On an artist-to-artist basis, sieving through El Greco’s impact is easy enough. We now know that he changed Picasso, and that without his example there could not have been a Blue Period or cubism. Recent assessments of El Greco’s meaning for Jackson Pollock have made his influence there clear and present. More surprisingly, Cézanne must have been an aficionado. And, of course, Goya inherited his Spanish fierceness and that preparedness to distort from El Greco. Picasso, Pollock, Cézanne, Goya: it’s the A team.
But I want to go on and claim more than that. When you tour the El Greco exhibition, you encounter an artist so obviously registering a protest against naturalism, so clearly choosing his own path through the forest of art, so supremely confident about what he is doing and so set on making his difference public, on putting himself out there, into the arena, that he seems to be inventing the mind-set of the modern artist. Any modern artist. All modern artists.
And, dammit, I’m not certain that he doesn’t also change the perspective we should adopt on the artists who came before him, too. Can we really rate Leonardo as highly as we do, or, worse, the pretty Raphael, once we have been buffeted like this by El Greco? What warrior spirit there is here, what intensity, what courage and hand speed. Does he not have the somewhat unfortunate effect of making most of his predecessors appear insipid and false? El Greco is red meat surrounded by madeleines. The fancy cakes, that is, not the fallen women.
What I admire most about him is his belief. I’m not religious. But were I to be religious, I would wish to be religious in this way. Full-on, 24/365/52. Every brush stroke El Greco adds, every composition he imagines, has a religious excitability about it, a sense of divine occasion. Everywhere in his output there is a heightened awareness that God, at all times, is responsible not only for all that is good in life, for all beauty, but also for all the terrible things, for all horror. Fear and adoration in equal measures, an awareness of heaven and a simultaneous dread of hell, are the joint constituents of every mark El Greco makes. Even when he paints his adopted home town, Toledo, in one of the earliest pure landscapes in western art, the place appears to be visited in mid-hymn.
El Greco was born in Crete in 1541. Which makes him the first Greek artist of note for the best part of two millenniums. But he was different from his studied, decorative classical predecessors in the way that a fire is from a chimneypiece. Crete was a Venetian colony at the time; indeed, it was the world’s first modern colony. And Domenikos Theotokopoulos, who was later called El Greco for obvious space-saving and linguistic reasons, but who, I am delighted to note, always signed himself with his full Greek name, must have had decent aesthetic contacts with his Venetian overlords.
The show’s opening room has two examples of his early work as an icon painter. Their impact is fiercely golden because they have so much gold in them. One shows the death of the Virgin, the other St Luke, the patron saint of painters. Look carefully at both and you will see the strict stylisations of Byzantine religious art being usurped by radically naturalistic ambitions. St Luke rests his leg on his easel with a most un-Byzantine non- chalance. The architecture behind the dead Virgin attempts some fine Renaissance perspective. Even within his own tradition, El Greco was a rebel.
In this show, he only spends two pictures as an icon painter. Then, abruptly, the gold is gone and he is part of the western tradition, with a fully illusionistic oil painting of the burial of the dead Christ. It’s a frustrating leap from one style to the other. So many pictures must be missing. What strikes me as remarkable is how easily he adopts our way of making art: three-dimensional space, muscular anatomies, close botanical detail. He must have been able to do this all along. I say “our way” quite consciously. There is a battle going on here between eastern and western methods. By bringing the east with him, El Greco was, we can now see, a protomodernist from the off — antinaturalistic, the possessor of high conceptual ambition.
He spent seven years living in Italy, first Venice, then Rome. Again, there simply aren’t enough pictures left for us to gain any reliable sense of his progress. When he arrived at last in Spain, in 1576, he was already in his early thirties, Christ’s final age, old enough to be aesthetically complete. And the show’s second room offers a startling display of immediate assurance. It’s dominated by the Louvre’s tall, thin Crucifixion. But my eye was drawn — it couldn’t help but be drawn — to an immense St Sebastian, a wall-sized nude, greyhound-lean, impervious to his arrows, squirming on his rope like a watchdog on a lead.
El Greco’s genius for reimagining tired religious subjects, giving them actuality, is immediately clear.
There’s also a row of versions here of his fantastic image of Christ driving the moneychangers from the Temple, setting about them with a whip, chronically outnumbered, but wading into them nevertheless: Bruce Lee v the Triads. The National Gallery, impoverished though it is in El Grecos, does at least own the best of these purifications. It’s an important picture on a crucial El Greco theme. Christ’s battle in the painting might be said to be El Greco’s battle in the show: to restore proper belief and real religious energy to a corrupt and flaccid religious system. El Greco was the art gladiator of the Counter-Reformation.
He is famous, infamous even, for the liberties he took with the human anatomy. He made his people long and thin, stre-e-e-tched them up the picture as if they were made of bubble gum. It’s an effect that his own age, and many ages afterwards, had immense difficulty accepting. The chief reason El Greco was dismissed as “barbaric” for 300 years was this propensity for stretching. We, of course, have seen Dali steal El Greco’s leggy thinnesses, and we have had Giacometti, so we are primed for it. But can you imagine how strange the spectacle of, say, St Martin and the Beggar, two impossibly tall men and one impossibly tall horse, would have appeared to the conservative churchgoers of Toledo, where he moved in 1577? The spiky thinnesses we see all about us here have no ambitions to be weird, or unlikely. They are part of El Greco’s brilliant aesthetic strategy: a fascinating conceptual gesture, designed to separate art from life, the sacred from the profane, the illusion from the reality. El Greco was ahead of the game in recognising that an art based solely on the mimicry of reality can never fight the fight that needed to be fought for religious ideas. When he paints that stupendous view of Toledo, and charges the landscape with that huge quantity of static energy, he seeks to capture the spirit of the place, not its appearance. Look at the dark clouds gathering above Toledo. Feel the imminence of divine judgment.
The central gallery here is a breathtaking place. It’s full of intense religious pictures that thrust towards the heavens like flames caught in an uprush. Where can this paintwork have come from? Getting up close to it, you can easily spot the protocubism, the Jackson Pollock moments, the influence on Cézanne. But this merely explains where El Greco went. It does not explain where he came from.
Unbelievably, given his taste for stormy brush strokes and extreme pictorial distortion, he was a sculptor, too, and the show includes a pair of exceedingly curious carved wooden statues, about as tall as a ruler, of Epimetheus and Pandora, an unexpected blast of Greek mythology in these intensely Catholic surroundings. I couldn’t discern a millimetre of extra elongation in either of the two nude carvings. They strike you as anatomically ordinary. And therefore, in this company, rather weird. Before I read their labels, I assumed they must represent Adam and Eve. But, of course, Pandora, who opened the jar that Epimetheus is holding, even though she shouldn’t have, and thereby unleashed all the horrors onto the world, was the pagan Eve. So there is Catholicism here too. Hidden. Fascinating. By proxy.
There are two things wrong with this magnificent, once-in-a-lifetime spectacle. One is that it does not go on for another couple of rooms, and does not include all of the great pictures that were present for its American manifestation. The second is that it has in it a portrait from Glasgow of a dark lady in a fur wrap, which is so obviously not by El Greco that its presence here is laughable. Perhaps it was deliberately included for light relief.