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  • Writer's pictureRomina Rosso

El Greco: a visionary painter

El Greco, Healing of the man born blind,ca 1571-73,Complesso Monumerntale della Pilotta, Galleria Nazionale di Parma

Palazzo Reale - Milan 11 October 2023 - 25 February 2024

The Royal Palace of Milan hosts in its rooms an exhibition with 41 paintings of one of the most revolutionary and visionary painters of the 16th and 17th century: Doménikos Theotokòpoulos, known as El Greco.

The painter, who in the history of art, has had alternating fortunes until the rediscovery and revaluation in the last century. El Greco is the representative of three different worlds, which he will mix all together: the Greek, the Venetian-Roman, and the Toledan.

El Greco lived in the period of the Counter-Reformation, which will bring in the subjects of the paintings a great flame of mysticism and being a man of intense devoutness and exalted imagination, he will become one of the protagonists of this period, giving expression to the spiritual exaltation of his contemporaries.

In the first section of the exhibition are displayed the Icons and his Cretan works.

Doménikos was born in 1541 in Candia, the modern Heraklion, centre of the encounter of the eastern and western culture, at that time under the domination of the Venetian Republic.

Cretan art was characterised by Greek-Byzantine Icons, which are painting flat, front images, detached from the realistic context, without volum, often on gold background. Doménikos, already an established painter, decided to continue his education by moving to Venice, where already four thousand Greeks lived, among them several artists gathered in their own guilds.

Venice was home of tonal painting, where Titian was still alive and ran a school with many students, where perhaps El Greco will enter. It is possible that he is that "valiant young disciple" of whom Titian were writing in a letter to King Philip II of Spain on 2 December 1567.

Doménikos is an extremely cultured person. He knows Ancient Greek, Latin and Italian, has a humanistic education, and a "frontier" faith with Orthodox and Catholic elements.

In his three years in Venice, he changed what most attracted him of the great Venetian masters in his own eclectic style with an absolute freedom.

From Titian adopted the "stain technique” of the brushstroke sketched in the application of colour, the slender and dynamic shapes, the iconographic motifs and his beautiful portraits; from Bassano owes the natural and artificial crepuscular lights and the interest in night effects; from Tintoretto the dramatic and expressive qualities of colour, the chiaroscuro, the spiritual restlessness and tragic sense of the history.

In Venice he created a dozen works of small format and devotional theme.

El Greco, The Modena Triptych, ca 1567-68, Gallerie Estensi Modena

The Modena Triptych stands out in the exhibition, where all the scenes refer to the themes of Salvation: on the front The Adoration of the Shepherds, The allegory of the Christian Knight (The Last Judgment) and the Baptism of Christ and on the back the Annunciation, the View of Mount Sinai and Adam and Eve.

The work, as a whole, has a cultural and doctrinal complexity inspired by the engravings of Titian, Parmigianino and the German prints with which El Greco created an extremely personal synthesis of the new pictorial and figurative language.

In the other small works of the Venetian period can be noted the Latin influences of Italian paintings, with the central perspective of Brunelleschi, the Venetian shades and the scenography setting that did not exist in Greek painting.

Tintoretto, The Last Supper, ca 1550, Museo de la Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Madrid

El Greco, The Last Supper, ca 1568-69, Pinacoteca Nazionale Bologna

In the exhibition a section is dedicated to dialogues with Italy. The Holy Supper of Tintoretto, not of the usual dimensions of his works, presents a theatrical component in the characters, in the gestures and in the use of lights. Note the seat on which Judas is sitting precariously because it will be taken by El Greco in his Last Supper. The work is much smaller than the one of Tintoretto but it has the same the stool used by Judas, similar is also the decoration of the floor and the attitude and position of some of the figures.

El Greco also visited Padua, Verona and Mantua, where he contemplated the painting skills of Giulio Romano.

In Parma, the city of the Farnese family, he praised Parmigianino and Correggio, who was considered by El Greco superior to all Florentine painters.

Then he went to Rome for a personal but above all professional growth. Perhaps it was introduced into the Roman environment by Guido Clovio, captain of the Serenissima and nephew of Giulio Clovio trusted man of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese.

He entered in a cultured world, frequented rich art collections of the cardinal, and the circle of his learned librarian and secretary Fulvio Orsini, for whom he painted seven works.

In Rome he came into contact with the classicism, the antiquities, the sculptures and the works of Michelangelo, who had just died, of whom he appreciated the harmony of the bodies and their anatomical treatment, but also with works by Raphael, Zuccari and Sebastiano del Piombo.

In his stay in Rome, he will create a number of works, themes of the Counter-Reformation, portraits, genre figures. Among these paintings also the Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple a subject of the Counter-Reformation alluding to the purification of the Catholic Church and its struggle against the Protestant heresy. El Greco provides six versions: two in the Italian period and four in the Spanish one.

El Greco, Christ driving the money changers from the Temple, ca 1610-1614, Iglesia de San Ginés de Arlés, Madrid

In the exhibition there is one of the latest versions where there are elongated figures and nudes in Michelangelo’s style and ancient sculptures. In the culture of the Counter-Reformation it was necessary to follow norms and tried to implement a religiosity that directly touched the faithful with the rhetoric of persuasion inducing the faithful to a faith without cracks.

After the plague broke out in Rome, Doménikos decided to move to Spain attracted by the possibility of work at the court of Philip II, as part of the great project of the monastery of Saint Lawrence of the Escorial.

In Madrid, the reactions of his art are cold but thanks to contacts with the dean of the Cathedral of Toledo he will move to Toledo where he will remain for thirty-six years and where he will be known as El Greco.

Toledo was the first city in Spain to implement the Counter-Reformation decrees in 1563.

Mainly a place for religious commissions, El Greco carried out an intense activity as a painter of sacred scenes.

In Toledo his art will explode in large-format paintings, with elongated shapes, with dizzying movements, acid colours of great beauty, increasingly unreal and visionary, intensely dramatic compositions, with an original language that would not have found proselytes but would have elevated Spanish painting internationally, inaugurating that "Siglo de Oro" that will see in the limelight Velázquez, Ribera, Zurbarán and Murillo.

In his early Toledan works, El Greco was still influenced by Titian but soon began to paint what he felt and to interpret Spanish naturalism.

But while the other painters of Spain were satisfied, either, like Velázquez, to bring the naturalistic representation to the highest point of truth of appearance; or, as in the case of Murillo, adopted the naturalistic motive to an expression of the sentiment of religion, El Greco interpreted the natural in relation to its spiritual environment.

He was a realistic who not only painted the soul of the facts, but made spirituality visible to the eyes.

El Greco , The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, 1586, Iglesia de Santo Tomé, Toledo

Let us take as an example his masterpiece The Burial of the Count of Orgaz of the Church of San Tomé in Toledo, in which the procession is realistic and contemporary but at the same time the figures of Christ, of the Vergin and the Saints are intentionally elongated and exaggerated and the clouds look like curtains that slide down. This was intended with the function of strengthening the spiritual meaning, uses the forms as a symbol of spiritual expression and the forms become the means to make the spirituality visible to the eyes. The result of the work is a great realism based on naturalism in which the spiritual meaning grows.

Jacopo Bassano, St Martin the beggar and Sant’Antonio Abate, sec. XVI , MBA Musei Biblioteca Archivio, Bassano del Grappa
El Greco, St Martin and the beggar, 1598, National Gallery of Art, Washington

In the exhibition, we can see these characteristics in the beautiful St Martin that divides the cape with a beggar, a work opposed to that of the same subject of Jacopo Bassano. The large work shows the typical characteristics of El Greco: a realism visible in the horse and in the armour but at the same time a deforming lengthening of the size of the beggar, a landscape on the almost abstract background and shades of acid colors that make more reminiscent of the avant-garde of the early twentieth century.

El Greco, The Agony in the Garden, 1597-1607, Santa María la Mayor, Andújar

In The Agony in the Garden, El Greco, as in the large altarpieces of the late 16th century, distinguishes the two dimensions the earthly and the heavenly. The first section of the painting with the Apostles John, James and Peter sleeping is rendered with warm and bright colours, the second on top with Jesus and the Angel with coldest colours. The type of evening and artificial light, recalls the Venetian one of Jacopo Bassano but is more unnatural. The violent source of light that bursts from the left gives the scene a strong surreal flavour that the presence of the pure angel of light makes even metaphysical.

El Greco, Holy Family with Saint Anne, 1595, La Fundación Casa Ducal de Medinaceli,Toledo

The Holy Family with Saint Anne is a beautiful example in El Greco’s works of the meaning of faces and gestures. All the women depicted by El Greco do not directly look at the viewer, following the treatises of the Counter-Reformation that indicated to the artists what to paint and how to paint it to move the viewer’s faith. Physicality and gestures become important: eyes downwards, necks bent, hands of the Child and the Madonna intertwined, the tenderness of Joseph holding the foot of the Child. All these gestures will lead to the Baroque language.

EL Greco, The Annunciation, ca 1596-1600, Museum of Prado, Madrid

In the Annunciation the elongated figures of the Angel and the Madonna follow the verticality of the canvas but at the centre of the attention are the hands of the angel crossed as a sign of devotion and those of the Vergin raised in surprise and wonder. All sparkles with light and the supra-earthly atmosphere completely invest the representation,without distinguishing the immateriality of the choirs of the musical angels above from that of the Annunciation below.

The surreal atmosphere is charged with expressionist notes, in the faces and in the expressions and gestures.

Another work of great impact in the exhibition is The Disrobing of Christ, a rare iconographic theme because it deals with the undressing of Christ but that El Greco will make famous with seventeen versions.

El Greco, The Disrobing of Christ, ca 1577–1579, Sacristy of Toledo Cathedral, Toledo

Unusually the hands of Christ are tied by a rope but one touches his chest and the other is in sign of blessing while his gaze is mystically turned upwards. The figure of Christ is isolated from the crude realism of the crowd that hastily surrounds him. In this work are also perfectly balanced the acid colours: from the red of the dress of Christ, to the yellow, blue and green and the beautiful uniform of the soldier that reflects the red of the tunic of Christ.

In the last part of his career El Greco returns to a devotional language that recovers in his own way the Byzantine language of icons, with the direct and frontal approach, without any distraction in the dialogue with the faithful, with works of great expressive and emotional strength, in which he seeks the ability of gesture and gaze.

El Greco, The Penitent Magdalene, ca 1585-1590, Parroquia de San Eutropio, Paradas, Seville

One of the most beautiful works depicts the Penitent Magdalene, where you can admire an extraordinary setting at night or twilight with a glimpse of light that opens into the sky to illuminate the expressive face of the Magdalene with eyes wet by tears that seem almost blurry.

Features are the tears, the face tilted pale and illuminated by light, the mouth wide open and that lonely ivy that grips the rock symbol of faith that resists. It’s a celestial image, strongly spiritualised and sensual. A theme that of the penitent Magdalene much loved by the Counter-Reformation for that fascination between sacred and profane that El Greco does very well by inserting human beauties, imploring and interiorly tense, in supernatural and disturbing atmospheres.

At the end of the exhibition, there is his only mythological painting: the interpretation of Laocoön.

El Greco, Laocoön, ca 1610-14, National Gallery of Art, Washington

El Greco had seen the sculpture restored by Michelangelo in Rome. His version is extremely original because it combines mythology with the setting of the city of Toledo, in the manner of Troy, in an unprecedented landscape show. A brilliant work of his last period full of messages that still today represent a challenge to be faced in depth.

The exhibition lacks the most important part of the fame of El Greco and his modern revaluation.

El Greco died in 1614 and was almost forgotten in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when it was rediscovered by Spanish Romanticism and especially by the twentieth century artists in Spain that gave him an incredible fame creating the Greco-mania.

El Greco is recognised as a forerunner of Impressionism, Cubism and Expressionism, father of modern painting.

Loved by the impressionists like Manet and Degas he was admired and copied by avant-garde artists as Cezanne, Picasso, Kandinsky, German expressionists but also by painters like Zuloaga, Sorolla and Chagall who appreciated him especially for his aesthetic language, the courageous use of colour and his originality.

The attention to El Greco coincided on one hand with the arrival of modern art and on the other hand with the growing influence of nationalism in art.

In fact, in a few decades El Greco not only became the father of modern art, but also, in a totally unexpected way, the privileged interpreter of the Spanish soul and the precursor of 17th century Spanish realism led by Velázquez.

The poet Léon Felipe describes the uniqueness of Greco’s work in this way: “Y en la historia de la pintura española no hay nada parecido…ni en la historia de la pintura del mundo” (In the history of Spanish painting there is nothing similar, but not even in the history of world painting). 

Signature of El Greco

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