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Wednesday, May 21, 2014

El Greco

The Purification of the Temple, 1600, El Greco.
Doménikos Theotokópoulos
(El Greco) Self-portrait, 1584
Until today, if someone had asked me, I'd have sworn on a stack of dictionaries that I'd written a biographical piece on the Spanish (more or less) artist, El Greco. I'd have been wrong. The problem is, I've mentioned him so many times in writing about art in other contexts that I'd blended them in my mind into a single article that never was. El Greco wasn't really Spanish, though he spent so much of his life working there he kind of become a "naturalized" Spanish artist. He spent a lot of time painting in Italy, particularly Venice, but no one has ever accused him of being Venetian. Actually, he was born on the Island of Crete in 1541, the son of a wealthy merchant, which would make him, technically, a Cretan, though the island was ruled at the time by Venice. Its population was overwhelming Greek--hence the nickname, "The Greek." His real name was the blockbusting, tongue-twisting, Doménikos Theotokópoulos, which provides little wonder that he was willing to shorten it. However, in fact, he was known most of his life at Doménikos Greco. Only after his death did art historians bestow the ultimate honorary title of "the" Greek. 
 
The Last Supper, 1568, El Greco, a work done as he began to pick up Italian influences.
Notice Judas is depicted alone, on the near side of the table, totally in black.
From a purely historic view, El Greco was a Mannerist, working in the period following the Renaissance, benefiting from, as well as burdened by all the influences of that glorious flowering of the arts in Italy and Northern Europe. He was especially taken by the work of Michelangelo, having arrived there around 1571, less than a decade after the death of undoubtedly his greatest single influence. He was also said to have admired Raphael and Titian as well. However, El Greco's painting style and aesthetic were so personal and distinctive that he was far more likely to have influenced others than to have been influenced by others. As a young man, El Greco began his training as an icon painter in the Byzantine tradition. Art historians like to make much ado as to these Greek Orthodox beginnings, but most of his life the artist seems to have painted for the Catholic church and claimed to be a devout Catholic himself (perhaps by necessity).
 
Julije Klovic, 1571, El Greco (his first portrait).
El Greco began working as an artist around 1563. About three years later, wishing to continue his studies in Venice, the artist auctioned of one of his paintings to finance the trip (The Passion of Christ). The cost of such a move would have been considerable, so the work must have brought a decent price, especially for an artist barely into his mid-twenties. During the next ten years, El Greco seems to have shuttle back an forth between Venice and Rome, either in search of work or knowledge. He painted his first portrait, a very competent rendering of his friend and mentor, Julije Klovic, around 1571. From that time on, through to the end of his life in 1614, in addition to his numerous religious commissions in Spain, he was very much in demand as a portrait artist.

Assumption of the Virgin, 1577, El Greco
El Greco's "big break" came in 1577 when he received a commission for a group of paintings at the church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo in Toledo. His towering Assumption of the Virgin (above) was among this group. The downside appeared to be the fact that he'd have to move to Toledo, Spain. The move was first intended to be temporary with El Greco hoping to move on to Madrid where Phillip II was still building and decorating his El Escorial. El Greco did, in fact, do a couple paintings for the king. The problem was the king didn't like them (too much style). Thus devoid of royal patronage, El Greco was forced to remain in Toledo, as it turned out, for the rest of his life.

Laocoon, 1610, El Greco, one of his most enigmatic works.
(Notice the woman in the upper-right corner appears to have two heads.)
Still more strange is the fact that the story of the Trojan priest and his sons has no female presence.
Portrait of Cardinal Guevara,
1596, El Greco
As it turned out, Toledo was a perfect fit. There, he was a rare talent, welcomed as something of a celebrity. In 1578 his son was born there and over the next ten years or so the man was a very busy artist, maintaining a workshop (art factory) and picking up major commissions such as his iconic Burial of Count Orgaz in 1586. His highly distinctive Portrait of Cardinal Guevara dates from 1595 (among the earliest depictions of a bespectacled portrait figure) near the beginning of El Greco's greatest popularity and most productive years. However, this period was but a prelude to the nearly overwhelming flow (or flood) of work from his brush (or at least his workshop) during the following ten years until the gradual onset of old age caused him to have to slow down. The Purification of the Temple (top), from the year 1600, is one of his best pieces. From this same period, El Greco's Christ the Savior (below, left) is, in fact, a portrait of Christ both spiritual and human.

Christ as Savior, 1612, El Greco
Despite his success as an artist during his own lifetime, El Greco's work fell out of favor following his death as the Baroque era swept over the European art world during the 17th century. Simply put, his style was too individualistic, his work considered enigmatic and ambiguous by younger artists who might otherwise have become followers. In effect, Caravaggio and Velasquez were in, El Greco was out. It wasn't until the 19th century, as the first glimmers of Modern Art peered over the horizon, that artists such as Edouard Manet and writers such as Théophile Gautier began to foster an appreciation of the groundbreaking style and complex images of the Spanish master who, by then, had been dead for almost three-hundred years. Even Picasso could not escape the gravitational pull of such a distinctive talent. His 1950 painting, Portrait of a Painter after El Greco, is a "tribute" to El Greco based upon a 1610 portrait of the artist's son, Jorge Manuel Theotocopoulos. Not bad, but there appears to be a little something wrong with the nose.

Jorge Manuel Theotocopoulos,
1610, El Greco
Portrait of a Painter after El Greco,
1950, Pablo Picasso
 

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