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
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
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
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
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