“Bizarre”, brilliant and modern: El Greco on display in Milan

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By John

Who was El Greco? A madman? It was convenient for him to believe so, also due to his not exactly accommodating character. But contemporaries and posterity have competed to find reasons that are more banal than strange to justify his painting, so different from that of his time: drug addict, far-sighted, astigmatic, mystic, homosexual and more. All lies, of course, but enough to keep him on the fringes of the royal courts during his lifetime (but in good economic conditions, thanks to a thriving workshop) and forgotten afterwards. It was the twentieth century that gave it its rightful place in the history of art (as happened to his totally different contemporary, Caravaggio) and to consider him so far ahead as to make him a true precursor of that painting which, displaced by photography in the reproduction of life, seeks new expressive paths. Those necessary to propose the human figure in new versions from the end of the nineteenth century that pass through psychology, the decomposition of bodies, and existential tensions.

El Greco, nickname of Doménikos Theotokópoulos (Candia, island of Crete, 1541 – Toledo, Spain, 1614), today considered one of the greatest painters who ever existedwho inspired Egon Schiele, Francis Bacon and even Picasso with his elongated bodies, is the protagonist of the beautiful exhibition hosted in the Palazzo Reale in Milan until February 11th. The “El Greco” exhibition, promoted by the Municipality of Milan Culture and produced by Palazzo Reale and MondoMostreis edited by Juan Antonio Garcia Castro, Palma Martínez-Burgos García and Thomas Clement Salomon, with the scientific coordination of Mila Ortiz, and is accompanied by a valuable catalogue, published by Skira.

Forty-one works by the painter, with the presence also of Tintoretto, Titian, Bassano and others. The exhibition itinerary follows the chronological thread of the artist’s life, from a dissatisfied icon painter in his native Crete to Venice, where he arrived in 1567, learning the lessons of perspective, but above all those of color from Titian and Tintoretto and of light from Jacopo Bassano . Then the passages from Mantua (he admires Giulio Romano) and Parma (he discovers Parmigianino and Correggio) and then Rome, where he deludes himself that he can find success. The miniaturist Giulio Clovio recommended him to Cardinal Farnese who seemed to welcome him but then evicted him without explanation. Between false and true letters and anecdotes, this period remains rather obscure, especially since – perhaps – El Greco also put something of himself into it.

The idea ofa painter who was also a philosopher (certainly he was an intellectual), but who someone transformed into a mystic if not downright neurasthenic. The Roman failure was probably caused by his sharp judgments on the painting of Michelangelo (whom he also admired), so much so that he applied to redo the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel, at the time when they wanted to cover nudity. Too much for Farnese, for whom Michelangelo was an untouchable, even considering the famous phrase attributed to El Greco to be false: «Michelangelo? He’s a good man, but he doesn’t know how to paint.”

So Doménikos moved to Spain, convinced he could get into the good graces of Felipe II, who instead ignored him. From 1577 he stopped in Toledo, a large city but peripheral to the court, and here he began a confident career as a painter of the Counter-Reformation, which at that time was at the center of Catholicism. He puts himself at the service of the Church, but he does it in his own way. As also in portraits, he expresses a painting that passes through the psychology (then unknown as a science) of the characters, their emotions, gestures and movements that at the time appeared extreme. He himself wrote that painting, in addition to being “the most intellectual”, was also the most perfect of the arts because “it aims to represent everything” and also “deals with the impossible”.

That very modern, metaphysical style is born, in which bodies lengthen, glances are lost, the canvases become crowded, the colors become acidic (even the greys), the sign becomes thinner, the proportions and boundaries lose their rational logic. Through the idea of ​​a religious tension towards the absolute, El Greco instead reproduces his own immaterial and parallel world, he knows what the unconscious is in a time in which this word is unknown, he comes out of reality to give a face to thoughts and to desires. Those gazes are not lost in the void or in mysticism, but see beyond, express the artist’s desire to overcome our boundaries and illustrate the perception that so much more is possible even if we don’t get there with our human perception.

Enough so that in the eighteenth century the Spanish historian Antonio Palomino (who also considered El Greco a good painter) wrote: «Seeing that his paintings were mistaken for the work of Titian, he tried to change his style with such extravagance as to make his painting despicable and ridiculous , both in the disarticulation of the drawing and in the harshness of the colour.” El Greco truly was extravagant, but in the sense that he had the ability to go beyond the confines to enter the unusual. In the Milanese exhibition, there are many works that testify to this “extravagance”: from the “Baptism of Christ”, which alone is worth a visit, to “St. Martin and the beggar”, “The Incarnation” or “Annunciation”, “Adoration of the shepherds” and many others.

At the end of the exhibition there is «Laocoön», the only work in which El Greco portrayed a mythological subject. The eccentric positions of the five naked bodies portrayed, the energetic power of the canvas seem to summarize all the mysteries of El Greco’s forerunner and visionary mind. And, incredibly, it seems to us that Picasso’s painting was born from those bodies, partly disjointed.