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The tribute of imitation

29 August 2014

Nicholas Cranfield sees the Prado's exhibition about El Greco

Museo Nacional del Prado, madrid

Spot the difference: A Gentleman with his Hand on his Chest, c.1580, by El Greco, in the Prado's own collection. See also image below

Spot the difference: A Gentleman with his Hand on his Chest, c.1580, by El Greco, in the Prado's own collection. See also image below

ONE of the first official duties of Queen Letizia of Spain in her first week as the new Bourbon queen was to open the exhibition El Greco and the Moderns. This is the second substantial exhibition held this year to mark the 400th anniversary of the death of the Cretan-born artist Domenico Theotocopolo.

Earlier this year, Toledo, where El Greco lived and worked for the last four decades of his life, hosted a large monographic show of his paintings in the former hospital of Santa Cruz and elsewhere across the city, and brought together more than 110 of his works.

That show comprehensively charted the development of the artist from works he carried out in the 1560s as an icon-writer from Crete to those influenced by his study in Venice and his seeing the Rome of Michelangelo. It was also possible there to see paintings that have remained in places for which they had been painted, in the old sacristy of the cathedral and the chapels of San José and Santo Tomé.

This was rich fodder indeed; so far, London has had to be content with the memory of the National Gallery exhibition in the spring of 2004 which I paid to view 18 times, and this summer with just three small devotional works (an early Crucifixion, one of the three autograph versions of St Francis in Ecstasy, and The Penitent Magdalene, which may or may not be a studio work) in the selling exhibition "Contemplation of the Divine" at Sotheby's.

In Madrid, there are just 26 works by the master, which are shown alongside 57 paintings and 23 drawings and prints by modern artists from Manet and Cézanne to Pablo Picasso and Francis Bacon. Javier Barón's thinking behind his exhibition is to explore El Greco's increasing influence on Modernism from the rise of French Impressionism to the present by way of juxtaposition.

This is not the first exhibition to attempt to suggest how 19th-century artists were more and more influenced by the potency of the Greek's image-making. One of the most sensitively presented and assured shows that I was fortunate to see in 2012 was held in Kunstpalast in Düsseldorf; it demonstrated just how much German Expressionism owed to his inspiration.

Although a handful of French works were included in 2012, the exposition largely concentrated on the moment in 1911-12 when a travelling exhibition of ten paintings by El Greco owned by Marczell von Nemes toured Germany, overlapping in Munich with the first show of the group of artists called Der Blaue Reiter.

It pitched more than 40 paintings attributed to the Cretan master alongside an extraordinarily powerful selection of works by the likes of Max Beckmann, Josef Eberz, Oskar Kokoschka, August Macke, Max Oppenheimer, and Egon Shiele. If anything, I came away with a view of Mediterranean light suffused if not quite overcome by Northern angst. The current exhibition additionally explores both the French and Spanish indebtedness to El Greco.

This year's commemorative show also traces the gradual explosion of interest in the artist through a range of books and catalogues, and, therefore, surveys the development of art-historical inquiry in the past century.

For instance, it includes the 1912 Munich catalogue of Der Blaue Reiter open at a page where one of El Greco's standing figures of St John the Baptist is illustrated next to Robert Delaunay's Tour Eiffel. Much the same effect is achieved in the Prado by placing the St John the Baptist, from San Francisco, next to Delaunay's Three Graces (1912).

When Édouard Manet visited Madrid in 1865, he wrote to a friend, Zacharie Astruc, that, in addition to Velázquez, only Goya and El Greco had impressed him on his visit to the Prado. It was Astruc who persuaded him to make the journey into the hills to visit Toledo, and to see for himself more works by an artist whom he had previously known only from engraved illustrations.

The exhibition begins with Manet's Dead Christ hung across the first hall from the massive altarpiece The Trinity that El Greco completed around 1579 for the church of the Convent of Santo Domingo el Antiguo. Manet's vulnerable figure, supported by angels, caused outrage at the time, but the composition is clearly based on the earlier work in which the dead Christ is lifted by his Father. Both artists emphasise the exposed defencelessness from which God has brought Life.

The celebrated painter Mariano Fortuny (1838-1874), whose son became the well-known fashion designer, visited the museum frequently between 1866 and 1868 to paint copies of Old Master paintings, distilling into watercolour the denser world of oil paint. His small copy of The Trinity (Havana, Cuba) offers a colourist sketch of the altarpiece itself, which is a hundred times larger.

Ricardo de Madrazo (1852-1917) was another talented painter of the time much influenced by the Spanish painters of the late 16th and early 17th centuries. His 1873 watercolour version of a portrait head of an old man by El Greco is set next to William Merritt Chase's portrait of Robert Blum of 1888 (National Academy Museum, New York). Both articulate something of the enigmatic in the original, while keeping the intensity of the sitter's gaze.

Also in the show is the much debated Woman in a Fur Wrap (Pollok House, Glasgow); in Toledo it was shown as an authentic original, but here it appears with the more usual question mark over the attribution. For ten years, the portrait hung in the Louvre (1838-1849) and was much admired by, among others, Théophile Gautier, who fancifully suggested it might portray the artist's daughter.

When it was bought by the art-historian and later Parliamentarian Sir William Stirling-Maxwell, he illustrated it in his influential volume Annals of the Artists of Spain (1848), bringing it to a much wider audience.

It was later engraved for a French publication in 1869, and it is most likely that it is from the Paris book that Cézanne copied it around 1885-86 for a portrait that has been exceptionally loaned from a private collection in London. The later canvas is the same width as the original, and allows for an almost identical copy with a more geometrically pared-down composition and simplification of form in the Cézanne.

The confrontation between Cézanne and El Greco is particularly telling in the juxtaposition of two portraits loaned from the United States. The artist's wife sits in a red dress (1889-90) against a curtained wall in her home. Alongside is the inquisitive portrait of the poet and court preacher Fray Hortensio Félix Paravicino (Boston). As both sitters appear not to have a lap, the immediate impression is that they are standing inside the chairs on which they are intended to be sitting. This adds to the instability that haunts Cézanne's use of multiple perspectives.

Interestingly, although Paravicino (1580-1633) was a great patron of the arts, and especially of painting, he was greatly opposed to the licentiousness that was likely to derive from depictions of the human nude, and called for the wholesale destruction of all such works. What might he have made of the two polychrome wooden figures (of the 1590s) of the Risen Lord and of Epimetheus exhibited here?

Both are academic nude figures (the brother of Prometheus has an impossibly long back) that the artist seems to have used to arrange compositions rather than to teach anatomical observation. Cézanne seems also to have known such sculptures - or, at least, as much is suggested by placing them either side of a small version of his Bathers (Musée d'Orsay, Paris).

Among the younger generation of artists who became interested and excited are the Catalan Ramón Pichot and Ignacio Zuloaga (who also bought works by El Greco) and, perhaps most profoundly, Pablo Picasso. In one of his pen-and-ink sketches, reckoned to date from 1899, Picasso playfully practises his signature "Yo, El Greco", much as he famously signed a 1901 self-portrait "Yo, Picasso". But what would it mean to be El Greco, to inhabit his world so closely as to become the artist himself?

The answer, if such it is, came to me from several surprising pictures that I had not expected - nor just from Picasso himself, wonderful as it was to be able to see later works such as his 1969 Musketeer with Sword and Cupid (Oviedo) and his Man, dated 8 November 1970.

In Düsseldorf, I must have overlooked Jacob Steinhardt (1887-1968), whose 1913 The Prophet, I now find, had been loaned from the New Synagogue in Berlin. Steinhardt was born in Źerków when it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and he died as a settler in Israel.

Now in Madrid, it was his Cain Fleeing, dated 1912, that stopped me in my tracks. The mountainous wilderness through which the naked Cain flees is painted beneath a heavy sky that presages destruction, and might have come from the master's visionary sky above Toledo in the great Laocoön (Washington, DC). Steinhardt has made a painting, lying somewhere between interiority and abstraction, that is something about imminence, not in the manner of the Toledan, but as if he were El Greco.

In much the same way, I was taken by the Dutch artist Adriaan Korteweg (1890-1917), who lived in Munich for a year before the outbreak of the First World War and who came to know Kandinsky and members of Der Blaue Reiter and through them to an appreciation of El Greco. His 1913-14 Composition is paired with a version of Prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, loaned by the parish of St Mary, Andújar, a medley of colour, and his 1914 Laocoonte Munich speaks to a world about to descend into uncertainty and chaos.

Similar juxtapositions throughout the show bring a whole new dimension to the study of Modernism. It is suggested that the Mexican-born José Clemente Orozco (1883-1949) was inspired by the St Sebastian in Palencia Cathedral (shown in Toledo, but now back in Castile and Leon) for the refectory mural that he painted of Prometheus for Pomona College in California in 1930. The commission for $5000 was never fully paid; when Orozco arrived he found that the college had raised less than a fifth of the sum, and he asked whether they still had the wall!

Professor José Pijoán, who invited Orozco - at the time, one of Mexico's leading muralists - to Pomona College, was a Catalan, and had published an article on El Greco in The Art Bulletin shortly before work began in Frary Hall, suggesting that both men wanted to show continuity as well as development. Here we see a later (1944) picture that derives from the mural itself.

Wisely, the curator has not included every picture by El Greco and his workshop which is in the Prado. More than 20 can still be seen upstairs in rooms 8B and 9B of the permanent collection. Visitors to the anniversary show would be well advised to remind themselves first of the range of those works; however familiar El Greco can seem, there are always surprises to be had.

Both the 2012 Düsseldorf extravaganza, staged appropriately in the 1925-28 building of the Ehrenhof by Wilhelm Kreis, and the current exhibition prompt the obvious question why this artist had ever fallen out of favour. Although it was not until 1902 that the Prado, founded in 1819, held its first show of El Greco, this commemorative exhibition pays more than fitting tribute.

"El Greco and Modern Painting" is at the Museo Nacional del Prado,  Calle Ruiz de Alarcón 23, Madrid, until 5 October. Phone 00 34 91 330 2800 or (about bookings) 00 34 902 10 70 77. www.museodelprado.es

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