Shock of the Old: El Greco Now Seen As First Modernist

Among the Old Masters of European painting whose works are deeply revered today, none has commanded a more enthusiastic response from the artists, critics and public than the 16th-centurypainterDomenikos Theotokopolus (1541-1614), a native of Crete now universally known as El Greco. None has caused more controversy, either. For though El Greco’s mesmerizing oeuvre stands at a great distance, historically and spiritually, from the Zeitgeist of modernity-tracing a headlong course from medieval icon-painting to the glories of the Italian Renaissance and the Golden Age of Spanish painting to the emergence of the Baroque-it has for the last century also been embraced as a harbinger of modernism.

The latter is a point none too subtly insisted upon in the marvelous El Greco exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I cannot myself recall any prior exhibition of Old Master paintings as amply equipped with “endorsements” from 20th-century modern artists and critics. The parade of stellar names, from Gauguin and Van Gogh to Picasso, Matisse and Pollock, is indeed impressive. And if Cézanne is missing from the list, it’s only because he’s been assigned the more dominant role of El Greco’s fraternal heir. The German Expressionist painter Franz Marc seems to have initiated this line of thought by announcing in The Blue Rider Almanac in 1912 that “Cézanne and El Greco are spiritual brothers, despite the centuries that separate them.”

The critics have been no less eager to claim El Greco’s kinship with the modernists. In 1919, when the National Gallery in London acquired El Greco’s The Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane (circa 1590) for its collection, Roger Fry described its impact on the British public as “an electric shock.” “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 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 the most old of pictures, a thing classified and museumified, set altogether apart from life, an object for vague and listless reverence, but an actual living thing, expressing something with which one has got either to agree or disagree.” As for the artists’ response, Fry wrote: “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.” (Fry’s essay on El Greco can be found in his 1920 book, Vision and Design .)

The wonderful Agony in the Garden in the Met show is not the painting that Fry wrote about, by the way, but a later version, considered superior, from the collection of the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio. The picture that Fry wrote about is illustrated in the catalog on page 152.

The classic account of the rediscovery of El Greco in the 20th century can be found in a book called The Spanish Journey by the great German critic Julius Meier-Graefe. Published in Germany in 1906, it was translated into English some 20 years later and has enjoyed something like a cult readership among El Greco aficionados ever since. At the time of its writing, Meier-Graefe was known primarily as a critic of modern art; his highly dramatic biography of Van Gogh had scored a huge international success. When he set off for Spain at the turn of the 20th century, it was to study the work of Velázquez,-who, as Meier-Graefe’s English translator, J. Holroyd-Reece, wrote in 1926, “was the recognized idol of contemporary scholars, who hailed him as the true ancestor of the art of our generation.” It was on that first journey to Spain that Meier-Graefe discovered El Greco and set in motion a debate not only about El Greco’s “modernism,” but also about the relative merits of Velázquez and El Greco-a debate in which Picasso and Matisse, among others, were eager to join in favor of El Greco.

The El Greco show at the Met is certain to attract a great many people who will feel compelled to revisit it a good many times, and it’s for this reason that I’m calling attention to The Spanish Journey . I know of no other book in the literature of art criticism that so brilliantly addresses the kinds of questions, comparisons and arguments that an exhibition of this importance is bound to provoke in the minds of serious viewers. Moreover, with the recent Manet-Velázquez exhibition at the Met still fresh in our memories, Meier-Graefe’s often penetrating, sometimes perplexing observations on El Greco’s relation to Velázquez place both of these artists in a new perspective for us-without the usual pieties. The same may be said for his observations on El Greco’s relation to the modernists, who derived so much from him.

The Spanish Journey is not conventional art history: It’s a collection of diary entries, letters, notes, etc., often written in haste and in a state of high excitement; it’s all the more persuasive for being so unguarded, opinionated and spontaneous. The following excerpt may suffice to convey the excited spirit of Meier-Graefe’s response to El Greco: “We went again … to Berute’s collection. The Expulsion from the Temple by El Greco would have delighted Delacroix …. The riddle lies in the flow of colors. They flame up like fiery creatures, and yet serve the design, which can be examined as minutely as a miniature. The rich sound of the dominant chords conquers one before there is time to examine any detail. A Veronese blue, a strawberry pink, full of sweetness of Venice in all its tones down to the deepest claret, a yellow of golden orange to the faintest color of lemons. A green is mixed with it like half-ripe lemons. These colors are placed there, lie there, swim next to each other, above each other, contained by no contour. And as one approaches more closely, one sees heads, hands, breasts, which one is tempted to look at under a magnifying glass, just like the small legends of Delacroix …. Between the Christ and the woman there is a wonderful creature with a lemon-colored loincloth. The expression is immense. The averted hand of the Savior seems to crush the poor penitent into an impossible corner with nothing but the motion of his arm through the air. This alone contains the whole of El Greco.”

Meier-Graefe sounds as if he, too-like the crowds in London described by Roger Fry-were writing about a shocking contemporary picture. A great many people who come to see the current exhibition are likely to have the same reaction. El Greco remains on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through Jan. 11 and will then travel to London’s National Gallery (Feb. 11 to May 23, 2004).