Run, don’t walk, to see an El Greco show. Domenikos Theotokopoulos, known as El Greco (1541–1614), is uniquely sublime and rarely had a bad day, so an exhibition of his work is certain to inspire. It doesn’t matter if the show’s intellectually dodgy or awkwardly arranged or blandly interpreted. It doesn’t matter if it’s in Timbuktu. Run, don’t walk. He’s that good.
Paris is far nicer than Timbuktu. The new show at the Grand Palais is called “Greco.” That warned me. El Greco now has a brand. The name says it all. Slap “Greco” on a billboard or banner, and you’ve grabbed an audience, much as a high-end logo does. It’s by no means a bad show. The art is gorgeous. I’d seen most of the paintings before, but some were fresh to me. The old favorites continued to dazzle. As much as I enjoyed seeing so many great things in the El Greco show, I found myself conjuring my inner 1980s. “Where’s the beef?”
This story isn’t an overview of El Greco. It’s more about how more and more museums present blockbuster shows these days.
I think the exhibition espouses to be a retrospective, but it’s not. A retrospective is a whopper of a show assembling not only an artist’s biggest hits but a deep representation of most if not all his themes. A retrospective is rare and generally happens on a milestone anniversary — the Pieter Bruegel show in Vienna I reviewed last year observed the 450th anniversary of his death — or it marks the accumulation of new discoveries and scholarship since the last retrospective. A real retrospective generally happens once a generation, if that soon.
The Paris show isn’t comprehensive. Its scholarship is good but narrowly focused, even episodic. It starts as a linear enterprise, moving from Crete, where El Greco was born, to Venice, where he was part of the circle of Tintoretto, to Rome, where he struggled to compete with the big artist enchiladas, and, finally, to his arrival in Toledo in 1577. A grand Crucifixion scene from 1595 gives us El Greco’s signature figure style: the elongated figure, in this case a poised, even slinky Jesus. He’s just been tortured to death but looks like a runway model. The show at this point seems most promising.
There, the show’s star rises 16 splendid feet. It’s the fabulous Assumption of the Virgin, from 1577–79, owned by the Art Institute of Chicago, which is co-organizing the show. It’s part of the big Toledo tomb commission in the church of Santo Domingo el Antigua that attracted El Greco from Rome to Spain. The patron hired El Greco long-distance. I don’t think he wanted to pay big pesetas for a name artist but definitely did want paintings done in what he called “the latest Roman style.” It’s monumental and I think it’s been cleaned for the show. This section concerns his early years in Toledo.
At that point, the fireworks fizzle. There’s a big section on architecture and a section on El Greco replicas — not studio copies but different versions he made of the same subject. It then awkwardly goes in reverse, back through the architecture section, through the section on Toledo, to a smashing finale. Entire swaths of El Greco’s career are missing, especially his late, wildly distorted, fiercely vertical altarpieces from after 1600. A midsize version of The Disrobing of Christ is there, the big version in the sacristy of the cathedral in Toledo. The Burial of the Count Orgaz, El Greco’s chef d’oeuvre isn’t there, which is understandable, but it’s unacknowledged. The Martyrdom of St. Maurice, from 1577, isn’t there. Commissioned by Philip II, it might have been El Greco’s golden ring to a career at the royal court had the king not hated it.
What to say?
The very good catalogue, in Spanish but about to be published in English, has an informative, deeply researched essay on where El Greco fit in Toledo’s art market. It’s written by Richard Kagan, a renowned El Greco specialist. It would make an exhibition in itself. I’m fascinated by art markets, and Toledo’s was a hefty one. It was the largest and richest archdiocese in Spain and the seat of its cardinals. There were almost a thousand parish churches, 264 monasteries and convents, 229 shrines, and lots of hospitals, colleges, and chichi clubs, all with decoration needs. El Greco got some great commissions over the years but missed many others, had a small workshop, and was chronically broke. Why? Who were the buyers, what were the relationships, how did El Greco pitch his work, what was his niche? We have to buy the catalogue to learn these things.
Among his niches were very beautiful devotional pictures, mostly for home use. El Greco often painted many versions of the same subject, varying poses and gestures, or adding and subtracting landscapes or bits of iconography. There are too many sets of versions in the show when one or two of the greatest would establish that El Greco, like Murillo and Ribera and most busy Italian artists, pushed out the Virgins, the saints, and the Baby Jesuses in multiples. A group of St. Francis pictures, al El Greco favorite, would have been enough.
El Greco’s spooky scenes of a boy lighting a candle with a monkey and a jester by his side are in this section on versions. I’ve read a dozen interpretations of these three fable pictures over the years. What’s the latest take? They’re one-offs for El Greco since he didn’t paint scenes of everyday life or fable pictures, but why stick them in a section on how he tweaked subjects?
One of the pairings is magical but has more to do with evolution of style over years than how a busy business developed a tier of, say, pictures of St. Peter, some big and complex, some small and simple, depending on the buyer’s price point. The Penitent Mary Magdalene, from around 1577, is in the show. It’s in a Budapest museum, and I don’t believe I’d seen it. Its palette of blues and lilacs is enchanting. The form of the saint is sculptural and normally proportioned. Then, El Greco hadn’t started seriously stretching his figures.
The Nelson-Atkins version from 1580 is more cropped, with a turbulent sky. The saint’s neck is attenuated, her heavenward eyes like saucers, her long blond hair snaking to her waist, and her blouse conveyed in zigzags heading to heaven. She’s gorgeous but less of-this-world, as if she’s already got her ticket to paradise and is waiting to be beamed up. Yes, they’re the same subject, but El Greco shows a genius for using subtle variations in pose, setting, and palette to give the subject a new dimension.
There’s a big section on El Greco’s flirtation with architecture. It takes a lot of space and really isn’t an important part of his career since El Greco never designed a building. This section considers El Greco as a sculptor, too. That’s all well and good, but there’s only one sculpture we know he did. Why give these two minor sidelines so much room?
I liked the fine section on El Greco’s portraits. The portrait of Fray Hortensio Félix Paravicino from 1609, owned by Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, is worth walking barefoot on molten glass to see. That’s in the show. Paravicino looks ascetic enough, with his pale, thin face and basic black and white Trinitarian habit, but he carries it all off snappily. He came from a rich family and served as Philip III’s private preacher, hence the élan, but it’s élan with nerves. He’s poised but can’t seem to wait before jumping out of his seat and turning Billy Graham.
It was good to learn that El Greco, as frustrated and disappointed as he was in Rome, did manage to develop a good portrait business. He saw it as hack work, though, and wanted to paint grand religious scenes. As a measure of his knack for irritating people, he told everyone who would listen to him in Rome that he thought Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel work was tacky and flashy. He’d happily paint it over, he said, and do something better. Get Dale Carnegie on speed dial.
The show ends on a high note: four of El Greco’s six renditions of Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple, displayed together. They date from 1568, 1570, 1600, and between 1610 and 1614. It’s a joy to see them. Each is a fine picture, and they’re the best way to see his evolution from his days in Venice to his career in Rome to his late work. It’s here that the exhibition finally lands on a theme. The Gospel story of Jesus tossing merchants — money grubbing, moneylending, trade -0 from the Temple was a Counter-Reformation favorite.
With vigor, El Greco proclaims, “Toss the bums out” or “A new broom sweeps clean” or “There’s a new sheriff in town.” Keeping God’s house unsullied is a universal must. Reforming bad practices was a must after the bad old days of indulgences, randy cardinals, and flaccid, rotely mumbled liturgy. There’s a personal message, too. The exhibition speculates at the end that El Greco fundamentally, all his life, saw himself as an outsider and renegade. He was a Cretan prodigy, then an Italian interloper, and then a big-fish-in-a-middling-sea Spaniard, expelled from the royal court. His style was flamboyant, mystical, other-worldly, and, above all, unique. Others might have seen him as disputatious and rude, but he saw himself as one man against the world. He knew he was right.
Visitor have to backtrack through the show to get there. Sometimes space and gallery dimensions leave no choice, but it’s not ideal. It’s like reading a book through many chapters but then having to reread the middle of the book before getting to “el fin.”
This returns me to the problems in the show. First, El Greco the Lone Ranger is a good theme. Carried from beginning to end, much could have been done with it. The show’s not a retrospective and should have focused on one or two themes. Since he was indeed the eternal rebel, how that unfolded in his art would have made a riveting story. That’s what I understand the Art Institute of Chicago is going to present when it hosts its version of the show next month.
Second, the show is jointly organized by the Grand Palais and the Art Institute. so it’s essentially two different shows with considerable overlap but a different impetus, not a conflicting one but intellectually divergent. I peeked at the objects list for the Chicago leg, and it looks stronger.
There’s wiggle room for variation when a show goes to multiple venues. Lenders might send their art to one but not all venues. Audiences differ, so labels might have to be tailored. Spaces differ, and that dictates how to develop the storyline. These variations, ideally, should be small enough so the opus feels the same wherever it goes. The Delacroix retrospective, which I reviewed two years ago, was grand, thorough, and satisfying when I saw it at the Louvre. At the Met, the show was not only truncated. I’d venture to call it residue.
Third, the Paris El Greco show was a high-traffic one and mobbed when I was there. The Crete gallery and the gallery of El Greco’s early Venetian pictures were small. The paintings, many very instructive, were small. At 6’3″, I can see over the heads of most people, but packing lots of people and little things in cases in a small gallery is a recipe for claustrophobia, to be sure, and basically for just not being able to see anything. These early sections needed lebensraum.
Fourth, the Grand Palais’s gallery interpretation, specifically its wall texts for individual objects, were terse and simplistic. I like short labels, but the wall text needs to reflect in condensed form the intellectual points raised in the catalogue. The French-language catalogue, for instance, had great essays on El Greco’s Rome patron, Guilio Clovio, and on the art market in Toledo. The labels are minimalist and disconnected to the point of blandness.
What’s missing is the scholarship in the book. Over the last few years, I’ve seen this in many shows of the work of complex, big-name artists. I’m not sure whether it’s a people-moving device — don’t give them too much to read and ponder or they’ll never leave — or a deep stoop to reach the lowest common denominator. Neither becomes a legend.
And white walls for an Old Master show? Mon Dieu! Overall, I enjoyed the exhibition. El Greco can overcome — indeed, overwhelm — a legion of faux pas.