Landmark El Greco retrospective at Met

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  Nov. 4, 2003 at 3:33 PM
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NEW YORK, Nov. 4 (UPI) -- At the top of the list of art exhibitions to be seen around the nation this season is the landmark El Greco exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum, the first American retrospective in 20 years of this popular 16th century artist whose work seems modern to each passing generation of art lovers.

The Met show will run through Jan. 11 and then will travel to the National Gallery in London in February. It is one of those blockbuster shows that is already attracting unprecedented crowds of viewers, including museum members willing to pay an extra $50 entry fee on Monday nights to avoid the crowds.

The artist born Domenikos Theotokopoulos in Crete in 1541 was popular in his mature years in Spain where he was called "The Greek," but was forgotten for more than 200 years after his death in 1614. He was rediscovered in the mid-19th century and has won increasing recognition as one of the most original artists of all time, forever fresh in his approach to painting in oils.

The Metropolitan's international loan exhibition of 80 works, many never seen before in the United States, gives particular focus to El Greco's late works after he settled in Toledo. They are notable for flickering, flame-like color that contributes to a sense of mysticism, psychologically expressive distortions of subject matter, supernatural lighting, and monumental scale.

The adjectives dazzling and dizzying also apply to the artist's work, although he could paint second-class paintings and some of them are in the show. Although most of his work is religious in inspiration, the paintings far transcend the category of Biblical illustration and can best be described as visionary.

This aspect of El Greco's genius is what has attracted many modern artists to his work, notably Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and especially American abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock. Five of Pollock's drawings of El Greco's work are on display in an adjacent gallery.

Greek Crete was a Venetian outpost in El Greco's youth and he was drawn to Venice after mastering the art of Greek Orthodox icon painting on his native island. He quickly absorbed the coloristic brilliance of Venetian painters, especially Titian, then moved on to Rome where he was greatly influenced by Michelangelo and the Italian Mannerists' taste for elongated forms and dramatic flourishes.

His final move to Spain in 1577, in a failed effort to obtain appointment as a court painter to Philip II, marked the maturing of his style best illustrated by paintings in the final gallery of the show labeled "An Art of the Spirit."

Perhaps the finest work shown here is "The Opening of the Fifth Seal" (The Vision of St. John), one of his final altarpiece commissions. It shows the saint and seven nudes being clothed by cupids, an allegory of sacred and profane love that dematerializes human forms and implodes the space they occupy to create a private and gloriously beautiful universe of the spirit.

Nearby is the painting El Greco created for his own tomb, "Adoration of the Shepherds," one of his most ambitious and mystical canvases containing his own self-portrait as a shepherd, and the brilliant altarpiece titled "The Virgin of the Immaculate Conception." This depicts the mother of Christ rising to the spiritual realm in the company of angels above a landscape of Toledo and a small, realistically painted bouquet of roses and lilies that represent the world of the senses she is leaving.

Also in this gallery is one of the artist's two surviving landscapes, "View of Toledo," one of the Met's own treasures. It is a spiritual portrait of the city and has little bearing on the actual geography of the place. Other rarities are models in polychromed wood sculpted by El Greco to represent the mythological personages Epimethus and Pandora that recall the artist's practice of making three-dimensional clay models of human figures as a painting aid.

The show opens with three Byzantine-style icons, one only recently found to be signed by the artist and two others merely ascribed to him. It moves on the the Italo-Byzantine paintings he produced in Venice, typical of the work of Greek painters working there, including three versions of an allegorical painting of a boy lighting a candle with an ape and a fool looking on.

Throughout the show several versions of one painting subject are displayed side by side. These revisited subjects include "The Miracle of Christ Healing the Blind," El Greco's only attempt at realistic perspective, "The Purification of the Temple," showing Christ driving out the money changers, and "The Agony in the Garden," a depiction of Gethsemane with surreal clouds bathed in moonlight.

The show progresses from strength to strength that can be quite overwhelming for viewers, who will find it easy to tarry for two or three hours over a succession of masterpieces, including powerful examples of El Greco's talent for portraiture including "A Cardinal." A visitor favorite is "St. Martin and the Beggar," two of the artist's most elongated figures in a composition that sums up the nobility of human compassion.

If it looks familiar it is, probably because Picasso used "Saint Martin" as the model for one of his most famous paintings, "Boy Leading a Horse."

A sumptuous show catalog to treasure has been published, with 175 color illustrations and essays by David Davies, guest curator of the exhibition, and John H. Elliott. ("El Greco," Yale University Press, 320 pages, $65).

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