Unpleasant, arrogant, deadly serious. But unlucky

The director of the Prado Museum had moved the El Greco’s "absurd caricatures" to the basement, as if exhibiting them together with the masterpieces of Diego Velázquez and Francisco Goya was an affront to the venerable temple of art.

From the meager source material emerges a picture of a rather unpleasant man. An emigrant from poor Crete, in Spain he posed to be a great lord and lived beyond his means. Instead of taking an ordinary house, he preferred to pay ten times as much to rent 24 rooms in the palace of the Marqués de Villena. The author of poignant images of saints, well acquainted with Bishops and other high-rank clergy members, portrayed the mother of his only son as Mary but did not deign to marry her.

He was already arrogant in his youth. He outraged the Romans by claiming that if the Pope had asked him, he would have created a much better Last Judgment because the divine Michelangelo "didn't know how to paint." Showing respect to customers was not in his nature either. He demanded record-breaking fees, and if buyers were late with their payment, he had no problem suing them.

When the parish priest of the Church of Santo Tomé in Toledo refused to pay the exorbitant (in his opinion) sum of money for “The Burial of the Count of Orgaz”, the artist wanted to complain straight to the Pope.

Soon, the great El Greco exhibition is coming to an end at the Budapest Museum of Fine Arts. Among the nearly 80 works of the title artist, his masters, competitors and imitators, there is “The Ecstasy of St. Francis of Assisi” - found in Poland.

Teary eyes

El Greco – or rather Dominikos Theotokopulos - unlike most Cretans, was a Roman Catholic. When he was born, the island had been under Venetian control for over three centuries, but the growing threat from the Ottoman Empire prompted many people to leave their homeland.

However, Dominikos had another reason to leave his country. Painting religious miniatures popular in Crete did not satisfy his ambitions. Quite naturally, with his first steps, he headed straight for the metropolis.

The Republic of San Marco (or the Venetian Republic) is experiencing a Golden Age in Art at the time, despite a series of political and military defeats. It is believed that the talented Greek was taken under the wing of Titian himself, but there is no evidence for this. What we know for certain is that Theotokopulos quite quickly assimilated the aesthetics of the West and the technique of painting on canvas; He also established many useful connections.

However, wanting to get out of the Venetian masters’ shadow, he had to look for his luck elsewhere. Taking advantage of a favour offered by one of the influential cardinal Alessandro Farnese’s protegees, he moves to Rome and a few years later to Spain.

King Philip II wants to hire someone other than the newcomer as a decorator for the El Escorial (Royal Site of San Lorenzo de El Escorial/ Monasterio del Escorial), which is being built. Still, his works are admired in Toledo - the largest city of Castile - where El Greco will stay for the rest of his life. It is also there where he will develop his individual style, which is recognisable even to non-specialists. In the famous dispute between the Venetian enthusiasts of colour and the Roman-Tuscan supporters of the drawing superiority, he takes the side of the former. Even so, Titian influences will disappear from his paintings gradually.

Their place will be taken by bizarre lighting effects and elongated, ghost-like figures, windswept and bathed in a glow, which source is not natural but supernatural. Jesus and the saints, deprived of their usual attributes, will judge the world with sad looks, given over to evil. The landscape will be reduced to a minimum; Everything will become a movement.

Trendy miracles

Art historians, captivated by this consistent escape from realism and the pursuit of dematerialisation, considered Theotokopulos to be a separate, influence-proof artist. It's not true; he was the offspring of his time.

At the end of the 16th century, heaven and hell seemed to be close, at hand. Life was intense but short. Men were killed by wars - waged in the name of religion or dynastic ambitions - and more often by famine and epidemics. Women died giving birth to children, who also quickly joined the hosts of angels. The level of medicine was a crying shame, screaming out to heaven for vengeance. It was safer not to listen to the doctors.

The Renaissance optimism and faith in humanity collapsed (which - apart from Italy - spread its wings for a very short time and only in the circles of intellectual elites). In the peripheral countries, such as Spain - despite its impressive colonial conquests - the books of knights and martyrs were read more willingly than the works of ancient sages. The eccentric Don Quixote was the hero of the era.
Artists, succumbing to the spirit of times, began to contest the model of beauty set by Raphael and Leonardo, the principles of perspective and proportion taken from mathematical treatises. They decided that drama, the drive of expression and the power of imagination were more important than them.

  In Italy, the precursors of such thinking were Pontormo, Parmigianino, Jacopo Bassano and Tintoretto; the last one exerted a considerable influence on the young Theotokopulos. Bizarre poses, vibrant colours, unnatural light - we can find all of this in the artwork of painters, placed by the posterity in a drawer with the inscription of "mannerism". At the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries, this style reigned supreme in the Netherlands.

During the reign of Emperor Rudolph II, Prague became the European capital of mannerism. Habsburg spared no penny for artists who were able to amaze him with something new: from Bartholomeus Spranger, the master of promiscuous allegories, to Giuseppe Arcimboldo, the creator of anthropomorphic portraits. The pride of this ruler was a “Cabinets of curiosities”, where - in addition to works of sophisticated craftsmanship - there were natural wonders: alleged dragon bones or preserved two-headed calves.

This sort of art could provoke reflection, but above all it served entertainment. El Greco was deadly serious because he lived and created in a country ruled by a king who rarely smiled. Philip II treated himself and his subjects with the same severity. He also demanded a lot from them.

The Iberian monarchy was to stop the wave of heresy flooding Europe, stop the expansion of Islam, continue the conquest of the New World and maintain the monopoly for trade with the colonies, keep the French in a state of impotence, pacify the Dutch, restore the Catholicism in England and set an example for all Christians.

Another Cervantes

Before the Cretan was hailed as a precursor of modern art, critics threw him into artistic purgatory. In the seventeenth century there was a recurrence of the "beautiful style", for which the only counterbalance was realism. There was no room for misfits like El Greco in the perceived dualistic reality.

He was most resented that - for wanting to get out of the shadow of Titian - "he changed his way of painting for another, so lamentable and so mad, that it caused amazement; a man who once was a very good painter could become so bad out of his fancy ideas". This is how our hero's creative path was assessed by Antonio Palomino, a Spanish practitioner and theoretician of visual arts.

The genius of Toledo was discovered by foreigners. Théophile Gautier, an oracle of romantic taste, in the account of his journey across the Pyrenees, admitted: “few paintings have intrigued me as much as those of El Greco, because even the worst ones always have something unexpected to discover, and they go beyond the limits of what is possible; they are surprising and thought-provoking."

Rehabilitation of Mannerism, previously condemned in the tabloids, progressed the slowest in the adopted homeland of “The Dream of Philip II” creator. As late as 1881, the director of the Museo del Prado ordered the "absurd caricatures" of the Cretan to be moved to the museum basement, as if exhibiting them together with the masterpieces of Diego Velázquez and Francisco Goya was an affront to the venerable temple of art.

Soon the pendulum swung the other way. El Greco became a deified artist, more Spanish than native Spaniards, compared with Cervantes; An inspiration for Picasso and German Expressionists.

Not without reason - the author of his biography, Antonia Vallentin - claimed that he was just unlucky. Had he been active in Paris, the Netherlands or London instead of the isolated Iberian monarchy, he would have been appreciated much sooner. It would also have a greater impact on the European culture.

One hundred Francis, two penitents

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It was the heart of the Polish pavilion at the New York EXPO exhibition.

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Few people know that the Szépművészeti Múzeum (Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest) has the largest collection of El Greco's works outside of Spain. In June last year, their number increased to eight. The Hungarian MOL New Europe Foundation bought the "Portrait of Saint Aloysius Gonzaga" at an auction (for mere 3.6 million dollars). The painting, handed on to the museum as a deposit, had not been publicly displayed before.

Although it took eight years to prepare the exhibition, it was worth waiting for because the set is impressive. The exhibits are arranged in thematic order: first, those from the Venetian-Roman period, then secular portraits, images of saints and themes most characteristic for El Greco.

The “Boy Lighting a Candle" came from Naples, “The Tears of Saint Peter” travelled from the English Barnard Castle, whereas the “Saint Martin and the Beggar” came from Chicago. Behind the back of a caballero in armour and an elegant ruff (the painter did not make an effort to invent antique costumes) emerge the buildings of Toledo.

The former capital of Castile is more clearly visible on the "Laocoon" borrowed from Washington; Irony of faith because the thing takes place outside the walls of Troy. This is the only mythological motif in our hero's oeuvre, and nudity is not typical for him either. It was created between 1610 and 1614 but gives the impression of a work created three centuries later. Could El Greco, at the end of his life, have had flashes of clairvoyance?

“Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple” from The National Gallery in London is one of the six preserved versions, clearer and more dynamic than the earlier ones. The number of author's replicas (17 of them have been preserved in the case of “The Disrobing of Christ” or “El Expolio”) best proves the popularity of these paintings, and at the same time, it allows us to observe how the style of the Cretan evolved.

The gesture of Mary Magdalene placing her hand on her half-exposed breast is ambiguous, and she looks more like a great lady than a penitent sinner. The same gesture is already a sign of modesty in the later version, imported from Sitges.

Vandal and erudite

The identities of the people who served as models for the master will forever remain a mystery. Experts believe that he did not look far to paint a child for example. Isn’t it Jorge Manuel Theotokopulos himself – portrayed as the page of Saint Louis, King of France - that we can observe in the painting loaned from the Louvre? The son and successor of Dominikos is also identified as the figure of a young painter in one of the best portraits ever painted by El Greco. You can admire it every day in Seville.

Jorge Manuel followed in his father's footsteps but did not inherit a trace of his genius. Just look at his version of the "Saint Martin and the Beggar" painting, which came on the Danube all the way from Florida. Luis Tristán, who once was considered the most gifted student of El Greco, also dashed his hopes, rarely rising above mediocrity.

Two out of four of El Greco's surviving drawings and “Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects” by Giorgio Vasari - from his private library -are on display in Budapest. Fortunately, we happen to know what - apart from the Holy Bible and professional literature - our hero liked to read. A cursory inventory list - compiled by Jorge Manuel after his father's death - shows that he owned the works of Homer and Demosthenes, as well as Greek and Roman philosophers and historians, but also Lucian's poetry, Euripides' tragedies, Aesop's Fables and the famous "Dream-book" by Artemidorus.

In Toledo, El Greco consorted with the elite: dignitaries of the Church and local university professors, so this set of books should not be surprising. Judging by the condition of Vasari's volume, the master had a bad habit of writing down his own thoughts and comments in the books. This must be a piece of reading!

– Wieslaw Chełminiak

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and journalists

– translated by Katarzyna Chocian

The "El Greco" exhibition at the Szépművészeti Múzeum in Budapest is open until February 19th .

Main photo: The caption to the main picture: El Greco, a self-portrait. Photo. Archiv Gerstenberg/ullstein image via Getty Images
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