< Light Millennium: El Greco, Article by Louise Mercado
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El Greco:

This is a must see exhibit. It will be on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City through January 11, 2004.

by Louise MERCADO

I had the pleasure of viewing the retrospective of "El Greco" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. I found it to be breathtaking. It left me with a deep respect for El Greco's work. I was fascinated by the vibrant colors and the ease of the brush strokes. El Greco's unconventional style was unique in the 16th Century. He created elongated human figures as a means to express emotion in his religious subjects.

Art is something that fascinates us all. What distinguishes one artist from another? How do we tell between fine art and ordinary art, a professional or an amateur?

These are questions that perplex the average individual who is not an art enthusiast but who nonetheless enjoys looking at pieces of art work that is commonly described as "one of the best". Many artist are not recognized during their time, yet receive recognition years after they have physically left us. We wonder, are these artist before their time and are the citizens of that period not ready for the artistic expression they deem radical or eccentric. How do we in a modern age decide that an artist who was not appreciated during his time is now deemed a creative geniuses.

Hence, we find ourselves in the New York City, Metropolitan Museum of Art, where thousands of pieces of art pass through their doors year after year, some on visit and some on permanent exhibit. How did Philippe de Montebello, Director, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City and curator Keith Christiansen chose and select such divine pieces of art such as the one presently on exhibit, El Greco, that stand above all the others, to be exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City?

El Greco was born Domenikos Theotokopoulos (1541-1614) in Candia, Crete. He moved to Toledo, Spain where he resided. He is known as one of the "world's greatest artists". He is considered to be an exceptional artist and one of the most remarkable artist of the sixteenth century. This is the first retrospective of El Greco since the late 20th century (1982).

Paradoxically, it is precisely the most extravagant flights of El Greco's fertile imagination - works in which the figures are elongated beyond credibility and their forms dematerialized by a flickering brushwork - that are most prized today (they form the core of this exhibition). In the present age of secularism, this is nothing short of miraculous. (Phillippe de Montebello, Directors' Forward, News Release)

It is El Greco's use of distorted images and exaggerated colors that give his art its emotional intensity. Where his art seems dramatic and purposeful, it represents a blend of passion and restraint. El Greco's religious fervor was influenced by the mysticism of the Counter-Reformation. We see this not in his sculpture, but in his religious paintings.

Movement was a central critical issue during the Renaissance' artist in the Renaissance always had an inflected posture, one leg bent, one leg straight. All this had to do with making an image non-static keeping the eye moving. We know from El Greco's marginal notes to his copy of the "Sorries Lives" that he felt absolutely committed to this. El Greco takes this into a new direction, not only do his figures gesture in a way that suggest movement, but the brush is in constant movement and he literally abolishes the outline. This I find to be absolutely extraordinary! Sometimes you will see him lay down an area and then dry brush through it to break any outline. This suggest a constant vibration between background, foreground, one element, and feature of another. This is one of the modern aspects of El Greco' figures are set off boldly by black all around them which literally abolishes any sort of natural normative relationship with the background. No artist prior to the twentieth century has done this sort of thing and this also isolates the figures and the figures are in these convoluting poses. Nobody does more elaborate foreshortenings more insistence on figures seen in positions that are absolutely beyond belief than El Greco - if you allow yourself to be seduced by his handling of the brush, you are going to have an extraordinary experience. (Keith Christiansen, Curator, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY, Interview).

Some highlights of the exhibit are:

View of Toledo, about 1597-9, Oil on canvas, 47 ¾ x 42 ¾ in., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York is the only landscape painting by the artist that survives. El Greco has imaginatively reconfigured the city of Toledo, showing the cathedral not in its actual position but to the left of the Alcazar palace.

The Adoration of the Shepherds, about 1612-14, Oil on canvas, 125 ½ x 70 7/8 in, Museo nacional del Prado, Madrid, inv. 2988. The subject originates in Saint Luke's, who narrates how an angel of the Lord stood by the shepherds came to the crib to adore the Child. At the lower part, Mary, Joseph and three shepherds form a circle around the Child; above, a chorus of angels hold a phylactery with the inscription GLORIA IN EXCELSIS DEO ET IN TERRA PAX. The figure of the Child becomes a symbolic light focus irradiating its brightness to the rest of the figures.

The Resurrection, late 1590's, Oil on canvas, 108 ¼ x 50 in., Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, inv. 825. The nude figure of Christ wearing a splendid crimson cloak and holding a white flag, rises effortless in an incandescent light. The soldiers below, arranged in a semicircle, raise their arms and contort their bodies, in great confusion and amazement. The foreshortened figures of two other guardians have been knocked down and a third one, wearing a helmet, dozes completely devoid of the magnitude of the wonder.

El Greco is one of the great masters of European painting. He is also one of the most individual personal artist who really transformed what were very traditional themes, the whole history of the life of Christ and the saints into a completely new realm of very intense spirituality that is very much his own.  He's also a great portrait painter and a great master. This is an exhibition of El Greco that for the first time ever really covers the whole history of his career only with absolutely the very best works. Anyone who comes to see it will be greatly rewarded. (Phillippe de Montebello, Director, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY, Interview statement)

This is an emotional experience that rarely occurs in an exhibit of this type. This richness may not present itself again and may be the only opportunity you will have to view a show of this magnitude.  

If you value art, this would be something you have to see. If you are not an avid art enthusiast, it would be an experience you can talk about for years to come. It might change the way you feel about art.

This is a must see exhibit. It will be on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City through January 11, 2004.

_ . _

E-mail to Louise Mercado: louise@lightmillennium.org

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