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Back to 2014_04_04_FYL_El Greco. Una nueva mirada

María Concepción García Gaínza, Professor of Art History, University of Navarra, Spain

El Greco. A new look

Mon, 07 Apr 2014 11:18:00 +0000 Published in Navarra Newspaper

It is now four hundred years since the death of El Greco in Toledo on April 7, 1614. The commemorations organized on the occasion of this anniversary are an opportunity to review his figure and look at El Greco with new eyes that serve to dismantle the clichés about the painter that have been emerging, after centuries of oblivion, since the appearance in 1908 of the work of Cossío -who considered him the quintessence of the Spanish- and in relation to the mystics Santa Teresa de Jesús or Fray Juan de la Cruz. Other authors saw in him an astígmata for the elongation of his figures, or a madman for his visionary world, and finally an expressionist reminiscent of contemporary German expressionism. The current vision of El Greco, after the knowledge of new documents and above all of his annotations -marginalia- to the books of Vasari and Vitruvius by which we know his ideas about the arts to which is added the restoration of his works, has nothing to do with the previous topics still widely spread today. El Greco is now understood as a painter of his time, a capricious painter as a good mannerist, whose inexhaustible creativity was expressed in a subjective work of the highest artistic quality. This fact and his rebelliousness against the establishment made him one of the painters who will leave the greatest mark on modern painting.

A long training
The life of El Greco describes a singular pathway , Crete, Venice, Rome and Toledo in which a meeting of civilizations takes place. Born in 1541 in Candia (Crete), now Heraklion, his first training will take place in the Greek Orthodox iconography, in the tradition of Byzantine icons that imposes the flat background in the composition and thus denies the special illusionism of the third dimension. Already as a master, signature his first works as Master "Menegos (Domenikos) Theotokopoulos painter". The profound assimilation of the Greek manner is sample in the Dormition of the Virgin of Syros and in the Adoration of the Kings of the Benaki Museum and this neo-Byzantine Greek character is to remain an indelible substratum in the painter, which would appear in his later work both in his tendency to deny the background and in the abstraction of the forms of his last period. His move to Venice in 1567 will put him on contact with the great painting that developed in the Serenissima Republic and, above all, he will discover in Titian a new way of painting based on color, tonal painting, color-light as the antithesis of Florentine painting that rests on line. In addition, he will take from the Venetian master the subject of the human figure, its volume and dynamic forms that are integrated into a dramatic and complex composition. El Greco will be even closer to Tintoretto for his mannerism and work procedures, such as using small sculptures for his copy and Bassano. Surprising is El Greco's assimilation of Venetian painting and his oil painting technique, on which he would become an expert, as well as the appropriation of the color of invoice in the form of stains, which Francisco Pacheco would call "cruel erasures". At the end of his life the color range will become more mannerist based on blues, greens, yellows and grays. In this way, El Greco became a Renaissance painter also initiated in the theory of art. The landscape of Mount Sinai is enigmatic, full of religious and emotional echoes that he represents in the Triptych of Modena, inspired by an Italian engraving.

His move to Rome took place in 1570 after a trip to Padua, Vicenza, Verona, Parma and Florence, which allowed him to meet the great painters and architects. In Rome, where he would live for seven years, he would contemplate the great works of Michelangelo and his numerous followers, an art like the Florentine one based on the design diametrically opposed to the Venetian one that El Greco practiced. Although he criticizes Michelangelo for his lack of color - although he admires his drawing and sculpture - he is subjugated by the Florentine genius, as some of El Greco's later paintings show. Nevertheless, the Roman works by El Greco, which according to Mancini were much admired in the city, such as the Healing of the Blind Man or the Expulsion of the Merchants, show the assimilation of the Venetian manner, although he develops an architectural scenography full of classical quotations in which Rome makes its mark.

Intellectual painter
El Greco was an intellectual painter knowledgeable in art theory as well as a practical artist in painting, sculpture and architecture. For his training in these subjects was final the attendance in Rome to the meetings of the intellectual elite around the scholar Fulvio Orsini, librarian of Cardinal Alexander Farnese, which took place in his own palace and attended by a select group of Spaniards as Benito Arias Montano, humanist and librarian of El Escorial, the member of the clergy Pedro Chacón and Luis de Castilla, son of the dean of the cathedral of Toledo Diego de Castilla, who would help El Greco to be introduced in the city of the Tagus and to receive the first commission of the cathedral. He also belonged to the Academy of San Lucas in Rome and opened a workshop practicing portrait painting. Already in his Toledo phase, El Greco wrote treatises on painting and architecture in the manner of the Italians, which have been lost today, and defended the nobility of art and his concept of 'naive or liberal art', free from the payment of taxes. As an intellectual, El Greco possessed a large Library Services with books in Greek, Latin and Italian. The first Francisco Pacheco, Velázquez's father-in-law, writes of El Greco that "he was a great philosopher of sharp sayings and wrote of painting...". He considers painting as the superior art over the other arts, since he considers that the greatest difficulty is in the color with which the illusion of reality is achieved, and sample his admiration for Titian, Raphael, Correggio and Parmigianino, the latter for the slenderness and grace of his figures", as analyzed by F. Marías and A. Bustamente in theirmarginalia. El Greco accepts the idea of an artificial, intellectual and capricious art typical of the mannerist theory and prefers the elongated figures for being more beautiful than those of the normal canon, figures of 9 to 12 heads.

Imperial Toledo
El Greco was first in Madrid and in 1577 in Toledo, supported by his Roman contacts. In this eastern city for its layout and mysticism, as it is popularly called, he receives his first commission from the dean Don Diego de Castilla for the cathedral, the Expolio, which sample his brilliant way of painting -although the chapter discusses its high price and some iconographic liberties- and then three altarpieces for Santo Domingo el Antiguo. The following year his only son Jorge Manuel was born to Jerónima de las Cuevas, whom he would never marry. When his attempt to paint in El Escorial like other Italian painters failed after being rejected by Philip II for the Martyrdom of St. Maurice (1584), he settled definitively in Toledo where he had opened a workshop and where he worked until his death with the help of his son Jorge Manuel and the Italian Francesco Preboste who had come with him from Italy. From his early days in the city of the Tagus, his dedication will be that of portraitist and religious painter, thus serving his clientele without touching the still life. As a portrait painter he is considered on a par with the greats of the genre such as Titian or Rembrandt. His sober portraits of great psychological penetration as the Knight with his hand on his chest, seen now after the restoration without the neoclassical darkening, Fray Hortensio Paravicino or the Portrait of Jorge Manuel are anthological works as are the portraits of the gentlemen who contemplate the Burial of the Lord of Orgaz, true unicum of his painting. It seems that El Greco never fully integrated or mastered the Spanish language , but was always a Greek, an extravagant and sublime painter who signed his work in Greek all his life. Despite this, he painted Toledo repeatedly, although it is an intellectual representation that distorts reality and changes the location of emblematic monuments such as the cathedral, the Alcazar or the Tagus. Abandoning the scenography of the Roman works, Toledo now occupies the backgrounds of the paintings and becomes the Immaculate Oballe in the Marian symbols, the Crucifixion in the heavenly Jerusalem and the Laocoonte in the legendary Troy, according to Martínez-Burgos, thus reclaiming the mythical origins of the city.

El Greco and Carranza
El Greco was a painter who expressed the ideals of the Counter-Reformation by reaffirming the dogmas against Protestantism as advocated by the archdiocese of Toledo. His penitents, such as the Magdalene or the Tears of St. Peter, the series of apostles and the representations of the Virgin Mary or the Holy Family come to respond to this demand. El Greco's patrons transmitted to the painter some of the ideas of Bartolomé Carranza, a Navarrese from Miranda de Arga and archbishop of Toledo, who had suffered a trial by the Inquisition when he was accused of spreading heresies in his Comentarios sobre el Catecismo cristiano (Commentaries on the Christian Catechism), as Tellechea Idígoras studied. Carranza was imprisoned for seventeen years but the Council of Trent accepted several of the statements of the Catechism which was considered "the most excellent guide on the sacraments of the Church". D. Davies has developed at length the relationship of El Greco's painting with the spiritual reform in Toledo and the ideas of Carranza and he wanted to see in Laocoon the metaphor of the archbishop whose voice was silenced as well as that of the Trojan priest. For R. Mann, D. Diego de Castilla, passionate defender of Carranza, commissioned to El Greco the altarpieces of Santo Domingo el Antiguo, in whose Resurrection of Christ he represented San Ildefonso characterized with the facial features of Carranza -that we know by the portrait of the archbishop of Luis de Carvajal in the conference room capitular of the cathedral of Toledo-, questionable question for Álvarez Lopera. Another of El Greco's patrons was Pedro Salazar y Mendoza -who took care with his writings to rehabilitate the figure of Carranza based on the orthodoxy and innocence of his Catechism-, Administrator of the Hospital de Afuera in Toledo, who commissioned his altarpieces to El Greco in which the story of Salvation was depicted according to Carranza's ideas, ending with the Vision of the Apocalypse in which the naked bodies reflect the four graces that, according to Carranza, should characterize the righteous: spirituality, lightness, radiance and lack of the slightest pain, traits that seem to define the figures of El Greco. The Greek from Toledo, in the words of F Marías, was able to paint like no other artist "the world of the visible and the invisible". El Greco also achieved with his painting the synthesis of the two great Italian schools of the Renaissance, the color of Venice and the line and intellectual content of Rome, which merged into a subjective and original genius.