That Still Moment

John Haber
in New York City

El Greco: Themes and Variations

As yet one more side to his modernity, El Greco returned over and over to the same eerie vision. But why? In a stunning concentration of his work at the Frick Collection, he repeats one scene from the life of Jesus four times over as many decades. Across the room sit three piercing portrayals of Saint Jerome, the church father and translator of the Bible into Latin, so alike that they almost demand a living model.

At the show's heart lies a painting at once dreamy and violent, both morally exacting and disturbingly chaotic. El Greco takes an incident that may sound about as routine as housekeeping. El Greco's Purification of the Temple (Frick Collection, photo by Richard di Liberto, New York, c. 1600)In his Purification of the Temple, Jesus turns wheelers and dealers out of the Temple.

El Greco paints on an intimate scale. In a museum, one can easily pass this one by—or linger over it in grateful solitude. At the same time, he makes the act a preview of something grand and decisive, the Last Judgment. Only one comes out of this judgment alive, confused, and with no sure place to stand. The experience, like the exhibition at the Frick, gathers in one place the puzzle and excitement of a terrific artist. Related reviews move from depth to breadth, for an El Greco retrospective, his years in Toledo, and his roots in Crete.

Once in a lifetime?

At the focus of it all, and below a view to somber, distant clouds, Jesus twists sharply. He could be blocking from mere mortals the eye of a storm. He raises his left arm to cast the moneylenders aside, while the other arm falls without a resting place. On a pillar to his right, above the sinners, Adam and Eve exit Paradise. In the sculpted relief above his left, on the side of the saved, Isaac escapes the knife. God has done all this before—and will again, eternally.

El Greco borrows his Jesus from Michelangelo and his Last Judgment. Yet the older artist had already pushed the envelope of the Renaissance. His titanic, tortured fresco helped forge a dark-edged style now called Mannerism, though it took different directions in other nations and other relations to the Renaissance. One of its founders even earned a reputation as a second Raphael. Approaching the century's end, with the entire Renaissance about to become history, El Greco makes matters murkier than ever.

In the High Renaissance, a figure's turn, the pose called contrapposto, stood for balance, depth, and human perfection. El Greco exaggerates Jesus's twisted, elongated body to all but a parody. For Michelangelo, as in tradition, Jesus's right hand pointed to the saved, his left to the damned. (When it comes to godhead, lefties need not apply.) El Greco has it all backward. He sees salvation as if through a clouded mirror.

Even sorting left from right takes work. The crowd swirls around Jesus. A dealer at left, among the bad guys and bending to salvage the burden of his trade, has the youthful strength and perfect foreshortening of a hero. More confusing still, he leans into one version of the painting, his back to the viewer, obscuring his pose and flaunting his butt. On Jesus's good side, Temple elders kneel, not in praise of God but to debate the outcome in puzzlement. It may serve as a reminder that they did not necessarily prove supportive.

Strangest of all, one may well leave remembering none of this. At the far, far right, away from it all, a young woman weaves forward, alone, her basket poised delicately above her head. Behind her the Temple arcade lies almost empty. Do her downcast eyes stand for modesty and virtue, the side of the saved? Does she represent all that Jesus condemned, when he "would not suffer that any man should carry any vessel through the temple"? Or does a whole world still go on, all that fuss an overwrought performance, like last year's summer blockbuster?

The work's asymmetry—its twin vistas of packed bodies and empty space, of sky and Temple—rip apart any Renaissance ideal of balance and perspective. Paintings this wild, one might think, come once in a lifetime. Michelangelo alone passed through enough stylistic changes to fuel art for decades. He left copies to assistants, if that, and moved on. Better think again. El Greco repeats almost the same composition half a dozen times or more over the course of some forty years—and it is anyone's guess why.

The anti-blockbuster

Like those summer movies, art in a corporate age has institutional blockbusters. Museum-goers line up for shows that sprawl everywhere without quite getting much of anywhere. Even galleries are getting the message. Damien Hirst let his barely edited imagination build up an East End fashion and a Chelsea theme park, just in time to cash in at Sotheby's. Robert Rauschenberg threw together, literally, a Quarter Mile Piece.

Museums can offer quieter pleasures, though, in shows that let works of art get a word in edgewise. In a small space, one can at last see an artist in full. This year the Museum of Modern Art concentrated on Vincent van Gogh, with his portraits of Joseph Roulin. The Frick has compared two views of Salisbury Cathedral by John Constable. It has gathered all six New York City holdings by Diego Velàzquez, whose the Spanish Baroque portraits helped change the course of French art. It has reconstructed a painting by Edouard Manet, along with a momentous event in his life and in modern art.

The Frick has done it again for El Greco, as if to purify art's very own temple. Call it the anti-blockbuster. In three paintings, Saint Jerome's long beard and high forehead tower above an open Bible. The nervous arch of his hand lingers commandingly over words that he himself once shaped. Across the room, Jesus repeatedly casts out those moneylenders. Purity and chaos will struggle for the painted surface, as they must for existence itself.

Make no mistake about it: these shows, too, reflect an institutionalized art world. They boast of selections from the Frick's permanent collection, although they supply a welcome, fresh context. Like an ungainly theme show, a Whitney Biennial, or hectoring wall labels at the Met, they make a curator the star. Yet art and the viewer get to talk back—or to enjoy, for a change, a moment of silence. The Frick gets special credit, too, for creative contributions to the community. Its rules will not let it lend its three Vermeers, say, to a full-dress retrospective of Delft art up the street, but it can still ring startling changes on what it has.

So go ahead, and put yourself in the privileged place of a scholar. Get close to a painting for a long time, then stand back to compare it to others with a sage nod. Do it with confidence, because a context makes heated, even overwhelming acts of the imagination newly accessible. Watch El Greco as he learns to focus a composition, gaining in confidence as an artist. In one version he sets down the heads of four artists, including Titian and perhaps Raphael, as much to challenge himself as to boast. Watch him rise to the challenge.

Art's riddles do not go away so easily, however. El Greco's career crosses four artistic centers and forty years of religious, political, and artistic wars. Yet in all that time, Jerome looks straight ahead and scowls. In version after version, Jesus twists his body and raises his arm like a lightening bolt, while white flashes model substance and shadow. Much the same characters flee or study him in puzzlement. Perspective still leads the eye in two contradictory directions. Why?

Bad character in a bad play

The question opens up pretty much every known theory about an ever-popular, quirky artist. (Yes, I know that sounds redundant.) As part of the fun, one gets to play theorist along with the best of them. So come on. Play along with me.

Faced with El Greco, the public looks for bad eyesight or a nut case. Even in art, it seems, people would rather fish for physical causes than tease out meaning. It hardly helps that I live in a sadly conservative age. The papers trace everything to one's genes but hair color. And few artists can match this man's intensity—or a lifetime on the margins of power.

El Greco has his roots in Crete, a colony in the Venetian maritime empire, and a surviving Cretan document already calls him a master painter. He hit Italy just as the High Renaissance he so admired had all but gone. After training in the elongated forms of eastern icons, he must have felt strangely at home in the intense reaction to the Renaissance called Mannerism. He moved south from Venice and, later on, to Spain, another harsh empire on the edge of Europe. Its king and clergy stood as far from Renaissance ideals as one gets. Despite some initial success in Spain's capital, the painter died in the provinces, like a bad play. El Greco's Saint Jerome (Frick Collection, photo by Richard di Liberto, New York, 1590–1600)

So must one put it all down to blindness, neurosis, or failure? Of course, like the experts, I am not buying. If El Greco sees things a little funny, then so did his teachers and patrons. He learned his lightning flashes in place of highlights, not to speak of long bodies and a love of allegory, from Tintoretto and other Mannerists. And he does them well. If he exaggerates perspective in two directions at once, at least he gets them both right. He gives weight to human form even when dazzlingly foreshortened.

Faced with close copies, an art historian looks first for workshop copies or utter forgeries. Yet one can date the paintings to El Greco's lifetime and assign all but perhaps one to his own hand. (I doubt that El Greco finished that last Saint Jerome without assistance.) In fact, one has trouble imagining him carting workshop models all over Europe for half a century, assuming he had enough popularity to sustain a decent factory. Moreover, the century still valued each artist's personal variations, like Raphael's Madonnas. The artist as known commodity, as genre painter of cathedrals or ice skaters, still lay decades away.

More to the point, both theories—madness and workshop copies—lose out to something remarkable. One has the pleasure of seeing El Greco gain fresh control from painting to painting. As that figure bending over from the rear gets far less sketchy, it only emphasizes this painter's command of anatomy and careful layering of color. He could be returning to Titian after all, in scorn for a man like Tintoretto so often called a "face painter." He could be anticipating the new century, when a younger man named William Harvey would use anatomy to reinvent medicine, while Dutch masters would build in oils with fresh insight. I wish I were that crazy.

The man without a country

Naturally, an art historian looks next for wild influences in a tormented career. And now things get murkier than ever. As with a young Picasso centuries later, himself taking on the art capital of Europe, one has too many influences to sort out, and none quite adds up to a solution. In the end El Greco comes to resemble that placid, unconsolable woman weaving through a niche all her own—like J. D. Salinger's Franny Glass, "constitutionally unable to love or understand any son of God who throws tables around."

Jonathan Brown, the exhibition curator and a formidable scholar of Spanish art, traces this repetition back to Crete. In a culture of medieval icons, an image itself embodies the holy. Would that superstition survive, though, in El Greco, who threw himself into modern Europe—both Italy and then the most orthodox corner of the Inquisition? To this day not all can agree on what, if anything, El Greco painted before he left Crete, although a 1983 discovery may have elevated perhaps three additional works as well, and a recent show in Europe carefully surveyed some other more or less convincing finds—one even signed. Besides, I cannot see the flat, frontal gaze of an icon in Jerome's diagonal stance or in his monumental hands. I have trouble seeing the substance of saint or sinner in that crazed Temple.

He left the High Renaissance just as far behind. He may (or may not) have studied with Titian, but his art has none of the Venetian's dark solidity and ease with sexuality. Think of that disembodied woman at right, her feet barely treading the ground. Think of Jerome's frightening glare. As this career develops over decades, one sees colors become dark and earthy compared to classical Venice. The clusters of distended figures become more pronounced than ever.

Perhaps anxious repetition goes just fine with Mannerism, then. After all, for centuries people mistook the period for mechanical repetition, much as a "manner" suggests. Later historians have seen Mannerism more clearly, as a troubled reaction, a creative extension, or a far-reaching experiment. However, if the painter looks Mannerist to me, he hardly thought so. One can connect almost every figure to an earlier model from the Renaissance masters, including the artists whose busts he painted within one version. Even the woman, her jar over her head, has a pose and meekness out of Raphael at his most mainstream.

Sure, El Greco worked in Spain, too, with its hammer-and-nails idea of Catholicism. At the time, both the Purification and Saint Jerome often stood for Counter-Reformation authority. There is no god but God, no bible but the Bible, and no room to treat church interiors, as in the Protestant Netherlands, like town squares rather than houses of worship and high ceremony. Yet this very show suggests that the artist's style had largely fallen into place by the time he arrived in Spain. And in his Temple, one loses any firm ground from which to turn to authority. Even to show Jerome with his Bible might end up suggesting that anyone could read it and make up one's own mind.

Last, I cannot link El Greco's persistence to the art of an outsider, the "failed" painter of Toledo. One cannot even say for sure that he stood outside anything. He sought one artistic and religious center after another. In the end, Toledo gave him his greatest commission, The Burial of Count Orgaz.

The postmodern Renaissance

Domenikos Theotokopoulos, "the Greek," is not supposed to come with answers. One knows too little of the person, and he traveled too far. He sees through the eyes of too many others and paints for too many elites. At the same time, he sticks too much to his art. He cannot let go of the Renaissance, but his very repetition marks it as everyone's and yet his own.

Have I fallen into a definition of Mannerism after all? Certainly it shaped him. Even that curiously inattentive woman may have a Mannerist model. In Jacopo da Pontormo's faded fresco of Jesus before Pilate, a lone servant weaves in an indeterminate distance, bearing a tray like a waiter—or as one prepared for a sacrifice. Regardless, Mannerists like him or his teacher, Andrea del Sarto, always look back, consciously, on the recent past, but neither to imitate it nor to reject it out of hand. For the first time in Christian art, they gain in emotional power from turning the past generation harshly against itself.

El Greco adds one more turn—not surprisingly, with surpassing skill. If Mannerism comes late to the party, this guy comes late to Mannerism, decades late, and starts to copy the revelers. At the end of a century, he turns back to the originality and intensity of the first generation. At the same time, he points to a revolution ready to happen—the personal immediacy of the Baroque. In one account, Rembrandt himself claimed that only anatomy, rather than correct perspective, matters in the end. Like El Greco, the Baroque was to reflect the growth of science in its increasing separation between the physical and the spiritual.

In a final version of The Purification, the scene moves almost entirely indoors, before an altar. On the side of the fallen, the relief of Adam and Eve gives way to a statue of a naked male. In a Temple turned to ill uses, he recalls pagan times. Yet he also echoes the Renaissance ideals of ancient statuary, if only to turn against those, too. The statue reaches out from its niche, as if alive. He might almost be reaching out, right toward the viewer, as in the dramas of Caravaggio with his late paintings and Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi to come, the birth of the Baroque.

Something, he seems to say, has gone wrong. The only still point, the shy woman at the far right, is far too familiar and far too out of reach. Amid all the multimedia noise, not even the savior notices it all. One may never attain that still moment, even if an artist's style has stood still for forty years. The more visionary he came, the more he clung to his vision—and yet the most distant it seems.

By repeating repetition, by seeing again an act of re-seeing, El Greco has set something loose. Appropriating appropriation—it sounds relevant to Postmodernism today, after it has all but lost its teeth. In El Greco's hands, late Mannerism and the Renaissance keep each other alive, barely, like Postmodernism and Modernism now. No wonder he seems so immediate today—and so hard to understand.

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"El Greco: Themes and Variations" ran at The Frick Collection through July 29, 2001. Related reviews look at his 2004 retrospective at the Met, his years in Toledo, and his roots in Crete.


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