MY TOP SHELF- 32 – EL GRECO

 

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]

32

EL GRECO

F Gray Griswold (1930)

Privately printed, 1930; edition of 300 copies; signed by the author; quarter bound in vellum with gold title, and year of publication;;rough cut pages with sepia toned plates covered with tissue; rebound in quarter black morocco with gold title, and lemon cloth boards.

I hold the imitation of colour to be the greatest difficulty of art.

As with any kind of artist, it is not possible to describe the genius of El Greco in words.  You can only see it in the paintings.  Since I have not been to Toledo, and it is more than forty years since I visited the Prado in Madrid, I will confine myself in the first instance to those paintings I have seen on a number of occasions elsewhere.

The Metropolitan in New York has four paintings of El Greco, a man born in Crete who trained in Venice and Rome, and who did most of his painting in Spain, a servant of the Counter-Reformation, and a man about whose life we know as much as we do about that of Cervantes – practically nothing.

The painting of the Cardinal-Inquisitor is, aptly enough, about the most arresting portrait ever painted.  The Inquisitor, in all his red finery, is seated but he looks like he may take off.  His right side is secure, but the left is not, and it grips the chair.  But look at the face – behind those glasses – and all that you see are tension, anxiety, hesitancy, and suspicion.  Is this what the artist really wanted us to see?  The Catalogue for the 2003-2004 Exhibition at the Met and the National Gallery London contains these observations:

This celebrated picture – a landmark in the history of European portraiture –has become synonymous not only with El Greco but with Spain and the Spanish Inquisition.  His finely wrought features framed by a manicured greying beard and crimson biretta, the sitter is perched like some magnificent bird of prey in a gold-fringed chair, his dazzling watered-silk robes, mozzetta and lace-trimmed rochet flaring out like exotic plumage.  The round-rimmed glasses confer on his gaze a frightening hawkish intensity, as he examines the viewer with an air of implacable, even cruel detachment, his right hand impatiently – almost convulsively – grasping the arm rest.  (That should be left arm, as it was in the Titian preview.)

There has been some debate about whether the subject was the Inquisitor, but one conclusion is inescapable – this subject did not terrorize this artist.  In a very bland Greek film about El Greco, the movie starts with the Inquisitor visiting a dying El Greco to tell him that he would like him to do it again.  That part of the film had verismo.  This portrait is endlessly intriguing.

What is thought to be an older self-portrait is more orthodox, but it is a picture of a tired frail old man whose eyes are not straight.  The oval head is characteristically accented.  Elongation of form would become a hallmark.  The Adoration of the Shepherds has the light and colour and movement of later work, but the well-known view of Toledo has spooky kind of coloured life of its own as well as a sense of torment.  It also prefigures Cezanne, as does a lot of the work.

The National Gallery in London has three.  Christ on the Mount of Olives has a kind of exuberant freedom within measured geometric forms.  The figures of El Greco seem to have their own internal source of light.  The portrait of St Jerome is not one of a man seeking power – his hesitancy has a different origin to that of the Inquisitor.

But it is the other painting in London that is my favourite El Greco – and there is another in the Frick in New York.  It is the Cleansing of the Temple, the time when the young holy man and rebel from Nazareth took to the money dealers in the temple with a lash, and so probably sealed his own death warrant.  Almost all the figures are distorted in the way that became the trade mark of this great artist.  The Christ figure is a man on a mission and flowing with energy to that end.  The whole thing has the movement of Mozart, and behind the head of Christ is an Italian Renaissance background.  This is what one scholar says.  ‘The money-changers, panic-stricken more by the sudden revelation of power in the suave Christ than by the punishment itself, try to escape, but they cannot.   Brilliant is the planned confusion of the detail.  The upward-catapulted figures…make a frantic explosive series, away from the Christ and diagonally back into the picture space.’  It is very rare for a picture to be charged with so much energy and movement and rhythm.

As best we can tell, El Greco had a similar effect on his contemporaries as the Impressionists would have on theirs.  They had trouble just seeing the picture, much less accepting the style.  He was on any view ahead of his time, and he appears to have seen the artist as hero, having what Fry described as ‘a complete indifference to what effect the right expression might have on the public.’  A German scholar would maintain that there was a greater difference between Titian and El Greco than between him and Cezanne, and we can readily see how that is put.

The connection with the Church of Rome must have had issues.  Scholars think that El Greco was raised in the Orthodox Church in Greece.  The firm and clear teaching of the Counter-Reformation was that content was to be paramount over style, and this painter would have been about the last to kneel to that proposition.  Tact may not have been his strong suit – he is said to have observed that Michelangelo was a good person but could not paint, before he offered to paint over the Sistine Chapel.  We do not know if he married Jeronima de las Cuevas, the mother of his son, but one very attractive model appears to feature in a number of the paintings.  And it is a little hard to envisage the Cardinal Inquisitor being any more thrilled by his portrait than Winston Churchill was of the portrait that his widow burnt after his death.

Why, then, is this book on this shelf?  I greatly admire the work and what I may call attitude of El Greco.  He seems to me to come plainly within that remark of Henrik Ibsen about having the courage to commit a little madness now and then.  The book Report to Greco by Kazantzakis carries a real message.  This is a beautifully presented book that comes to me from Berlin, my favourite city, and carries these reminders of New York and London, two other favourite cities.  And then there is Mozart in the painting of the rebel taking to the money men – swinging Mozart in colour.

I cannot vouch for the scholasticity of the text.  Mr Griswold begins by saying: ‘I am not an art critic nor do I pretend to be a connoisseur of art.  This book is simply an appreciation of my friend, El Greco.’  A bit later we get: ‘Christianity is emotional, paganism was intellectual.’  To mix sporting metaphors, that is straight out of left field, and we can let it go straight through to the keeper.

 

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