El Greco is an artist you can love without liking, a painter you can relish but whose work can also irritate. His style is so aberrant and brazen; his space so jackknifed, far-fetched, and freakish, and his sense of proportion so outlandish, that his work can grate on your nerves. His art is ardent but not emotionally complex. Psychologically, it’s more like autoeroticism than making love: Over and over, he takes you to the same place in the same way with few subtleties.
Although his optical distortion is not as provocative or as disturbing as Pontormo’s or Parmigianino’s, and he never goes as deep as Titian, Velázquez, or Goya, I find El Greco totally absorbing in concentrated doses—even if a steady diet of him leaves me numb. To me, El Greco’s corkscrewing, claustrophobic space, extravagant vision, and fidgety touch make him one of the greatest weird painters ever. This focused dynamo of a show allows you to grasp that, along with Titian, Velázquez, and Goya, El Greco forms the fourth and most irrational leg of the platform that modern painting was founded on.
As a painter, El Greco always seems in a hurry; he loves miracles, revelations, and annunciations—things that happen in a flash. People appear dazzled; saints are stunned or swept off their feet; everything’s always whooshing upward. In his Christ Healing the Blind, in the exhibition’s second gallery, you can see the 29-year-old painter assimilating not only the body types of Michelangelo and the color of Titian, but the wild-style approach of Tintoretto and Veronese, to both of whom this picture was previously attributed. But as will be the case throughout his career, El Greco’s not interested in structure or getting space right; he’s interested in irradiated color, icy light, vertiginous rhythm, windblown skies, religious fervor, elongation, agitation, and all the things oil paint can do. Here, space extends into hyperdrive, flattens, then spirals into a void. A building is barely brushed in, heads are left unfinished, and a couple in the foreground appears Photoshopped in.
To get what El Greco was after and what makes him feel so modern, look across the same gallery at the juicy, glowing Mount Sinai, which has the presence of a Ryder crossed with a Siennese miniature, and features a tumultuous, brass-colored sky, pitched mountains painted to look like clay lumps, and a shrunken city rendered in what resembles meringue. Then observe Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata, or what could be called The Revelation of the Brush Stroke, a twitchy picture that shows the saint recoiling from a creamy daub of paint. Finally, see how the Madonna in The Annunciation just hovers in space as she receives the Holy Spirit from flicks of streaky paint. These visceral paintings make you understand why Picasso said, “I prefer El Greco a thousand times more” (than Velázquez, whom he revered), and why Matisse called him “my painter.”
Because his manner is so out there, it’s also possible to love El Greco without knowing anything about him. Like van Gogh, another visually overwrought painter whose style is ultra-pronounced, El Greco is an artist we come to when we’re young. But he’s also an artist who can sustain you for a lifetime. Plus, he’s got that crazy nickname. Born Domenikos Theotokopoulos in Crete (then a possession of the Venetian Republic) in 1541, he went to Venice in 1567, moved to Rome three years later, and settled in Toledo in 1577, where he prospered until his death in 1614. Importantly, he lived and painted during the Counter-Reformation, a tumultuous period when Protestantism had the Catholic Church’s back against the wall. This may explain why the church not only condoned his over-the-top art, but commissioned him essentially to produce propaganda in the form of paintings.
Thus empowered, and sequestered from the artistic mainstream in Toledo, in the mid 1580s El Greco starts going for it pictorially. By the early 1600s he’s all but on his own. In Agony in the Garden, dominated by a splintered, schizophrenic space, a strong but scrawny Christ looks right past an angel who almost slips off his cloud, while three figures coil in a Daliesque abstract egg shape. A Thomas Hart Benton sky has a clouded-over moon that looks like the half-closed eye of God declining his son’s pleas. The painting is as clashing, ecstatic, and electric as a John Coltrane composition.
In the exhibition’s final gallery, after the amazing intensity of some of his portraits, you will see that El Greco has replaced visual logic with visionary logic. Intimations of future art flicker in this room. Here, gaze at The Virgin of the Immaculate Conception, View of Toledo, the hallucinogenic The Opening of the Fifth Seal, and Laocoön. Ask yourself if these last two canvases don’t only look back to Tintoretto and Michelangelo, but also point toward Cézanne, Beckmann, Pollock, and Picasso. The heaving clouds in these paintings resemble the blocky curtains in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, and their backgrounds have similar interlocking iceberg shapes. The colors are glaring, while the racy figures—as ferocious as they are fetching—exist in compositions that are both rock-solid and orgiastic. In the end, El Greco’s painterly freedom overcomes his fever-dream aesthetic and transports us to the wilder shores of the imagination.