The only thing that really needs to be said about Domenikos Theotokopoulos is that he was a great painter, one of the greatest. Beyond that, there are quite a few things to say about why we can all agree on that point almost 400 years after his death.
The world knows him as El Greco, the Greek, who lived and worked in Spain for most of his life and who has been claimed by that country as part of a pantheon that includes Velazquez, Goya, Picasso and Dali. His singular style has made him either loved or loathed for centuries, and pretty much undervalued until the 19th century.
A magnificent exhibition of 70 works by El Greco at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, on view through Jan. 11, lays to rest the old caveats about his fevered imagination and eccentric mannerist style, developed in isolation in Toledo, far from the European royal courts that ensured most artists' reputations. And for the record, his elongated figures were not, as many of us were taught in childhood, the result of a stigmatism.
Like Goya, El Greco became something of a poster artist for modernism. In the early 20th century, British artist Roger Fry wrote of El Greco's "purposeful distortion and pulling of planes," as if he were a savant. (An artist such as Cezanne probably took one look at wavering, incorporeal figures in The Opening of the Seventh Seal (The Vision of St. John) and rushed to his easel.) But he was, as all artists are, a man of his time, subject to the same cultural and intellectual currents as everyone else. What visions he had were the result of those influences. That he could use them or ignore them as he chose, along with his ability, made him the master of transferring the ineffable to canvas.
The exhibition is more or less chronological, beginning with The Dormition of the Virgin, painted before 1567, before he left for Venice. El Greco, born in Crete in 1541, was schooled in the Byzantine tradition, but even in this rigid genre is the hand of a post-Byzantine iconoclast. The figures, traditionally presented ramrod straight, lean into the recumbent Virgin Mary, Jesus especially, in poses of emotion and empathy. And the artist signed the work, a gesture of "I am" absent from most iconic paintings.
El Greco entered Titian's workshop in Venice and assimilated prevalent stylistic effects: freer brush strokes, Renaissance perspective, naturalism in form and light and, of course, Titian's gift for color, though he did not demonstrate a comfortable mastery of them. He learned a lot there, and later in Rome, but after 10 years, commissions were not forthcoming.
He left for Spain, hoping to find work in the court of Philip II. He painted The Adoration of the Name of Jesus between 1577 and 1579, at the king's request, putting Philip in the foreground kneeling with a host of other eminences in adoration of God who floats above, surrounded by angels, while the damned writhe in agony off to the side. It's a fine painting, and you can see already that El Greco is more interested in what's happening above the clouds than on earth. But Philip was not impressed and work from that corner dried up.
In settling in Toledo in the 1570s, El Greco did not sink into a backwater. True, it was not one of the ecclesiastical or political hubs of the world. But with a population of 60,000, it had a strong base of textile production, a prestigious cathedral and an elite class of scholars, merchants, lawyers and professionals, as well as clerics, who would provide El Greco with work and a circle of learned friends who would laud his talent for the rest of his life.
Still, it was a kind of proud, enforced isolation, though one that allowed him to find his personal genius. He lived well there, even beyond his means, handsomely paid for his work and enjoying extravagances such as the musicians he regularly hired to play during his dinner. The paintings from this period fall into two categories, portraits and devotional works.
As a portraitist, he's right up there with Velazquez. In A Cardinal (Probably Cardinal Nino de Guevara), a red-robed man with a patrician face and knowing eyes sits uneasily in a chair, peering through glasses, one hand curved into a kind of claw. A letter has dropped to his feet and he looks away from the viewer, possibly at someone who has entered the room, with unsettling concentration. His cunning leaps off the canvas even as the emblems of his power, prestige and holiness glorify him. No wonder it's considered a textbook illustration of the Spanish Inquisition, whether the artist intended that subjective reading or not.
The portraits in the exhibition, great as they are and far more accessible, do not so obviously reveal El Greco's unique virtuosity and charged vision as the last devotional paintings. How to explain where in his mind he formed these scenes that bear little relation to comprehensible representation? If we didn't know better, we might be tempted to accuse him of being under the influence of something more than his imagination.
In The Adoration of the Shepherds, the canvas glows with hallucinatory light, coming from a radiant baby Jesus. Around him the mortals are attenuated as if straining toward the heavens, about to lift off and join the chorus of angels above. Their brilliantly colored garments seem incorporeal, melting into the darkness.
Mary already has levitated in The Virgin of the Immaculate Conception. She's crowded by a heavenly host bearing her from the dark landscape of Toledo in a flame of incandescence. In the background, both the sun and the moon shine and throw off clouds like sparks. She's the serene center of a rapturous gyre, an angel at her feet who seems to thrust her toward a dove, symbol of the Holy Spirit. At the base of the painting is a realistic bouquet of roses and lilies, emblems of the Virgin; along with the ship, well, fountain and mirror, symbols associated with the Immaculate Conception; and a serpent, reminders of what can be lost or gained.
In both paintings, everything earthly seems in the very act of dematerializing: Toledo into a ghost town and the shepherds into the luminous folds of their draped robes. You feel at any moment the universe could explode in a frenzied ecstasy.
I agree with Michael Kimmelman, art critic for the New York Times, who wrote, "It's silly to review an iconic painter like El Greco." Sure, one could discuss ad nauseam spatial recession, anatomical distortion and color-glazing, but no one can explain or dissect genius. In this instance, it's enough to spend a few hours in its transcendent presence.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at lenniesptimes.com.