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PRINT May 2001

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El Greco

“Cubism is Spanish in origin, and it was I who invented Cubism. We should look for Spanish influence in Cézanne. . . . Observe El Greco’s influence on him. A Venetian painter but he is Cubist in construction.” Pablo Picasso must have been in an exceptionally grandiose and perverse frame of mind when he uttered these words. His claim to be the sole inventor of Cubism is certainly exaggerated, but what are we to make of his claim on El Greco as aesthetic forebear?

In 1960, when Picasso reportedly made this statement, he was hardly a recent convert to the cult of El Greco. As early as 1899, he had sketched the head of a man resembling an El Greco saint and scribbled beneath it, “Yo, El Greco.” In his recent study of the two artists, Robert Lubar incisively analyzed that lapidary inscription: “Picasso simultaneously paid homage to a venerable Spanish painter and declared his position as El Greco’s legitimate heir.”

Nonetheless, Picasso’s sweeping claims about El Greco may initially seem a bit incredible. After all, it wasn’t unheard of for twentieth-century painters to construct fake artistic pedigrees in order to validate their own creations and wrap themselves in the guise of historic respectability. The Surrealists, for example, appropriated Hieronymus Bosch, while Frank Stella positioned himself as the Peter Paul Rubens of late abstraction. Seen in this light, Picasso’s notion of El Greco as a proto-Cubist may begin to look suspicious and not a little egotistical—but, as it happens, the affinities between the two painters may actually be even greater than he imagined.

Our understanding of El Greco is still haunted by an idea that emerged about a hundred years ago, when Spanish scholar Manuel B. Cossío, attempting to construct a historical context for the artist, hypothesized that his extraordinary paintings were inspired by the writings of the contemporary Spanish mystics St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. Over the last twenty years, however, documentary discoveries and new interpretations have provided almost epiphanic insights into this itinerant artist, revealing that El Greco was a determined transgressor of the social, cultural, and artistic norms of his time and place. In short, he was a vanguardist avant la lettre.

El Greco’s unusual artistic itinerary is one factor that no doubt contributed to his innovative approach to painting. Born Domenikos Theotokopoulos, the son of middle-class parents, in 1541 in Candia (now Heraklion), the principal city of Crete, which was then a Venetian possession, he received a solid education and was trained as an icon painter, working in the rich but conservative tradition of Byzantine art—a tradition that was, significantly, non-naturalistic and nonillusionistic. It prized elegant execution but left little space for invention and originality.

When El Greco decided to leave Crete and move to Venice in 1567, he had to rearrange not only his household possessions but also his mental furniture. Accustomed to making small gold-ground icons, painted on panel with tempera, he was now confronted by the monumental oils on canvas of Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese. Inch by painful inch, he struggled to assimilate what for him was an alien manner of painting.

Three years later, El Greco went to Rome to study figure drawing in the “school” of Michelangelo, but by then he’d already cast his lot with the Venetian colorists. Although he learned how to draw the human figure from Michelangelo’s works, he remained permanently skeptical about the Florentine’s ability to paint. By 1577, when El Greco moved to Toledo in quest of the commissions that had eluded him in Italy, he had finally reinvented himself as an artist. Like Picasso in Paris, he approached the grand tradition of classical art with as much doubt as reverence. With his experience as a Byzantine painter behind him, he could see right through the conventions of Italian painting. Naturalism was an option, not an imperative; classicism was an invention, not an inevitability.

El Greco’s marginal position in the realm of Italianate art was reinforced by his marginal position in Toledan society. As we know from his recently discovered writings and from the copious documentation of his life, El Greco was arrogant, opinionated, combative, and acutely self-aware as an artist. His imperfect grasp of Spanish marked him as an outsider; as we see in his writings, he freely mixed Italian words into the local language. He fought with his patrons and frequently took them to court in search of more money. Although he had a small circle of friends, drawn from the ranks of learned churchmen and civic officials, he constantly tested their loyalty by squandering his resources and seeking their financial support.

El Greco’s abrasive sense of entitlement was justified, so he thought, by his genius—and, fortunately, he was right. A volatile mixture of talent, pride, and exceptional powers of critical thought produced masterpieces that can be considered truly original. As he grew older and his confidence increased, he decided to break every rule in the book. The current exhibition of some forty paintings at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, provides an excellent overview of El Greco’s idiosyncratic development. Even now, almost 400 years after his death, it’s still hard to believe he started his career with the small-scale post-Byzantine icon St. Luke Painting the Virgin, ca. 1560–67, and ended it with such a personal interpretation of the Italian aesthetic as the monumental Laocoön, ca. 1610.

Laocoön is a perfect demonstration of how El Greco, from his perch on the periphery of the Renaissance, found the right conditions for his radical pictorial experiments. The composition, perhaps unfinished, is a purposeful deconstruction of the most famous antique sculptural group known to the Renaissance. El Greco disrupts the unity and harmony of the original composition by borrowing and reworking poses from another hallowed work, Michelangelo’s Medici tombs. In the sculpture, Laocoön and his sons share a common fate as the serpent coils around them, strangling them to death. To El Greco, this composition was pure melodrama; on the contrary, he understood death as “a secret revealed to one person at a time.” Thus in his canvas the writhing, elongated figures struggle individually with their fate, while two enigmatic figures at the right observe the calamity but do not move to help. The background view of sixteenth-century Toledo, which displaces the ancient city of Troy and warps historical time, moves forward and back in pictorial space like a Cubist passage; it is roped into the foreground by the neat semicircle of the snake’s tail even as it appears to hover in the distance. Almost lost in the middle ground, and out of scale with anything else in the picture, is the Trojan horse, the linchpin of the narrative here almost thrown away by the audacious artist. Flat, abstract clouds suffused with a steely light are suspended over the composition yet are not firmly situated in the sky. Looked at in one way, they cover the town, but in another they move slowly in the direction of the hapless priest and his sons. Linear perspective, on which Renaissance illusionism is based, is revealed for the trick that it is, and pictorial space is shaped and reshaped at the whim of the artist.

Picasso was right. “We should look for Spanish influence in Cézanne,” and “observe El Greco’s influence on him.” A Venetian painter? Perhaps not, but El Greco was indeed “a Cubist in construction.”

“El Greco” opens May 4 at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, and is on view through September 2.

Jonathan Brown is Carroll and Milton Petrie Professor of Fine Arts at New York University Institute of Fine Arts and the author of numerous books on Spanish art.