Greek Fire

Anne Gardom on a cross-cultural visionary

The exhibition at the National Gallery of the paintings of El Greco the Greek (Domenikos Theotokopoulos, 15411610) is the first major exhibition of his work to be shown in this country. It includes his very early work as an icon painter in Crete, small sculptures, sketches, and devotional paintings, altarpieces, allegories and portraits covering the whole range of his working life.

El Greco was born in Crete, then a Venetian colony, and practised as an icon painter there. In this exhibition is some of his very early work. Even in these traditional icons you can see the influence of the Renaissance painters and the beginning of the freedom of expression which became characteristic of his later paintings. The much damaged icon of St Luke Painting the Portrait of the Virgin and Child shows the portrait itself as a traditional icon, but St Luke himself rests a foot lightly on the easel and holds his brush with a spirited delicacy that comes from a completely different tradition. There is also a very early work, The Dormition of the Virgin, which was only identified as being by El Greco in 1983. It comes from a church in Syros where it still forms part of their worship.

More Veneziano

When El Greco moved to Venice in his thirties, he came under the influence of Titian and Tintoretto, two great Venetian artists, and began to develop his much more fluid and open style of painting and composition. He painted in Rome, and finally in Spain, where he settled in Toledo. His paintings need to be seen against a background of intense religious activity, the Counter Reformation and the struggle against the forces of Islam and the Ottoman Empire. The influence of his paintings extended far beyond his own time (though he fell into relative obscurity after his death). He has influenced the painting of many later artists such as Cezanne, Sargent, Picasso and Jackson Pollock. The immediacy and religious intensity of his work still speaks very powerfully to us today.

El Greco found the subject of Christ Turning the Moneylenders out of the Temple a source of endless fascination and richness. There are four paintings of this in the exhibition hanging alongside each other. They were painted over a period of 40 years, and show a progression of style and change of emphasis. In the early picture Christ is shown in an elaborate architectural setting, almost lost in the centre of a struggling crowd. As the sequence progresses the colours become clearer and the number of figures in the crowd decreases, the architecture becomes more simplified, the lighting more dramatic, but above all the figure of Christ becomes more elongated and full of dynamic movement as he wields his flail, now the irresistible focus of the whole painting.

With the Farnese

Michaelangelo, a giant among his contemporaries, was greatly admired by El Greco, who spent time in Rome under the patronage of the wealthy Farnese family. The influence of Michaelangelo's monumental marble sculpture the Pieta, a group of three figures supporting the dead Christ, is echoed in El Greco's paintings of the Virgin and two apostles mourning over the body of Christ. They too have a monumental quality despite their small size and are painted with brilliant fluid brush strokes against a stormy sky.

El Greco's first commissions were for religious paintings, intended for private devotional use and for the decoration of churches. In all his paintings the distortion of figures and perspective, the energy of the draperies, the cloudy skies, and supernatural lighting combine to emphasize the paramount importance of their spiritual content and message.

The beautiful Disrobing of Christ demonstrates this very clearly. The canvas is crowded with figures, the Virgin and two Marys are in the foreground gazing pale-faced at the soldier drilling holes in the cross. Christ in a brilliantly painted red robe which is about to be torn from him gazes heavenward with supreme detachment, while you can almost hear the angry crowd behind him, all jostling figures, shouting faces and bristling spears. In the entire painting figures and perspective have been distorted and even abandoned in order to give power and drive to the narrative.

Quite different and no less original, is his enormous Crucifixion with Two Donors. Here the silvery grey body of Christ is lifted against a stormy sky, no crowds, no soldiers, no apostles, but the beautiful elongated body stretched in isolation on the cross, with the two sombrely clad donors gazing up at it.

Toledo

The extraordinary painting of the Immaculate Conception painted for the Oballe Chapel in Toledo shows a hugely elongated figure of the Virgin thrusting upwards into a circle of brilliant light supported by angels with dark wings like eagles. They rise from a shadowy landscape lit simultaneously by the sun and the moon. The picture is flanked by huge paintings of St Peter and St Idelfonso, the former dramatically elongated and standing on a small sliver of rock against a luminous sky, and the latter in wonderfully embroidered rose-pink episcopal regalia.

The subject of the Nativity was dear to El Greco and he frequently painted it. One of his last paintings, which includes himself, was of this subject and was designed to be hung over the family tomb in Toledo. The Virgin holds a brilliant white cloth, on which lies the Holy Child. The little body is the sole source of light in the enormous picture, silhouetting hands and profiles and casting dark shadows among the folds of colourful draperies.

The almost hallucinatory painting, the Opening of the Fifth Seal the Vision of St John, is part of El Greco's final undertaking, and he did not live to complete it. The painting shows the ecstatic St John and the souls of those who were martyred. Though much damaged and mutilated it gives a glimpse of his extraordinary visionary painting.

Portraits in tension

To those who associate El Greco with paintings of saints and apostles gazing heavenward with tearful eyes, the energy and directness of his portraits will come as a considerable surprise. Renaissance portraits were concerned to portray a man's character and emotions as well as being a good likeness and an expression of power and prestige. El Greco was much in demand as a portrait painter. The silk robes of the Inquisitor General gleam with light and the textures of lace and linen are conveyed with flicks and streaks thickly applied paint, surmounted by a watchful intelligent face. Where the portraits are more monochrome the crisp white ruffs encircle long and narrow faces with grave melancholy eyes. In the painting of his friend, the young Fray Hortensio Felix Paravicino, El Greco paints a striking portrait of an intense and brilliant young man, a poet, orator and charismatic preacher. In its black and white habit the seated figure is full of tension, and nervous energy.

This is a major exhibition of a painter whose work still influences contemporary artists. His message is as clear and immediate today as it was to his contemporaries four hundred years ago.

El Greco is at the National Gallery till 23rd May. Sponsored by GlaxoSmithKlein

Entrance: 10. concessions 8. Family Ticket 20.

Anne Gardom is art critic for New Directions.

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