El Greco, Modern Augurer, Stirred Mobs to Battle

Hard as it may now be to comprehend, the art of the Spanish

master who came to be known as El Greco (1541-1614) is a relatively recent

discovery-a 20th-century discovery. Domenikos Theotocopoulos (as he was

christened) was born in Candia, the capital of Crete, which was then a

possession of the Venetian Republic, and there he remained until the age of 26,

when he moved first to Venice itself and then to Rome before pursuing his artistic

fortunes in Spain in the late 1570′s. Yet he had been dead for nearly 300 years

before his paintings finally came to be fully recognized as the achievement of

a major European master.

Even then, in the early years of the 20th century, El Greco

had the odd distinction of being embraced by two segments of the art world

which in that period were rarely in agreement about much else. One consisted of

the wealthy, tradition-oriented collectors of Old Master paintings and the

dealers who catered to their interests. The other was made up of the even more

opinionated critical champions of the modernist avant-garde. While the former

seized upon El Greco as the representative of a tradition established by Titian

and Tintoretto, the latter acclaimed him as a precursor of Cézanne and the

Post-Impressionists, a pictorial development which was then still offensive to

public taste. This was a strange fate for an artist born to the parochial

traditions of Byzantine art in Greece and crucially shaped in his pictorial development

by the innovations of the Venetian and Roman Renaissance. If there ever really

were artists who could be said to have been ahead of their time, El Greco was

surely one of them. If you doubt it, consider the conversation reported by the

English critic Roger Fry in 1920.

“One of the greatest critics of our time, von Tschudi,” Fry

wrote, “was showing me El Greco’s Laocoon ,

which he had just acquired for Munich, when he whispered to me, as being too

dangerous a doctrine to be spoken aloud in his private room, ‘Do you know why

we admire El Greco’s handling so much? Because it reminds us of Cézanne.’”

This is something to keep in mind when you go to see the

exhibition El Greco: Themes and

Variations , which Jonathan Brown has now organized with Susan Grace Galassi

at the Frick Collection-a show that reminds us that Henry Clay Frick, the

museum’s founder, was one of the collectors who participated in this early

20th-century rediscovery of El Greco. (Between 1905 and 1913, Frick acquired

three paintings by El Greco, two of which are in the current exhibition.) Worth

recalling, too, is Fry’s account of the public’s response to the first El Greco

acquired by the National Gallery in London.

“People gather in crowds

in front of it, they argue and discuss and lose their tempers,” Fry wrote.

“This might be intelligible enough if the price were known to be fabulous, but,

so far as I am aware, the price has not been made known, so that it is really

about the picture that people get excited. And what is more, they talk about it

as they might talk about some contemporary picture, a thing with which they

have a right to feel delighted or infuriated as the case may be-it is not like

most old pictures, a thing classified and museumified, set altogether apart

from life, an object of vague and listless reverence, but an actual living

thing, expressing something with which one has got either to agree or disagree.

Even if it should not be the superb masterpiece which most of us think it is,

almost any sum would have been well spent on a picture capable of provoking

such fierce aesthetic interest in the crowd.”

To which Fry-who was himself a painter, of course-added:

“That the artists are excited-never more so-is no wonder, for here is an Old

Master who is not merely modern, but actually appears a good many steps ahead

of us, turning back to show us the way.”

So quickly was El Greco seen to be somehow “modern” that the

entry devoted to him in the celebrated 11th edition of The Encyclopaedia Britannica , published in 1910, included this

curious observation: “El Greco’s work is typically modern, and from it the

portrait painter, J. S. Sargent, claims to have learnt more than that of any

other artist.” The American painter John Singer Sargent-an artist whose work

Roger Fry deplored as unforgivably superficial-was then the most successful

living artist on both sides of the Atlantic, yet he too claimed to be an

acolyte of this newly discovered Old Master.

But the most extraordinary account of El Greco’s impact on

early-20th-century sensibilities is to be found in a book called The Spanish Journey , by the German

critic Julius Meier-Graefe, whose work is better known to most of us through

his two-volume history of Modern Art

and his critical monographs on Courbet, Degas, Cézanne and Van Gogh. Traveling

to Spain in the early years of the century for the purpose of enlarging his

understanding of the paintings of Velazquez, Meier-Graefe underwent something

akin to a conversion experience in his response to El Greco.

Not at first glance,

however. Intent upon studying Velazquez at the Prado in Madrid, he acknowledges

that on this initial encounter the El Grecos “looked like inebriated

phantasies.” Yet as his enthusiasm for Velazquez diminishes and he looks again

at El Greco, he is hooked, and hastens to Toledo to study further. And it is in

Toledo that Meier-Graefe declares that “El Greco is probably the greatest

experience which could occur to any of us. It is necessarily unique and of a

completely different variety from all other artistic impressions which we have

gained to date. Not because El Greco is so great, but because he is new.”

At the close of his Spanish

Journey , more than 300 pages later, Meier-Graefe is in Paris, still

attempting to account for what I have called his conversion to El Greco-a

conversion not unlike that of Roger Fry, whose first book was on the art of

Giovanni Bellini, and who then went on to write the first monographs on Cézanne

and Matisse. “In Toledo, in the Prado and in the Escorial,” he writes, “it was

Renoir and Cézanne who had made the comprehension of El Greco more easy. And

now in turn it was El Greco who made the moderns precious to us.”

Then, reflecting upon his own comparison of El Greco with

the art of the modernists he admired, Meier-Graefe writes: “Even the greatest

of the Impressionists no longer possess El Greco’s ability to round off their

pictures to such perfection. But the comparison between the master of the 16th

century and our own is not dangerous to them. The aim is so enormous that the

recognition of the community of their aspiration silences the question as to

which of them has gone farthest. Undoubtedly El Greco stands above them all. He

is, like Dante or Shakespeare, the inventor of a language. Never will an artist

say such great things again …. He has discovered a realm of new possibilities.

Not even he himself, was able to exhaust them. And all the generations that

follow after him live in his realm.”

An English translation of The Spanish Journey was published in 1926, nearly two decades after

its original publication in Germany. For anyone who cares deeply about the art

of painting, it is a book worth tracking down. Written in the form of a

day-to-day journal, it is the most personal of all Meier-Graefe’s books. Three

or four decades ago, you could find all of Meier-Graefe’s books gathering dust

on the shelves of secondhand bookstores in New York. He was considered passé.

Yet for  some of us, he remains one of

the greatest art critics of the modern era.

It will be noticed, perhaps, that I have not attempted to

“review” the current El Greco exhibition at the Frick Collection. To do so

would be an intellectual impertinence. For newcomers to the artist’s work who

may need some guidance on the subject, Jonathan Brown has in any case written a

splendid introduction to El Greco for the excellent catalog that accompanies

the exhibition. Suffice to say, then, that El

Greco: Themes and Variations consists of seven paintings, three of them

portraits of St. Jerome, and four on the subject of Christ’s purification of

the Temple. The show remains on view at the Frick through July 29, and is not

to be missed.