Greek Revival

Flight Risk: El Greco's ecstatic The Virgin of the Immaculate Conception.Photo: The Metropolitan Meuseum of Art

‘We can define El Greco’s art by saying that what he did well none did better,” wrote an eighteenth-century Spanish critic, “and that what he did badly none did worse.” The critic was directing his admiration at El Greco’s portraits, his disdain at “the delirium” of the painter’s late religious pictures. For centuries, this was a widely accepted view: The ecstatic religious work was simply beyond the bounds of reason and good taste. Only the advent of modernism convinced the world of the value of the artist’s emotional intensity and radical distortions of space, form, and color. (Both Picasso and Matisse preferred El Greco to Velázquez.) Today, El Greco (1541–1614) is one of the most popular of the old masters. His View of Toledo might rival, in the poster shop, Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. That Spanish critic became, as so often happens with critics, one of history’s fools.

And yet … it’s a mistake to downplay El Greco’s difficulty. He deserves to be treated as one of the most challenging painters in the Western tradition, despite the contemporary predilection for disarming difficult artists by pigeonholing them as fascinating oddballs. El Greco was torn by competing values and powerful memories, and he was driven to express the inexpressible—the mystical union of the soul with God. The great virtue of the exhibition El Greco at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is that it highlights the enriching tensions in El Greco’s sensibility, emphasizing both his range and his most “delirious” creations. The selection of about 70 pictures—the guest curator is the English El Greco scholar David Davies, who was assisted by Keith Christiansen of the Met, Gabriele Finaldi of the Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, and Xavier Bray of the National Gallery, London—includes a good sampling of work from all periods in this peripatetic artist’s life.

El Greco began as an icon painter in Crete, and certain formal qualities of Byzantine icons—such as their elongation of the figure—never left his art. Crete’s more important impact upon him, however, was spiritual. While the Renaissance had made inroads on the island, the medieval intensity of Byzantium was still present. The rapture of monkish mysticism was not abstract or foreign to El Greco. At the same time, as a deeply ambitious painter, he naturally sought out the most exciting ideas of his time, which often had a secular character. In Renaissance Italy, he became a student of Titian in Venice, liberating himself from the conventions of icon painting and developing a new fluency with brush and color. In Rome, he studied anatomy intently, yet refused to join the chorus of praise for Michelangelo. The reason was probably that the Byzantine in El Greco could not finally accept the Renaissance celebration of the body, for that would seem to such a man to challenge the preeminence of the soul.

On view at the Met are three astonishing genre paintings the young El Greco made of a boy blowing on a burning ember to light a candle. Most painters of the time would have been interested mainly in the formal challenge of the theme, but El Greco obviously loved the sensation of a flaring, otherworldly light—like a mystical radiance. He became a student of academically rendered space, but an impatient one: In his Purification of the Temple, the turbulent figures fit uneasily into their surroundings. El Greco would have preferred, one senses, to upend the set table of Renaissance perspective—which reflected the measure of man rather than the proportions of Heaven. Even in Italy, he created increasingly abstract and artificial effects, but always for religious purposes and never with the self-admiring, arch cleverness of the Mannerists. Increasingly, his paintings transformed the body into a leaping flame that reached upward into spirit-torn skies. His contemporaries were impressed by the Greek’s painterly and intellectual gifts, but he remained an outsider; there seems to have been a proudly provincial and unyielding aspect to his temperament. He was not a successful careerist either in Rome or, subsequently, at the Spanish royal court. But Toledo, where he settled in 1577 at the age of 36, proved an ideal place for him, an intellectual and religious hot spot some distance from the capital.

In the Met’s exhibition, the curators do something wonderfully disorienting. After we’ve grown accustomed to El Greco’s religious light, they bring us into a room containing nothing but his portraits, which, rather than rising above the world of appearances, are masterpieces of close observation (Velázquez, for one, revered them). They include two of the greatest ever painted: In Portrait of a Cardinal, probably Don Fernando Niño de Guevara, El Greco brings to life a wary, crabbed, but impressive public figure; the cardinal holds authority the way an eagle clasps his perch. In Fray Hortensio Félix Paravicino—a picture of a monk, poet, preacher, and personal friend of El Greco’s—the painter captures the scintillating but restless flicker of an inquiring mind. I doubt there’s a more sympathetic picture of an intellectual in Western art. This back-and-forth between flesh and spirit in the exhibition stretches our sensibility: We must encompass both.

No sooner have we adjusted to El Greco the portraitist, however, than the curators shock us once more—with El Greco’s late paintings. They are certainly delirious. Perhaps the greatest of them is the newly cleaned Virgin of the Immaculate Conception. The picture, an altarpiece, seems to “begin” in its lower right with a realistic depiction of flowers that, to churchgoers, would have looked like a continuation of actual flowers lain on the altar. The flowers direct the eye upward past a small, brooding view of Toledo—at which point the picture seems to burst into an exultant heavenly space. The Virgin, borne by angels and cherubs who seem made of light and air, soars into an efflorescent sky. In this and other works, El Greco, who avoided the formulaic bathos of the Counter-Reformation, took remarkable risks. Such pictures do not keep up appearances; they seem to forget themselves the way a visionary or an ecstatic would. It is exactly right that they should be sort of embarrassing. (In their presence, I found myself coining phrases in order to tame them: “El Greco was a medieval modernist with a Renaissance education.”) The truth is that El Greco asks more of you than analysis or appreciation. He wants your soul. You should twist a little in your skin, as his figures do.

Greek Revival