Apr 2004 Journal

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Art Notes

He was born Domenikos Theotokopoulos in 1541, but the Cretan artist, better known as El Greco - the Greek - who fell under the spell of Titian and Tintoretto in Venice in 1568, and Michelangelo in Rome two years later, had an independence of vision which put him into a class of his own. For nearly 300 years after his death he was consigned to obscurity, but his artistic individuality came to life again in the late nineteenth century. The painter is celebrated in a new exhibition until 23 May at the National Gallery, where his incandescent and fearless use of colour, light and form not only prefigured Impressionists like Picasso and Cézanne, but inspired later modernists, such as Jackson Pollock. And we're talking about a true sixteenth-seventeenth-century Renaissance man.

You might say that El Greco was the first conceptualist, because he believed that images are conceived in the mind rather than as part of a process of mere observation. Perhaps it was his training as a painter of icons that lent him a spiritual insight into the Byzantine world. El Greco gave the world of religious experience a more subjective dimension, and his experiments with perspective and more naturalistic use of light and colour grew from his contact with the great masters in Venice.

The antiquities of Rome and the voluminous talent of Michelangelo were next to engage him, but his praise of the great Italian painter was not without critical comment, especially for his use of colour, although he learned much from Michelangelo's understanding of anatomy. What makes El Greco so eternally vivid, so utterly contemporary, is his deliberate flouting of artistic convention: his work is characterised by elongated or distorted forms, sharp noses and swirling brilliance of colour - reds, blues, yellows - to express his inherent ideas, which might have been lost in a too literal translation.

El Greco settled in Toledo, then the ecclesiastical capital of Spain, in 1577, during the Counter-Reformation and his powerful portrait of a cardinal, believed to be the Inquisitor General Cardinal Nino de Guevara, evokes a sinister intelligence. It was painted, it is understood, when the Cardinal was en route to an auto da fé. He also painted a converso as a beggar on the road, perhaps a nod to Toledo's Jewish history.

El Greco's religious ideas were undoubtedly informed by his Greek Orthodox background. He depicted the holy alliance of politics and clergy, and the turbulence of his time could be seen in the way he often painted the sky in turmoil, the clouds ominous. In this he betrayed something of Breughel. In one painting the Christ-child is depicted almost as a light bulb, etiolating the features of his parents. Two paintings of Christ driving the traders from the Temple, completed between 1570 and the mid-1570s, show an interesting development. In the first, Christ is enraged by the merchants but, in the later painting, his actions seem more in sorrow than in anger, his face detached with purity.
Gloria Tessler

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