The fall and rise of “The Greek”


Special To The Japan Times

For an artist, expatriation can be a kind of death — because for an artist, it can mean estrangement from the contexts and locations that secure a place in the annals of history that tend to emphasize centers over peripheries. El Greco (1541-1614), “The Greek,” was born Domenico Theotocopoulos and though he began with relative success, he fell quickly into oblivion upon his worldly dispatch.

Born in Crete, he sought training in Italy before he took the amalgamation of his painterly genius to Spain, after which he had no followers of note. The dark interim of near anonymity until his modern rediscovery led to hyperbolic biographical accounts of the artist that labeled him during the modern period anything from Jew or Catholic to pagan, mystic and lunatic. Much was unknown and the void could be filled without concern for historical accuracy.

Modern painters, amid a wave of Espagnolisme, the rise of mid-19th-century interest in foreign European customs and King of France Louis-Philippe’s (1773-1850) exhibition of Spanish paintings at the Louvre in 1838 led to their rediscovery of El Greco. Cezanne and Picasso found in the stylistic exaggerations and contortions of bodies in his paintings something that resonated with the present state of artistic affairs. Even the Japanese painter Suda Kunitaro (1891-1961) would paint in homage to El Greco.

This year marks the 400th anniversary of El Greco’s death and so the largest retrospective of his work in Japan, 51 pieces in all, is presently underway. Working at the end of what is now known as 16th-century Mannerism, El Greco inherited Mannerist stylistic conventions but deployed them with such lyrical sensuousness and moody expressiveness that he appeared to the modernists as almost a 20th-century Expressionist.

Mannerism, while stylistically diverse, abstracted upon earlier Renaissance painting’s emphases on naturalism, the refined symmetries found in one-point perspective and calculated measurements of the human body. The art historian John Shearman defined it this way: “We require, in fact, poise, refinement and sophistication, and works of art that are polished, rarefied, and idealized away from the natural: hot-house plants, cultured most carefully.”

The ideal Mannerist work, then, was something unnatural or a seeming improvement upon nature, something that was strange to first sight. El Greco’s mature style was its epitome.

El Greco held the title of master painter from 1563 in his native Crete where he carried on the tradition of Byzantine icon painting, exemplified by his egg tempera “Saint Luke Painting the Virgin” (ca. 1563-65). He left for one of the leading European artistic centers, Venice, in around 1567-1568. This was in part due to Crete being under Venetian domination since the 13th century and so he could count himself a Venetian subject.

In Italy, he added to his stylistic repertoire the Italian penchant for perspective and the careful proportioning of bodies. He also borrowed various pictorial elements of Titian, Tintoretto, Correggio, Parmigianino, Giulio Clovio and Michelangelo, though he mostly taught himself the lessons of the Italian masters. His amalgamation of the Venetian style and its color harmonies and discords is witnessed in a variety of works utilizing blues, pinks, greens and yellows. In Rome in 1570, he made primarily small devotional paintings such as “The Healing of the Blind” (ca. 1571-72).

Why he left Italy for Spain is unclear, but it may have been because, though he was now an oil painter, he could not win the commissions his contemporaries were being awarded in the teeming competitive environment. Arriving in Madrid in either 1576 or 1577, and then moving to Toledo, he was accompanied by his Italian assistant, Francesco Prevoste.

“The Greek” as he was known, and as he signed his paintings, insisted on his foreigner status. In 1582, however, he had naturalized enough to possess the requisite amount of Spanish needed to be the interpreter for a fellow Greek accused of being a crypto-Muslim at a trial by the Inquisition.

Having developed his mature signature style of serpentine bodies and limbs that broke the conventions of precise proportions, the major commissions for which he was overlooked in Italy still eluded him in Spain. His piece on the theme of the Matyrdom of Saint Maurice for the El Escorial Monastery in 1584, for example, was rejected by King Philip II.

Despite the lack of high-ranking commissions and comparatively few patrons, El Greco was able to live expensively; employing musicians to play while he ate well. Debt was never far away, however, and he borrowed from friends to support his lavish lifestyle and painted portraits of the less well known — a major feature of the exhibition — which provided him with a significant source of income. In his late work he took up the design of ecclesiastical sculpture and internal architecture such as altarpieces. Though assured of his own genius in all things, it fell upon the modern and contemporary periods to recognize El Greco proper.

“El Greco’s Visual Poetics” at The National Museum of Art, Osaka, runs till Dec. 24; open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (Fri. till 7 p.m.). ¥1,500. Closed Mon. (except Dec. 24).