Manufacturing a modern master: El Greco at the National Gallery

There is something strangely depressing about the El Greco exhibition currently on show at the National Gallery. It isn’t just those airless, headache-inducing underground rooms with their mean proportions and ugly electric light, either, although they obviously don’t help — no more than they help any art, in fact, other than that painted after, say, 1950, which is the one sort of art they almost never hold. Nor was it even that moronic strapline, enjoining us from the side of every other bus to ‘Be Inspired — Cezanne, Jackson Pollock and Picasso were’, with its smug assumption that whatever fame adhering to El Greco comes entirely via the last century. (While we’re on the subject, though, why put the names in that order, when Picasso’s borrowings from El Greco took place long before Pollock’s — and why include Pollock’s first name but none of the others?) No, while the problem with this exhibition has something to do with both those things, it reaches deeper than either of them. Never before have I seen thrown into such sharp, almost painful relief exactly what I dislike most about this whole curious, confused, deeply arbitrary, in some ways regrettable business of ‘art’.

I write all this despite the fact that the El Greco exhibition has managed, in its own terms, to get an enormous amount right about this difficult, elusive artist. The catalogue, for instance, is a model of excellence, fairness and intelligent commentary, both in its longer essays and in the detailed, informative entries provided for each of the exhibited works. The catalogue’s contributing authors show every sign of being concerned less with the paintings as they appear today, on the gallery wall, than with the circumstances that led to the paintings’ creation, the intellectual and spiritual currents that streamed all around them, the context in which they were displayed and the reactions of contemporaries towards them. Most remarkably of all, the contributors — notably the excellent David Davies — have shown heroic strength in evading those lazy, easy stereotypes that linger around the image of Inquisition-era Spain, managing to portray it as a place positively bursting with vitality, open to developments in the world around it and highly theologically sophisticated. This matters, too, because it recasts El Greco as very much a creature of his age and culture, in touch with international developments in art as well as thought, rather than in the Romantic role of the misunderstood loner at odds with — or worse still, ‘ahead of’ — his time. Again and again, the catalogue chips away at misconceptions about El Greco until one is left with plausible, well-rounded, complicated and compelling new vision of the artist. So this really is that rare thing, a monograph that really ought to be read both before seeing the exhibition, and then again afterwards. I imagine it will take its place amongst basic reference-works on El Greco for some time to come.

The exhibition itself also scores some successes. First and foremost, the quantity and quality of the actual works is incontrovertibly impressive, including both surprises and old friends from abroad. If it has lost some works on its journey from Manhattan to Trafalgar Square it nevertheless remains the most generous gathering of El Greco’s oeuvre that London has ever seen. And — everything I am about to write notwithstanding — this is why this is, ultimately, an exhibition that no one who cares about the history of Western painting should possibly miss. From the cool corridors of Capodimonte came El Greco’s infinitely moving, highly Titianesque portrait of the aged miniaturist Guilio Clovio through whom the youthful Greek painter gained entry to the glittering company of the Farnese court, a work that is grave and elegant but also nothing like what one expects of the El Greco of modernist lore. From that island of American high cultural tranquillity, the Frick Collection, comes another surprising portrait — that of Vincenzo Anastagi, painted c. 1571-6, when El Greco was still trying to make a name for himself as a portraitist in Rome. Again, this is anything but an obvious ‘El Greco’ while remaining a staggering good painting — weighty, tough yet painterly — with a touch and feeling for volumes that resembles nothing more than Manet transcribing Velasquez, although in fact the surprisingly happy marriage here is that of Roman drawing sidling up to a Venetian sense of how to apply oils. If nothing else, this sends the sharp shock of contingency up the alert viewer: how different a painter might El Greco have been had he not more or less failed in Rome, been chucked out of his safe berth in a Farnese palazzo and wandered off to Spain in search of a less testing market? Then from Glasgow there is the ‘Lady in a Fur Wrap’ (late 1570s), a disturbingly sensual, sexy work from this apparently austere artist — her fur stole is all pastiche late Titian, as is that clumsy hand, but the huge wary eyes and high colour are something from El Greco himself. Or are they? No one knows who the sitter was and, truth be told, not everything thinks that El Greco even painted this beautiful, tragic thing. Tintoretto has been mentioned, as has Coello. And whatever this does or doesn’t say about the painting, it tells one something about El Greco, or rather ‘El Greco’, the art-historical entity, which is that we don’t necessarily know very much about him – who he was, what he was doing – and that what we do know often stresses his peculiarity less than it stresses his absolute integration into his time and his field of endeavour. And, of course, it also speaks of his absolute debt to Tintoretto, everywhere apparent in this exhibition.

Let us leave the great altarpieces to one side for a moment. Perhaps the greatest success of the current National Gallery show lies in its juxtaposition of four El Greco paintings, all on one theme but spread out over decades. Had there been nothing else for us to see, this would have been worth the journey. The subject is the Purification of the Temple — an ultimate type of cleansing, purification and redemption. Here the works we see are from, respectively, the early to mid 1570s, c. 1600, c. 1600 (again) and after 1610. Here the ‘progression’ is as much exegetical as it is artistic. In the first, we see El Greco as a sort of icon-maker, copying from someone else’s work in a devout sort of way, making a Tintoretto-type space but not fully understand its logic or rhythms; the figures lack weight and the mannerist ‘dance’ is out of step; there is clutter and great aesthetic sacrifices on the altar of theological intelligence. And then what happens? Over time, the spaces resolve themselves, like something hardening out from a woozy dream into waking solidity. Figures either fall away, or fall in with the linear demands of the composition. In one painting, a quartet of artists (Titian, Michelangelo, El Greco’s patron Clovio and perhaps Raphael) appears in the lower left-hand corner, one of the most literal footnotes that has ever appeared in painting. The focus narrows, the emphasis on the central figure of Christ increases. Eventually, all that elaborate architecture, the increasingly schematised colour, the increasingly powerful outlines, all the other figures all lead towards that one arched body, that one purgative and exculpatory blow. One could write a book on El Greco based on these four images alone, and it would not be a bad book. These comparative moments are, perhaps, what such big exhibitions do best. In the present show, these four produce what is perhaps the most intense, analytic, sympathetic moment.

All of which makes one wonder why the National Gallery did not do the obvious and direct this exhibition more generally toward the strengths of its own, first-rate collection. Otherwise, why commit the treasures of the Met etcetera to that hallowed yet grim little basement? There are, obviously, National Gallery pieces here, but they are all (at least notionally) by El Greco. I simply do not understand why, if the curators were unwilling to add works not by El Greco to the show, if only for the sake of comparison, they were so unwilling to assemble a room upstairs full of the Venetian, Roman and Spanish artists who continued to play such prominent roles in El Greco’s artistic life — something that the National Gallery is far better placed to do than virtually any other gallery in the entire world. Or, barring that — if, for instance, they feel that some visitors might be traumatised at failing to find a familiar Titian in its accustomed place — why not build on the example of the highly successful ‘Seeing Salvation’ exhibition, and arrange a walk from room to room, seeking out relevant works with the help of a sponsored information sheet? It is difficult, otherwise, to work out any reason why exhibitions should take place at the National Gallery rather than, say, the RA or even the Banqueting House. There are moments when the personal, individual, subjective comparison between two or more works can teach us more about an artist than any critic could ever hope to do, and if the National Gallery is standing in the way of such moments, it really ought to re-think the role that it serves — which is not, after all, simply a matter of ‘saving’ vulnerable Raphaels from the capacious devouring maw of the Getty Collection, which after all would never take good care of such works and show them off to a wide international audience, including the children of Raphael’s native Urbino — well, could it?

Never mind. Back to El Greco. I have not yet come to the end of the really remarkable, unmissable works in this exhibition. The National Gallery of Crete has sent along an amazing portrait of Mount Sinai — a work almost unnervingly in touch with Hellenistic painting — not via the indirect route of the Renaissance, either but rather via the icon-painting traditions of Greek Orthodoxy. Since the ‘View of Toledo’, in all its haunting stylisations, came out of something rather than nothing, this is a work of central interest for anyone concerned about the history of landscape painting. But then in this exhibition we have the ‘View of Toledo’ itself. For anyone used to seeing it in its usual home at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, amidst all the gilt and brocade with which the New World felt it necessary to greet the Old, this basement room creates a poignant set of sensations. Against the grey basement walls, the acid colours are all the more striking, perhaps excessively so, whereas the symbolic content gets a little more thoroughly lost than is strictly necessary. Next to it hangs the famous ‘Laocoon’, having travelled all the way from Washington DC. Hanging the two together makes sense, because both share that distinctive Toledo skyline, the ominous black sky, the restless flow of line. It is up to the catalogue, however, to make a really amazing case — heaven only knows whether it is true — that the Laocoon, far from being some modernist icon born out of its time, is actually a polemical little work addressed to an in-the-know audience, designed to suggest that a particularly high-profile campaigning priest was innocent of the crimes for which he had been denounced by the Inquisition. Thus at least at the level of thought-experiment we are propelled into a world where everything in art — not just an ‘innovation’ no one yet admired, but a deeply traditional sense of form, borrowed from classical sculpture via the Italian Renaissance — was subordinate to the claims of faith, and any secular work so obviously thin and uninteresting that one might naturally look for the devout, Catholic subtext. The intellectual and sensory convolutions most of us have to make in order to simulate sympathy with this are more extreme than anything shown in the ‘Laocoon’ itself. This, in other words, is what the experience of seeing what is known as ‘great art’ ought really to be about.

And yet, in the main central gallery of the exhibition, we are brought face to face with the extent to which such imaginative journeys smack of eccentric exceptionality rather than accepted mainstream opinion. Here we are faced with quite a number of altar-pieces — tall, intense, some of them very important indeed. All, needless to say, are hemmed in by the wretched low ceiling, the cramped proportions, a space so narrow that it would hardly suffice for the side-aisle in a minor provincial English parish church. Well, never mind. Many of them have also been mutilated — not only the usual damage sustained by works that have been rolled up, bashed about, ineptly transferred from their supports, whatever — but a surprising number have also endured the indignity of having a curved portion at the top removed, in some cases lopping off the principal iconographic focus of the work, while most have been narrowed down at the sides. Some are simply unfinished. They are modestly framed and shown at a level becoming to easel paintings. The light illuminating them is electric, which is to say glaring and harsh. Our eyes confront them from the smallest of distances, unmediated by altars or ritual, bathed in that unforgiving glare. What are we to make of the result?

Needless to say, most of these paintings were meant to be seen as if they were set about a pre-Vatican Two altar — which is to say, not only raised up a dozen or more feet above the level of anyone who would possibly see them, but lit only by a carefully-observed combination of natural light and candle-light. All would have existed as part of some elaborate scheme, again intensely well-considered, of liturgical apparatus, including altars, frames, statues, architecture and ritual practice. The catalogue is very clear about this, as it is about the pains El Greco took to ensure that each facet of this programme was executed to absolute perfection. A photo of, say, the Chapel of St Joseph at Toledo shows how much is at stake.

Put simply, appropriate context strips that alleged ‘modernism’ from El Greco’s altarpieces and restores them to their proper place as normal, mainstream, highly effective adjuncts to Christian worship. Hung high, in the right light and with the right surroundings, so much of what is freakish, individual, ‘modern’ about El Greco falls away. The same, incidentally, is true of Tintoretto. For years I found his drawing too emphatic, his colour too schematic, his figures too mannered and deformed — until I visited the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice and understood, in one of those rare moments of aesthetic revelation, what I had been missing. Like the great masters of the Venetian altarpieces, El Greco was entirely alert to the ends that his painting was intended to achieve. The fact that these poor, mutilated, misunderstood works still catch the eye at all is more a function of our own pathetic, anachronistic misunderstandings of them than anything else. One might as well half-scrape down a 1948 Pollock, add some canvas to one end and hack off the other end, put it in an enormous gilt frame surrounded by sculpted angels and place it high on the wall of a dark, incense-stained chapel before pronouncing on its spiritual qualities. Horses for courses, and all of that. As anyone who follows these things should be well aware by now, I love Pollock’s best paintings. But I see virtually no relation between what El Greco was trying to do and why Pollock was trying to do, and I find the attempt to shoehorn El Greco into this alien context not only barbaric and grotesque, but actually quite distressing.

The complaint here is, in part, an aesthetic one. If we are, at some level, being shown, say, ‘The Opening of the Fifth Seal’ (borrowed from the Metropolitan Museum of Art) on the strength of the influence it exerted on Picasso during its sojourn in Paris, surely we should realise the extent to which what we are seeing has nothing to do with El Greco, his eye or his decisions? Surely we should be told, for instance, that it is unfinished? Or that there may well, in fact, have been an altar there at the (now truncated) top of the painting, giving the apparent yet otherwise pointless excitement of its figures a very specific focus? Or that the curious way in which the figures are packed into that narrow space — surely a powerful influence on Picasso’s ‘Demoiselles d’Avignon’ — owes nothing to El Greco and everything to the nineteenth century hands that cut it down to a manageable, frameable size? Or that of the ten ‘El Grecos’ that influenced Picasso in that famous private collection in Paris, this is the only one that is now accepted as having been painted by El Greco himself? Or that the handling — although we should have the wit to realise this ourselves — is coarse and obvious, as it is in all his altarpieces, because it is meant to be seen from afar, whereas the handling in all his easel works, meant to be seen from a distance of a few feet — the portraits, the smaller works — are all executed in a far more careful manner, with the brushstrokes largely hidden and the forms much more carefully integrated into the ground?

Even the formal qualities we admire in El Greco, then, stem completely from the selectivity with which proto-modern taste has excavated, isolated and misunderstood a perfectly mainstream, orthodox inhabitant of Catholic Christendom. Obviously El Greco is not the only painter to have suffered from this sort of mistreatment — Caravaggio is another blatant example of a painter whose work means one thing in one context, something else in another. Yet even looking round the National Gallery, it becomes clear that this case is more important than most. The Gainsborough and Reynolds canvasses may well miss their Palladian corridors and views across green lawns; the Dutch genre paintings may miss those absent intimate spaces and iconographic literacy; the Poussins may sigh chastely after a different understanding of landscape and the classical world; even the old Italian triptychs may long for the dull rumble of familiar prayers, familiar genuflections, a world of reverent attention of which they have been starved for too long. Yet although we cannot behave towards these works as their creators might have expected, at least we can see them from something like the right distance, so that their colours, lines and finish are vaguely clear to us. To belabour the point for one final time, this is simply not true of the El Greco altarpieces on show in this exhibition. Forget for a moment what we are meant to think or feel — we are not even seeing what El Greco wanted us to see. How does that work as ‘art’ — least of all in our own post-modern times?

All of which leads me to a second, more important point, which has very little to do with aesthetics. Put simply, why on earth do we take these poor silent things, put them in harshly-lit grey cubes and talk anachronistic nonsense about them? Yes, it occurs to me, too, that an art critic who decides to criticise the actual category of art per se may have backed herself into a fairly narrow conceptual corner. Still, what can a critic do other than be honest about her own reactions to the stuff with which she’s confronted?

Right at the beginning of the El Greco exhibition, in a little case in the middle of the very first room, is a small icon, painted by El Greco while he was still in Crete. It depicts the Dormition of the Virgin. Tiny and rather battered about, it is neither very attractive nor very brilliantly executed. There are too many figures and too much activity. For anyone accustomed to the affective, emotive emphases of Western art, the best thing about it is probably Christ’s tender, proactive inclination towards His mother, which surely — well, for some of us, anyway — typifies His grace in reaching out and welcoming to his family anyone, no matter how afflicted or damaged. But it is not, to repeat, a brilliant icon. Yet despite all of this, I found it extraordinarily moving.

Let us strip away a few formal devices from this review. As usual, I saw this exhibition on its press day. I was there by 10.45 am. Pretty PR girls with bobbed hair and appliquéd skirts carried clipboards and smiled delightfully. Obviously the curator gave a talk. It was full of the usual erudition, emotional investment, good manners, well-bred diffidence and heartbreaking dumbing-down — actually, less of that last on this occasion than is normally the case, and more of the first — but the guests could hardly pack themselves into those little rooms and so ended up slipping, like bad schoolchildren, into the rooms nearby, whereupon they congratulated each other on this minor act of rebellion. And of course they chatted with each other endlessly. Half of what they said to one another was banal but harmless — the other half, so wrong that I could hardly bear it. Rather bizarrely, it was the most emotional response that I’d had to an exhibition since, I think, the Pollock show at the National Gallery in the late 1990s. There, I hated the emphasis on his wild, untamed nature — the noble savage re-cast as a infantile, hard-drinking cowboy — ‘what a slur’, I thought, ‘on a man who had painted with Mexican muralists, who knew his Tintoretto from his El Greco!’ But now I was full of radiant discord in the face of these many pleasant, adorably-dressed people, embracing each other before declaiming on ‘I can’t believe how modern … before his time …just look at his treatment of the picture plane …’

Reader, it was all I could do not to assault them, shrieking as I did so ‘El Greco wasn’t ‘modern’, and Picasso got most of his ‘El Greco’ from fakes, and anyway, can’t you do anything other than reciting the press release?’ This makes me sound angry, but I really did feel angry — although obviously I didn’t assault anyone, because I love good manners and self-assured deference almost more than anything else. This whole site did, however, make me sad.

What it also did — what I had not expected — was to transport me to Athens, where I spent a few days last summer. There, one day, amidst those halting requests for chilled instant coffees — phrases which form such a large amount of my working grasp of the language of Homer and Thucydides — I had wandered into an Orthodox church. The church stood in a busy, central market square. It was not historic, beautiful or otherwise extrinsically interesting. I only went in because it lay almost exactly across my path. The icons, as it turned out, were nothing very extraordinary, at least in art-historical terms. But that was hardly the point. What made an impression was something else – the stream of men and women, old and young, who came in to venerate the icons. Here in our world, ‘venerate’ sounds so formal — such a dry word to encompass those kisses, the little bows, the warm familiar eye-contact made between man and image — and also embarrassingly credulous. We could not do any of this without self-consciousness or a highly literary suspension of disbelief and so we struggle to imagine that anyone else could do otherwise. So it was strange to stand in the National Gallery watching that lively congregation of Courtauld-educated men and women mouthing thoughtlessly the grave little platitudes they had been taught, and carrying out the unsustaining little rituals of their age and class. Meanwhile El Greco’s battered icon languished in its case, unvenerated — indeed, largely passed over — in favour of the revelatory, redemptive qualities to be ‘light’ or ‘space’ in some other nearby hacked-about yet oddly more ‘modern’ masterpiece.

Obviously none of this troubled anyone else, as far as I could tell. (One reason for this is the under-publicised fact that quite a lot of critics don’t even look at the paintings when they go to press views. More than one broadsheet review of the National Gallery’s Titian exhibition made this clear, what with those lavish references to works that did not in fact appear in the show, having been pulled out at the last minute after the press packs were written, coupled with the failure to note any undocumented late substitutions.) And why should it? Glaring anachronism underpinned by self-referential fiction is the lifeblood of art galleries, their idiom, the mechanics that underpins the shabby little conjuring trick whereby otherwise blameless objects are converted to ‘art’, its purposes and priorities. The anachronism of showing El Greco as if he were all about ‘light’ and ‘space’ is no worse than what is done, elsewhere in the Sainsbury wing, with the work of other painters. And anyway, past a point, minding about this unduly skirts close to being wilfully eccentric nonsense — a pointless anachronism of one’s own. As someone who is not a natural ally of T. J. Clark once observed, “modernity is the practice we have and the life we lead […] we have all to accept it and live as it commands us, even when we despise it.” Doubtless he is right. Yet there is no point in lying about what I felt at the National Gallery — the chill air rising from the chasm that by now inevitably separates whatever El Greco intended and whatever it is we now see in his work — reflected through the lenses ground for us by Pollock, Picasso, Cezanne and all the rest. El Greco is, in a word, a beautiful and grave exhibition, but also — for those reasons — rather a sad, bleak, disturbing one. How, one wonders, will the children of four centuries hence hack back our dearest achievements to fit their own, truncated vision?

El Greco, sponsored by GlaxoSmithKline, is at the National Gallery from 11 February – 23 May. Admission costs £10; concessions, £8. The splendid catalogue, which is highly recommended, costs £25 paperback.

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