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Art review: Greco: 1541-1614, Grand Palais

03 January 2020

Nicholas Cranfield sees a landmark exhibition

Photo © Archives Alinari, Florence, Dist. RMNGrand Palais/Raffaello Bencini

El Greco’s St Luke (1605-10), loaned by the Chapter of the Primatial Cathedral, Toledo

El Greco’s St Luke (1605-10), loaned by the Chapter of the Primatial Cathedral, Toledo

ONE of the challenging exhibitions staged in Madrid in 2019 to mark the bicentenary of the Prado gallery explored how, throughout the 19th century, collectors and museum directors followed the nationalism of their day. “Schools” of painting and sculpture were developed according to statehood. Art was used as part of the rhetoric and propaganda establishing individual national identities.

To a large extent, most galleries and the catalogues of many collections are still similarly arranged: “Medieval Netherlandish”, “Romanesque Spanish”, “Late Seicento Lombard”, etc. Such classifications, much like using a strictly chronological hang, have, of course, much to be said for them; but, as the Prado exhibition sought to demonstrate, the picture that emerges is partial.

Velázquez, Ribera, Valdés Leal, Zurbarán, Murillo, Goya, and beyond, Picasso, Dalí, Tàpies, and Miró shaped Spanish art, but how did they respond to artistic movements elsewhere? Can we understand El Greco (1541-1614) without being aware of the Dutch art of the Golden Age? Frans Hals and Velázquez owed much to Titian and Antonio Moro of the previous century.

A similar concentration on national character might also explain why the current show in the Grand Palais in Paris, which will be seen next year at the Art Institute of Chicago (8 March-21 June), is the first great retrospective accorded to El Greco — whose name was Doménikos Theotokópoulos — in France.

Some of his works were shown in 1937 at the Gazette des Beaux-Arts, and later appeared in more general survey shows held at the Petit Palais in 1976 and 1987. Otherwise, Greco, as he is called in France, has only ever been seen in touring collections from the Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum (Madrid), the Havemeyer Collection (The Met, New York), and the Budapest Museum of Fine Arts.

More than 70 autograph works, including sculpture (the Duke of Medinaceli has loaned the Risen Christ and the original tabernacle within which it stood), some rare sketches, and an example of his gilded framework, have been assembled in one of the long halls of the Grand Palais, taking us from the early years of the icon-writer in the Venetian Crete of the 1550s to Venice itself in the wake of Titian and Tintoretto, and on, through Rome, to the four decades spent working in Spain.

Works from North America dominate the loans (Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Kansas City, Minneapolis, Montreal, New York, Ottawa, Philadelphia, San Francisco; as well as Toledo, Ohio; Washington, DC; and Worcester, Massachusetts), the rest coming from European collections.

© collection particulièreEl Greco’s St Joseph c.1576-77, on loan from a private collection

Many are drawn from private collections and have been rarely shown before: the pensive St Joseph, head resting on his right hand, was bought at public auction in 2014; the second version of the Agony in the Garden and the unusually frank St Francis receiving the stigmata (c.1570-75) are both in private collections in London. The Pietà of 1580-90 has been shown publicly only twice before, in 1937 and 1982-83. It would alone justify a day visit to Paris.

The exhibition opens with some of El Greco’s smaller early works, including one of his first icons of St Luke painting the Virgin (Benaki Museum, Athens) and a celebrated triptych for a portable altar from the D’Este collections and one of the first of his Spanish commissions, The Dream of Philip II (c.1575-80).

Despite the poor condition of the tempera surface of the Benaki icon (1560-66), the overall composition can be readily appreciated, and the depicted icon of the Virgin Hodegetria on which the Evangelist is working shines out.

The central panel of the Modena altarpiece, between the Adoration of the Shepherds and the Baptism at River Jordan, blazes in unexpected reds, pinks, and oranges. It shows the Risen Lord crowning a soldier. Satan is trodden underfoot, cast aside on the ruptured gates of Hades, around which are gathered the symbolic figures of the Evangelists. Down below, the blessed are saved while the damned are about to be swallowed up by the jaws of a gaping hell-mouth.

The outer panels show God warning the naked Adam and Eve of the dangers of eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, under whose boughs they stand innocently, and, on the other wing, the Titianesque Annunciation. The Landscape of the God-Trodden Mount Sinai occupies the central panel.

Beneath Mount Horeb, where we faintly see Moses receiving the Tablets of the Law, is the fortified monastery built by the emperor Justinian, towards which two angels carry the relics of St Catherine. Contemporary engravings of Mount Sinai by the likes of Baptista Fontana (1569) and Walter von Waltersweil (1587) suggest that it is a commonly known typography.

The monastery’s large dependency in El Greco’s native Heraklion kept contacts alive between the remote Egyptian monks and his island, and it has been suggested that he maintained personal links within the city’s Sinaitic circles much as he later made use of the existing links from Crete with Venice.

 © collection particulièreEl Grcco’s Pietà (580-90), on loan from a private collection

From using tempera there, El Greco started to use oil paint: the uncertainty of his early brushstrokes shows him grappling with the new medium. The Deposition in the Tomb, the Galdiano Adoration of the Magi, and, perhaps most strikingly, the Philadelphia Pietà all play with colours that he had seen and learned in Venice and that he deployed in a way that appealed later to Modernists.

The compositions themselves use swaths of colour that become impossibly geometric, such as the Magdalene’s olive brown skirts in the Alana Collection Burial and in the lapping blue of Jesus’s discarded robe in the gardens of Gethsemane where the very human red tunic enfolds him in his doubt (Toledo and a private collection). It is the same red robe that the soldiers at Calvary are about to tear off him in “El Espolio” (National Trust, Upton House, Wiltshire.).

In the last gallery, four of the five narrative Christ Cleansing the Temple paintings are brought together for the first time since Andrew Casper’s ground-breaking study of his art and religious imagery (Books, 15 August 2014). Washington, DC, owns a version painted c.1570, and that from Minneapolis, in which El Greco pays tribute to four much admired artists, is thought to be some five years later. The National Gallery’s work is dominated by the figure of Jesus in a composition that the artist readily followed later for the Madrid parish of San Ginés of Arles. Only that from the Frick Collection has not been included.

Seeing compositions side by side offers more than a “Spot the difference” game as we are invited to observe how the artist shaped and changed his ideas, re-configured and strengthened narratives, and subtly shifts our focus.

© The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais/ image of the MMAEl Greco’s The Opening of the Fifth Seal, also known as The Vision of St John (1610-14), from the the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (Rogers Fund, 1956)

The fulcrum of the exhibition is the vast altarpiece of the 1577-79 Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Art Institute of Chicago), which is more than four metres high and two metres in width. It has been newly cleaned and restored for the exhibition. Placed in the centre of the show, between portraits of Cardinal Niño de Guevara and the Trinitarian Fra Hortensio Felix Paravicino, it reminds us of El Greco’s principal business.

His accomplishment as a portraitist, whatever one thinks of his understanding of anatomy, brings us into the company of the Spain where he made his home from 1577, first in Madrid, where he never quite achieved the royal patronage that he expected, and then in Toledo, where he is buried. Pompeo Leoni, if it is he, sculpts a portrait bust, while, in another portrait, from Copenhagen, the artist paints an architect. In both portraits, El Greco seems to be challenging the primacy of other art forms, entering a popular discourse of the day.

The last canvas that we come to is one of the artist’s last works, The Opening of the Fifth Seal or The Vision of St John (Revelation 6.9-10). In it, we encounter something of his understanding of his own mortality and of the end of Time. The all-important vision has itself been amputated from the top of the composition, leaving us to hear for ourselves the cries of the slain.


“Greco: 1541-1614” is in the Galerie sud-est, Grand Palais, 254-256 rue de Bercy, Paris, until 10 February 2020. Phone 0033 144 131717. www.grandpalais.fr

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