The El Greco enigma

St Paul by El Greco

This generously illustrated book commemorates the 400th anniversary of the death of the great and enigmatic artist, Domenikos Theotokopoulos, known as El Greco, writes John McKewen.

El Greco: life and work – a new history; by Fernando Marías (Thames and Hudson).

- Review by The Tablet.

The author of this book is a professor of art history at Madrid's Universidad Autónoma, the curator of the current exhibition, the largest ever, being held at the Museum of Santa Cruz and in other venues in Toledo until 14 June.

Additions to a canon earn their scholarly place through new material. Professor Marías' coup has been the discovery of El Greco's annotated copy of Vitruvius, consolidated by privileged access to a similarly annotated copy of Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Artists. This consolidates the transformation of our understanding of a great but much misunderstood artist.

Lack of hard information has encouraged all sorts of fictions and theories. El Greco has been the quintessential Spaniard; he has been an Italian; even a Jew; a mystical equivalent of his Spanish contemporaries Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross; a defector from Orthodoxy; an agnostic.

His elongated figures have been ascribed to religious ecstasy, to wilful self-expression or simply to astigmatism. 

El Greco ('The Greek,' his Spanish nickname) was born in Candia (Heraklion), capital of Crete, the island then part of the Venetian empire. His family were traders and he became an icon painter, though only two icons can today be attributed to him. But the life of a provincial artisan was not for him and, aged 25, he left for Venice, never to return. He stayed three years. 

He then spent five years in Rome, a committed Western painter, having built on a formal freedom and broader outlook already in evidence before he left Crete. 

Venice, not Florence or Rome, remained El Greco's ideal: 'In Venice they don't call a painting uncouth; they just say that it is in the Roman style.' 

Hardly surprisingly, he moved on – to Spain, where he hoped to become a court painter to Philip II. He failed, but he had some success in Toledo, the ecclesiastical and intellectual capital, where he stayed for the rest of his life. 

He remained the outsider he had always been, even in Crete. He was admired yet envied; misunderstood, litigious and, ultimately, isolated; but he did die a Catholic, receiving the last rites. Artistically he was uncompromising, his finest and freest paintings coming at the end.

Read full review: El Greco: life and work – a new history (The Tablet)

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