Art History-El Greco

Analyse why El Greco’s work had such an impact on Spanish artists at the turn of the twentieth century. At the heart of painting in Spain in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was a search for self-identity in a time of crisis and change. It was a time of civil disturbances and the loss of the country’s last colonies. In Barcelona social structures were severely taxed by the rapid industrialization of the region and its subsequent explosive population growth.

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Matters culminated in the unstable atmosphere generated by waves of political terrorism in the Catalan Capital in the 1890s. Escalating anarchist activity and recurrent cycles of labor unrest and harsh official retribution generated a destabilizing uncertainty in the community. [1] This atmosphere gave raise to an intellectual movement during which Catalan writers, artists and intellectuals developed a mode of thinking and writing that questioned inherited values in the areas of religion, politics and aesthetics.

This movement is known as Modernisme, a term that first appeared in 1884 in a manifesto accompanying the publication of the Barcelona magazine L’Avenc. [2] The concern for the question of national identity is reflected in the regionalist painting of traditional Spanish themes like bullfights, beautiful women or majas, as for example Mariano Fortuny’s The Bullfighter’s Salute and Ignacio Zuloaga Woman with a Fan, though paradoxically these same themes were developed within the context of a decidedly modern language.

In The Bullfighter’s Salute, clear lines dissolve to give way to dynamic brushstrokes adding to the drama and immediacy of the scene and in Woman with a Fan the woman is not so much a object to be looked at, as was the case with previous depictions of women, but she confronts us with a direct and flirtatious gaze. Ramon Casas advocated powerful immediate emotion over pedantic reconstruction of an idealized national past-painting that reflected the realities, complications, and uncertainties of the contemporary world.

Nuances and instability displace strong paint strokes and definitive forms in his painting Garrote Vil and Salvador Rusinol dreamt of the abolition of the line and complete fusion of background and foreground subject and landscape. [3] In Zuloaga’s portrait of Saties the top hat and ornamental ribbon, typical for this time, are gone. Instead the composer seems a living bust in left quarter-profile, emerging from the gloomy surroundings with only the forehead and right half of the face illuminated.

This picture is reminiscent of the mysticism of El Greco, an artist who was idolized by Zuloaga and admired by the other artists of his time. For them El Greco embodied the ideals of Modernisme because he was different. El Greco was different because he was highly individualistic. He ignored the classical rules of balance, proportion and harmonious colors. He treated light and space irrationally and placed forms on the canvas according to the picture’s internal pictorial logic.

In St Martin and the Beggar, for example, it is as though, in order to compress his story into too narrow a space, El Greco collaged the flattened figures on to the canvas without reference to the laws of proportion or perspective. As Roger Fry observes, El Greco was a pure artist as he expressed his idea with complete indifference to what effect the right expression might have on the public. Fry writes: “At no point is there the slightest compromise with the work, the only issue for him is between him and his idea.

Nowhere is a violent form softened, nowhere is the expressive quality of brushwork blurred in order to give verisimilitude of texture, no harshness of accent is shirked, no crudity of color opposition avoided, wherever El Greco felt such things to be necessary to the realization of his idea. It shows us the master at the height of his powers, at last perfectly aware of his personal conception and daring to give it the most complete, most uncompromising expression”. [4] One artist, who was profoundly influenced by El Greco was Picasso.

His obsession with El Greco started when he went to study in Madrid where he was impressed by El Greco’s magnificent heads. As early as 1899 he had filled page after page of a sketchbook with caricatures of Greco-like portraits, often with flamboyant ruff collars, exaggerating their pointed chins, their schematic quality and their hyper-refined tonality. One of his heads even had the inscription: Yo El Greco, yo Greco! Shortly afterwards Picasso’s Blue Period followed and there his pictures were inhabited by distorted, emaciated beings inspired by El Greco. [5].

Boy Leading a Horse, is one of Picasso’s most direct citations from El Greco. He took much of the painting from El Greco’s Saint Martin and the Beggar, including the painting’s proportions, the horse’s rendering of the legs, the bleak background, limited palette and the exaggerated, elongated bodies. Another example is Picasso’s Visit which resembles El Greco’s Visitation in its tonality and composition. Two women leaning in towards each other in front of a door and there is nothing else that distracts the eye which gives both pictures directness and intensity of emotion.

Picasso’s identification with El Greco derived encouragement from his friends Rusinol and Zuloaga. Zuloaga purchased two paintings by El Greco, which were escorted from the station in a grand procession featuring decorative banners carried by modernists before being informally installed at the Cau Ferrat in the fall of 1894 for the third Fiesta Modernista. Four years later, in August 1898, a monument to El Greco was unveiled in Sitges with a dedication speech that edified El Greco as a son of all humanity. 6] When Ignacio Zuloaga acquired El Greco’s Apocalyptic Vision a few years later in 1905 he described it, as a possessing a “visionary power” that made it a “precursor of Modernisme”. [7] Zuloaga therefore together with Manuel Cossio, pioneered the artist’s rehabilitation as a great master. Cossio published an appraisal of the artist in a popular encyclopedia in 1908 which offered not only new information on the artist, but also a new interpretation, which turned the painter’s work into the quintessential expression of the Spanish spirit. He began to ask: What was the cause of El Greco’s original and eccentric style?

As he studied the question, Cossio found the clue to an answer by noting the almost miraculous change in El Greco’s style that occurred as soon as he arrived in Spain. In his Italian period, El Greco had been a good if rather unexceptional painter, but after his arrival in Spain, he became a great painter. The answer to the question, therefore, obviously lay in Spain and nowhere else. He wrote: “Castile, an austere and harsh place, was for El Greco benign because it made him free. Isolated in Castile, he forgets rules and abandons his teachers, he gathers his forces unto himself and becomes intimate with the spirit and nature of the region.

He immerses himself deeply in them yet also allows them to penetrate his soul. Finally, he takes possession of the character of the land and of the Spanish soul, he borrows from them the elements that vibrate in harmony with his singular temperament-the violence, the dignity, the exaltation, the sorrow, the mysticism, the intimate reality, the ash-gray, reddish monotony of the landscape – and after a rapid, inevitable assimilation, he comes to form an original, eternal style, and finds a path he can call his own.

El Greco is the most authentic of the Spanish painters”. [8] Meier-Graefe, who travelled to Spain the same year and published his experiences in the Spanish Journey in 1910 also writes: “No painter has understood the Spaniards to the core as this Greek. You can find his models -the long and narrow faces, bumpy head and long nose- every day by the dozen in Spanish Society”. [9]

Cossio furthermore connected the painter with the religious visionaries and writers who were his contemporaries, notably Saint Theresa of Avila and Saint John of the Cross. These mystics were regarded as among the most important manifestations of the unique Spanish spirit. Whatever the merits of Cossio’s interpretation of El Greco’s genius, it soon acquired the status of doctrine, especially in Spain, where the event of the Spanish-American war of 1898, which cost Spain the last vestiges of her overseas empire, helped to promote this idea.

The realization that the days of glory were truly at an end, that the country was no little more than a poor, scientifically backward, powerless European state, made a profound and depressing impression on the intellectual leaders of Spain and they were seeking ways to revitalize their nation. [10] Finally El Greco took a prominent place among Spanish painters partly for the curious reason that an affinity was seen between his work and that of Cezanne, who was also then slowly coming into fashion especially with Spanish artists living in Paris. 11] There is no proof that Cezanne has ever seen a picture by El Greco but nevertheless there are a number of pictures by Cezanne which recall El Greco. In Cezanne’s Reading at Zolas we find the drama of light-and dark contrasts, movement of pattern due to swirling bands of color, picturesque distortions in the drawing of the figures and in the rendering of space, absence of actual contour-lines, modeling by parallel band of light and dark, tendency to over accentuation of highlighted areas, and deficient internal illumination of color, which is so typical for El Greco’s paintings. 12] Other examples are his still life of Plate with Grapes and Peach with dramatic light-effects, muted luminosity of color, and perceptibility of pattern formed by the shapes of areas of high and low illumination. Roger Fry in an essay of 1920 on El Greco stressed the un-naturalistic character of his work, and wrote of Cezanne taking from El Greco “his great discovery of the permeation of every part of the design with a uniform and continuous plastic theme”. 13] The critic von Tschudi, when showing Roger Fry El Greco’s Laocoon, said, “Do you know why we admire El Greco’s handling so much? Because it reminds us of Cezanne”[14] and according to Jonathan Brown, “Cezanne and El Greco are spiritual brothers despite the centuries which separate them”. One of the truly revolutionary elements in Cezanne’s drawing involved an almost complete reversal of scientific perspective like in his A Turn in the Road at La Roche-Guyon.

His roads were always drawn so as to create a clear illusion of space, but they were manipulated, through turning, through expansion, so as to remain integrated with all the other planes in the picture, and with the picture plane itself. With respect to scale, again Cezanne does not diminish the size of objects according to scientific perspective. He expands or diminishes size to satisfy the requirements of the composition as a whole and in accordance with the emotional or associative significance the forms or objects had for him. El Greco offers a fundamentally similar explanation for his landscape, the View and Plan of Toledo.

Incorporated into the design of this picture is a plan of the city of Toledo and an explanatory inscription that reads as follows: “It has been necessary to represent the hospital in the form of a model because not only did it cover up the Gate of Visagra, but its dome or cupola rose so high that it overtopped the city; and thus once it was represented in the form of a model and moved from its original place, it seemed better to depict the principal facade than some less imposing aspect. Also, in the history of our Lady Presenting the Chasuble to St.

Ildefonso, I justify enlarging the size of the figures for decorative reasons and on the grounds that they are celestial beings which for us are like lights seen from afar that appear large even though they are actually small”. Thus El Greco and Cezanne created a perspective that grew out of the exigencies of the particular composition rather than from mechanical rules. [15] Above example reveals that El Greco had a profound mistrust of geometry as a means to attain artistic perfection. However, his repeated insistence on limiting the illusion of depth has a second, functional explanation.

The Assumption of the Virgin, was intended for an altarpiece, which had to be carefully composed for visibility and legibility, even in a small space. The solution, which was followed by El Greco was to deploy large-scale figures along the frontal plane of the picture. In these circumstances, the illusion of depth became unnecessary, if not undesirable, and thus was minimized or eliminated. This tactic is also employed, in the painting of El Greco most admired by Picasso, the Burial of the Count of Orgaz. [16] In his The Burial of Casagemas Picasso divided the painting into two zones, like El Greco has done in his painting.

There is an earthly sphere with the burial and a heavenly sphere, or rather how young men might envisage heaven, a place full of beautiful, naked women. In both paintings human bodies are elongated. It has often been said that El Greco used these distorted proportions to express spiritual fervor and achieve a supernatural remoteness. In Picasso’s art, on the other hand, this quality of remoteness does not point to any divine sphere rather, his figures are detached from the world because they are a symbol for distressed and oppressed humanity.

Another stylistic device which Picasso borrowed are the cloudy streaks of color that permeate the background. They serve to lend dramatic pungency to the scene and lend an air of otherworldliness to the space in which the figures move. Other aspects in the work of El Greco were yet to be uncovered in the early cubist explorations of Picasso: structural analysis of his compositions, multi-faced refraction of form, interweaving of form and space, and special effects of highlights.

Several traits of cubism, such as distortions, the materialistic rendering of time, limited palette have their analogies in El Greco’s work and there has been considerable discussion about Picasso’s dialogue with El Greco at the time of Cubism, especially in relation to his painting the Demoiselles d’Avignon. In 1987, Ralf Laessoe and John Richardson, independently proposed a new source for the Demoiselles in El Greco’s Apocalyptic Vision.

Laessoe, pursuing an observation Ron Johnson made in 1980, noted formal affinities between the two paintings in figural types and positions, in the triangular entrance to the pictorial space, in the angularity of the draperies, and in the tight compression of the visual field. [17] Furthermore both paintings have an urgent atmosphere and there are willful distortions and foreshortenings. Picasso also took the painting’s format and scale and space between figures that, in places, are as volumetric and as expressive as the figures themselves.

He took the leftmost figure’s drapery that touches the pictures’ bottom, the raised hand that almost touches the top, the shape that cuts obliquely across the figures’ upper chest and is squared off at the bottom, the agitated blue and white scrambled draperies that seem to take on a fervid life of their own, though Picasso characteristically transposed the qualities identified with drapery, something inherently material, to the space between figures. [18] In both paintings the figures are conceived in shallow depth.

There is little modeling and both are very frontal so we tend to read it across its surface and not think at all in terms of the perspective box which is the inheritance of Western illusionism. Laessoe also posited an iconographical connection. Arguing that in 1907, El Greco’s canvas was in the Paris home of Picasso’s friend Ignacio Zuloaga, and that it was originally thought to be a fragment of a larger panel representing Sacred and Profane Love, Laessoe pointed to a related theme in a preparatory sketch for the Demoiselles, in which a sailor and a medical student enact a drama of carnal versus intellectual knowledge in a brothel.

Even before Laessoes’ article appeared, John Richardson had marshaled considerable evidence to substantiate a connection between the Demoiselles and the Apocalyptic Vision, going so far as to suggest El Greco as a missing link in the development of Cubism. Taking his cue from Picasso, Richardson quoted a much later statement by the artist to Romould Dor de la Souchere : “Cubism is Spanish in origin, and it was I who invented Cubism. We should look for Spanish influence in Cezanne… Observe El Greco’s influence on him.

A Venetian painter but he is Cubist in constructions”. [19] If we look at El Greco today, especially his Apocalyptic Vision, we certainly think of the prismatic planes of sky and cloth and angular folds of shimmering silk in terms of Cubism. Cubism of course was a reaction to society’s disillusionment and shock from the horrors of the war. As Garcia Lorca in his Lecture on Modern Art said: “The Great War destroyed reality as we knew it. What we saw was incredible.

Reason could not withstand the war. Reality did not seem authentic…We should not believe our eyes, they deceived us. We should free ourselves of natural reality and look for its true pictorial counterpart. We should not search for the real representation of an object, but find its pictorial expression, its geometric or lyrical expression… The Great War gave birth to modern art. Through pain, reality was overwhelmed by an abstract force, and painting ceased to be a slave to the senses…

The Cubists were achieving the greatest, most purifying, most liberation work yet to be realized in the history of painting. They were salvaging painting. .. A pure art, released from reality. “[20] One of the primary goals of Cubism was to depart from the traditional understanding of perspective and spacial cues. The flattened spaces of El Greco whose canvases, as we have seen, tended to defy the logic of space and gravity might indeed have been an important influence in Picasso’s development as a cubist painter.

By 1902 El Greco had been admitted in to the pantheon of Spanish art. This was the year of the monographic exhibition at the Prado, which was official recognition of El Greco’s strange genius. Beginning with the first recuperation of El Greco in France with the opening of Louis-Philippe’s short-lived Galerie Espagnole in the Louvre in 1838, and the publication of Theophile Gautier’s Voyage en Espagne in 1843, the artist was transformed into the paradigmatic Romantic hero: a rebel, an individualist, and an outsider to Spanish art.

By the 1860 and 1870s, El Greco was in turn repositioned as a formal innovator and an audacious colorist whose experiments forecast those of Delacroix and the Impressionists. However, nowhere was El Greco’s status as a forefather of modern art more insistently emphasized than among Picasso’s circle in Fin-de-siecle Barcelona. The journal Luz used the word “precursor” to identify El Greco’s relationship to modernism’s spirit of renovation, cosmopolitanism, and innovation in its first issue of 15 November 1897, an epitaph Miquel Utrillo again used in his 1906 monograph on the painter.

For Santiago Rusinol, co-founder of the Quatre Gats, a cafe in Barcelona that became one of the main centers of Modernisme, El Greco was “the modernist man of his time, “a genius unrestricted by national frontiers, a man of the world”. Like Picasso, Rusinol projected his own image as a painter and writer onto El Greco, emphasizing above all his artistic independence, violation of academic canons and, within the context of Rusinol’s own involvement with Symbolism, El Greco’s exploration of the imaginary. El Greco’s timeless appeal as an innovator-and thus his modernity-was ideological, lifted outside of a precise historical moment. 21] El Greco’s significance consists in this, that his example encouraged painters to free themselves from servitude to naturalism and to place artistic expression above formal truth. By analyzing the works of El Greco, the Modernists could see how this great artistic forebear had criticized and interpreted the classical tradition. El Greco’s concept of what is real does not coincide with the usual concept of the classic painters. According to Meier-Graefe “he doubted-not nature, but the substance of nature, that is to say, he doubted what seemed essential to the eye”. 22] Even though El Greco was an acute observer of nature as evident for example in his brilliant handling of the intricate lace against the rich luster of silk in his portrait of Cardinal Guevara, he goes beyond these incidental objective facts to observe the nervous gestures of the Cardinal seated on the edge of his chair, the febrile hands, the alert erect head. The elongated forms and the distortions of later art arose from knowledge that things in themselves have no meaning until imagination plays upon them, until they are shaped into intelligible communicative patterns.

To finish with a quote by Meier-Graefe: “El Greco is probably the greatest experience which could occur to any of us. Not because El Greco is so great but because he is new and different. All the inventions of the moderns, colored shadows, the dissolution of contours, the combinations of cadences and contrast are here presupposed”. [23] Bibliography Ainaud de Lasarte, Juan. Catalan painting. Trans. by Michael Heron. New York: Rizzoli, 1990-1991 Bretz Lee, Mary. Encounters across borders : the changing visions of Spanish modernism, 1890-1930 London: Associatd University Presses, 2001

Brown, Jonathan. Picasso and the Spanish Tradition. London: Yale University Press, 1996 El Greco of Toledo / exhibition … organized by the Toledo Museum of Art, with Museo del Prado, National Gallery of Art, Dallas Museum of Fine Arts / contributions by Jonathan Brown … [et al. ] El Greco to Goya: The Taste for Spanish paintings in Britain and Ireland/introduction and catalogue by Allan Braham. London: The National Gallery, 1981 Fry, Roger Eliot. Vision and Design. Harmondsworth, Middx. : Penguin Books , 1937. Hilton, Timothy. Picasso. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1975.

Ingo, Walther F. Pablo Picasso, 1881-1973: Genius of the Century. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1996 Loran, Erle. Cezanne’s composition. London: University of California Press, 1963 Lorca, Garcia. ‘Thoughts on Modern Art’, reprinted in Helen Oppenheimer, Lorca: The Assassination of Federico Garcia Lorca. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983 Meier-Graefe, Julius The Spanish Journey. Trans. by J. Holroyd-Reece . London : Jonathan Cape, 1926 Richardson, John. A Life of Picasso. London : Cape , 1996. In collaboration of Marilyn McCully Robb, David M. and J. J. Garrison. Art in the Western World.

New York: Harper, 1953 Robinson, William H. Barcelona and modernity : Picasso, Gaudi, Miro, Dali / William H. Robinson, Jordi Falgas and Carmen Belen Lord ; foreword by Robert Hughes ; with contributions by Josefina Alix … [et al. ]. Cleveland, OH : Cleveland Museum of Art in association with Yale University Press, 2006. Scholz-Hansel, Michael. El Greco . Cologne: Taschen, 2004 Staller, Natasha. A sum of destructions : Picasso’s cultures & the creation of Cubism. London: Yale University Press, 2001 Wadley, Nicholas . Cezanne and his art. London: Hamlyn, 1975 (check reference ———————- [1] William H Robinson. Barcelona and modernity : Picasso, Gaudi, Miro, Dali / William H. Robinson, Jordi Falgas and Carmen Belen Lord ; foreword by Robert Hughes ; with contributions by Josefina Alix … [et al. ]. Cleveland, OH : Cleveland Museum of Art in association with Yale University Press, 2006. 121 [2] Mary Lee Bretz. Encounters across borders : the changing visions of Spanish modernism, 1890-1930. London: Associatd University Presses, 2001 30 [3] Ibid 515 [4] Roger Eliot Fry. Vision and Design. Harmondsworth, Middx. : Penguin Books , 1937. 139 [5] Natasha Staller.

A sum of destructions : Picasso’s cultures & the creation of Cubism. London: Yale University Press, 2001 104 [6] Johnathan Brown. Picasso and the Spanish Tradition. London: Yale University Press, 1996 26 [7] Michael Scholz-Hansel. El Greco . 90 [8] El Greco of Toledo / exhibition … organized by the Toledo Museum of Art, with Museo del Prado, National Gallery of Art, Dallas Museum of Fine Arts / contributions by Jonathan Brown … [et al. ] 22 [9] Julius Meier-Graefe. The Spanish Journey. Trans. by J. Holroyd-Reece . London : Jonathan Cape, 1926 103 [10] El Greco of Toledo / exhibition … rganized by the Toledo Museum of Art, with Museo del Prado, National Gallery of Art, Dallas Museum of Fine Arts / contributions by Jonathan Brown … [et al. ] 25 [11] El Greco to Goya: The Taste for Spanish paintings in Britain and Ireland/introduction and catalogue by Allan Braham. London: The National Gallery, 1981 43 [12] Nicholas Wadley . Cezanne and his art. London: Hamlyn, 1975 (check reference) 309 [13] Roger Eliot Fry. Vision and Design. Harmondsworth, Middx. : Penguin Books , 1937. 43 [14] Ibid 139 [15] Erle Loran. Cezanne’s composition. London: University of California Press, 1963 40 [16] Johnathan Brown.

Picasso and the Spanish Tradition. London: Yale University Press, 1996 9 [17] Ibid 27 [18] Natasha Staller. A sum of destructions : Picasso’s cultures & the creation of Cubism. London: Yale University Press, 2001 325 [19] Johnathan Brown. Picasso and the Spanish Tradition. London: Yale University Press, 1996 27 [20] Lorca, Garcia. ‘Thoughts on Modern Art’, reprinted in Helen Oppenheimer, Lorca: The Assassination of Federico Garcia Lorca. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983. 129 [21] Ibid 36 [22] Julius Meier-Graefe. The Spanish Journey. Trans. by J. Holroyd-Reece . London : Jonathan Cape, 1926 106 [23] Ibid 125

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