of the ontological nature and mimetic function of painting reminds us of Leonardo da Vinci’s earlier defense of the art, what follows seems to lead us back to the mystical El Greco:

And if I could express in words what a painter sees in his sight, it would seem a strange thing because sight shares aspects of many faculties. But painting, because of its universality, becomes speculative and never lacks substance to speculate on because even in partial darkness there are things to see and to enjoy and to imitate.

Has El Greco escalated the terms of the game? Have we passed from imitation of the visible world to the world of the invisible? I raise such questions not to return us to old myths about the artist, but because the normalizing of El Greco is, finally, not entirely convincing—and certainly not very satisfying.

There is good reason, of course, for being wary of reading too much into the literary evidence. A spurious diary of Giulio Clovio, El Greco’s fellow artist and friend in Rome, for instance, was for some time used as evidence of his mystical inclinations. It recorded a visit to El Greco’s studio on a sunny day, when the curtains were drawn: El Greco explained to his visitor that he feared the light of day might destroy the light of his inner vision. Unfortunately, the story, like the diary itself, seems to have been a fabrication, the product of an art historian’s overly inventive mind. But now we have the painter himself writing of a “partial darkness” in which “there are things to see and to enjoy and to imitate.” Dare we speculate once again on that “inner” light?

As the “El Greco of Toledo” exhibition amply demonstrates, El Greco was hardly “a typical artist of his time.” However much we wish to acknowledge that his professional training, practice, and ambition locate him securely within the traditions of Italian Renaissance artistic culture, the paintings themselves will not be so easily explained. We instinctively understand why early critics confronted by this art invoked words like caprichosa and extravagante; Vasari and others had recourse to similar equivocal terms when trying to deal with the art of Tintoretto. The sophisticated aesthetic of Mannerist painting in mid-sixteenth-century Rome may serve to modify our reaction to the extreme elongations of El Greco’s figural style and its arbitrary formal operations, but its refined artifice—whatever part it played in his early development—is finally irrelevant to the energies of the Greek painter’s surfaces; it is unable to account for their spiritual conviction. No matter how insistently they press the surface, no matter how finely matched their shared contours, his figures never indulge in the stylistic self-satisfaction of the accomplished Maniera. Their charge, most immediately stated in the stark contrasts of intensely saturated color, is more urgent.

A crucial aspect of his figures’ conviction is, of course, the power of El Greco’s brush, the development of lessons learned in Venice. Having studied the art of Titian and Tintoretto, as well as that of Veronese and Jacopo Bassano, El Greco pushed to the limit the implications of Venetian colorito. This is the kind of painting that Titian first taught the world, in which pigment, brush, and canvas-weave interact to create an emerging fabric of color and tone, light and dark, and varied textures of impasto and cloth. The appeal of such painting is tactile as well as visual. (We may presume that when El Greco [supposedly] declared himself ready to re-do Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, he intended to replace the fresco with a monumental oil painting on canvas.)

As in the Venetian painting El Greco most admired, the energy of the brush informs his imagery; the vibrant patterns of directed gesture and the record of application of paint to canvas not only afford the unifying ground of a given composition, they also serve as mediator between the worlds contained within the image itself—they connect matter and idea, earth and heaven. On the largest scale, we are impressed by those ascending movements of flickering strokes, of shaped color, of heaven-aspiring lights that govern the altarpieces: the brush itself functions as the essential constituent of pictorial structure on every level. Its flame-like quality, entirely consonant with El Greco’s figural aesthetic, operates as more than generalized metaphor. The iconographic core of the Annunciation (catalogue number 32) offers one articulate example: between the figures of the Virgin Mary and the Archangel Gabriel a burning bush, which burns but is not consumed (Exodus 3:2), symbolically proclaims Mary’s perpetual virginity; its flaming petals are rendered as grand tapered strokes of the brush. This particular identity of pigment and idea, making possible the pictorial realization of an iconographic motif, El Greco learned from Titian’s Annunciation in the Venetian church of San Salvatore. Great painters think with the brush.

And yet, despite its debt to Titian’s example, El Greco’s brush is ultimately less grounded, less rooted in this world. Although he consciously adhered to a mimetic theory of painting and although his early Spanish work in particular exhibits a masterful naturalism, El Greco came to exploit a more explicitly charged tension between earth and heaven. The lower zones of his religious paintings generally offer a necessary foundation in this world: a concretely realized natural detail, a landscape fragment, an immediately perceptible view of Toledo. Moving higher in the field, however, his brushwork loosens, surrendering much of its impasto materiality and discovering new release, and his colors lighten. Following the activity of that brush we find ourselves engaged by a pictorial process of transcendence.

Roger Fry may have exaggerated, truncating part of the experience of El Greco’s art, but his perception still rings true. In 1920 he wrote of El Greco as “a singularly pure artist,” by which he meant a singularly modern one.

He expressed his idea with perfect sincerity, with complete indifference to what effect the right expression might have on the public. At no point is there the slightest compromise with the world; the only issue for him is between him and his idea. Nowhere is a violent form softened, nowhere is the expressive quality of brushwork blurred in order to give verisimilitude of texture; no harshness of accent is shirked, no crudity of colour opposition avoided, wherever El Greco felt such things to be necessary to the realisation of his idea. It is this magnificent courage and purity, this total indifference to the expectations of the public, that brings him so near us today, when more than ever the artist regards himself as working for ends unguessed at by the mass of his contemporaries.

In the margins of his copy of Barbaro’s Vitruvius, El Greco himself nearly confirms this modern elitism when he observes:

Although it may seem that the masses have a vote in architecture and in music or rhetoric or painting, the fact is that this happens only when time and informed opinion have revealed the truth. And if once in a while popular taste is right, it is usually by accident and is not worth taking into account.

El Greco’s art must indeed have made special demands on its audience, and everything we know of the patronage he enjoyed in Toledo suggests that his appeal was to an elite. Presumably, however, the heavenly aspirations of his style satisfied more than just the refined taste of the connoisseur. Its grace was surely more than aesthetic. Its eloquence must have had an effect on a larger, more humble congregation of Christian viewers, for the iconographic content of El Greco’s imagery is hardly arcane; it is marked rather by a fundamental clarity, that legibility of spiritual affect called for by the counter-reformation.

Still, only those more knowing viewers and admirers of his art—like Fray Hortensio Felix Paravicino (whose portrait in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts is one of El Greco’s finest) and the poet Luis de Gongora, both of whom composed poetic epitaphs on the painter, that mayor Apeles—would have appreciated the art of it, the skilled genius of a brush that refused to “compromise with the world.” Even, perhaps especially, in the portraits does El Greco’s brush triumph over nature, forcing its subjects to yield to the higher requirements of pictorial necessity— and yet finding renewed life in that artifice.

Fry claimed that modern artists could look back with reverence to El Greco because of the lessons of Cézanne. In fact, the critical rediscovery of El Greco in the nineteenth century may be traced back a generation earlier, to Theophile Gautier, whose Voyage en Espagne, published in 1845, offered the first positive revaluation of the “extravagant, bizarre” adoptive Spaniard, and to Delacroix and Millet, both of whom owned paintings by El Greco, and to Manet. El Greco’s earliest nineteenth-century admirers constituted an essentially professional audience of poets and painters.

When the young Picasso first encountered the paintings in the Prado (in 1897) he wrote with enthusiasm, “Some of El Greco’s heads are magnificent.” If Picasso’s own pictorial response to El Greco seems primarily directed toward figural expressiveness, the purely painterly qualities of those “magnificent heads” tend to confirm Fry’s judgment on the relevance of Cézanne to our vision of El Greco. The dialectic of brush stroke and edge, for example, the one moving against and yet implying the other, is a spectacle we appreciate in both painters.

In the room of portraits in the “El Greco of Toledo” exhibition one was especially impressed by a synthesis of those terms—of stroke and contour—that yielded images of deep humanity. Working with an austerely limited palette of grays, browns, and whites, and without ever quite taming its own assertiveness, El Greco’s brush created correlative structures, surrogates to nature that breathe a life of their own and yet lend some of that vitality to the effigies they feign: the splash of black exploding from the eye, stray bristles establishing a dark radiance that conveys more than just eyelash; the aggressive crimson gash set disturbingly into the pallor of the face that seems as much wound as mouth, its far corner curiously strengthened as if to counter any tendency to foreshorten that form.

This is not the kind of flesh/paint equation that we expect, say, in the work of Titian or Rubens or Rembrandt, in their several different ways. Nonetheless, if El Greco’s paint, like the proportion and pose of his figures, seeks a certain transcendence, it is of mimetic reference; for we find ourselves constantly aware of its quality precisely as paint, manipulated pigment. Although moved by the quiet spirituality of El Greco’s portraits, we remain equally responsive to their bravura execution. That is one of the great lessons of this exhibition: the tension between the spirit of content and the matter of form, between the transcendent aspiration of the imagery and the professional self-consciousness of the image-maker.

The painter’s self-awareness is declared most consistently by the artful placement of his signature. Whether inscribed on a rock or on a cartellino affixed with sealing wax, held in a serpent’s mouth or initialed on a lion’s brow, the artist’s overt affirmation of his creative responsibility guarantees his continuing presence in the life of the image. Two instances assume an especially personal and telling significance. In the Burial of the Count of Orgaz (not in the exhibition) El Greco signed himself on a folded letter tucked into the pocket of the young boy who directly intercedes between the viewer and the scene; generally identified as the painter’s son, Jorge Manuel, he carries the document, in Greek script, of his own paternity: doménikos theotokópolis e’poiei (Domenikos Theotokopoulos made him).

The Purification of the Temple (catalogue no. 3), a work from El Greco’s Italian years and the second version of a favored counter-reformation subject that would occupy him frequently, bears a kind of double signature. In addition to the inscription on the step, in the lower right corner four portrait heads intrude: Titian, Michelangelo, Giulio Clovio (who introduced him to Roman society and patronage), and Raphael. Near the very beginning of his public career, then, El Greco prominently acknowledged his artistic heritage. And to the end of that career he would remain faithful above all to the professional identity that marks his first historical appearance, in 1566, when he signed a notarial document as Maistro Menegos Theotokopoulos, sgourafos (Master Domenikos Theotokopoulos, painter). On that basis, as a painter, he remains very much of our time—even as the personality of his art continues to elude and challenge us.

  1.  “El Greco of Toledo,” which opened at the Prado in Madrid on April 11, was shown at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C., from July 2 to September 6; it will be at the Toledo Museum of Art from September 26 to November 21 and at the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts from December 12 to February 6.
  2.  El Greco of Toledo is a New York Graphic Society Book published by Little, Brown: hardcover, $35; softcover (available only at the exhibiting museums), $13.95. It includes a catalogue by William B. Jordan of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth and essays by Jonathan Brown (Institute of Fine Arts, New York University), Richard L. Kagan (Johns Hopkins University), and Alfonso E. Perez Sánchez (University of Madrid).

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 1 Number 2, on page 65
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