Sunday, March 1, 2015

El Greco in New York

Another exhibition that I saw in it’s last days at the Metropolitan Museum and Frick Collection was “El Greco in New York”.  It was a show that opened near the end of 2014 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of El Greco’s death.  There have been tributes to El Greco also at the National Gallery in Washington D.C. and at the Prado in Madrid with the largest one in Toledo, Spain.

The reason I can write about this show guilt free is that you can re-enact it for yourselves by visiting the three museums, all within New York City.  The exhibition was split between two venues. The larger event was at the Metropolitan Museum where they showed 16 paintings by El Greco and the remaining 3 were at the Frick Collection. 

The reason why they were not all together is that the original gift by Henry Clay Frick (1814-1919) stipulated that no work in his collection could leave the building.  The result is that anything acquired before his death cannot be loaned.  Frick was a great fan of El Greco and had acquired 3 paintings by the artist.  The fact that the artist had been forgotten and not resurrected as an important artist until the late 19th century gave collectors like Frick and Havermeyer  a chance to buy the best.  At the Met there were 10 from its own collections and the remaining 6 came from the Hispanic Society of America.  This wonderful gem of a museum that most people miss since it is at 613 West 155th Street way above Columbia University.  There one can study treasures of Spanish art in relative peace and quiet if you compare it to the Metropolitan!  As it was put in The Guardian, “The important but unloved Hispanic Society of America, stranded in a Beaux-Arts penitentiary way uptown, gets about 20,000 visitors a year (the Met gets 300 times that).”  Now that the exhibition is over you have an excuse to visit the Hispanic Society to see  El Greco in a more authentic, i.e. Spanish, environment.

El Greco, whose given name was Doménikos Theotokópoulos, was born in 1541 in Crete, which was at the time, part of the Republic of Venice.   In 1567, already an accomplished artist he moved to Venice and from there he went to Rome in 1570 where all serious artists of the time were drawn.  It was, and some would argue still is, the Mecca of European art world.  Then in 1577 he moved to Toledo, Spain where he was known simply as The Greek and where he made his reputation and and worked until his death in 1614. 

My first interaction with El Greco, I know, was before the age of 10, because at that age I was finally allowed to enter the Frick Collection and discovered Bellini’s “St. Francis in the Desert”.  But first, I had been mesmerized at the Metropolitan Museum by El Greco’s “View of Toledo”.  There was this road that led into a fantastical city.  I think that today the kids could believe that Zombies live there.  It is green like the Emerald City but in my mind still belongs to the Wicked Witch of the West waiting for Dorothy’s arrival.  The painting was given to the Metropolitan as a bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929.


El Greco in the 20th century has been considered totally in tune with contemporary artists.  He took mannerism to an extreme where he actually deformed figures in a very meaningful way.  No wonder he had an influence on the likes of Picasso. Take the Frick’s “Christ Purifying the Temple”: Christ is standing on one foot almost in a balletic pose.  The figures all seem part of a great bravura performance.  The mysterious muted hues of garments turn the picture into an essay in modulated colors.


El Greco’s “Pietà” from The Hispanic Society of America is a rather unusual composition.  The way one usually sees this subject depicted is to have Christ’s body laid across his mother’s knees as The Lamentation but here you see his body being dragged by his mother together with Mary Magdalene and Mary, Mother of James, to his grave?


The Met’s “Vision of St. John” is from an altar commissioned for the church of the hospital of Saint John the Baptist in Toledo.  From the Metropolitan Museum web site, “It depicts a passage in the Bible, Revelation (6:9-11) describing the opening of the Fifth Seal at the end of time, and the distribution of white robes to ‘those who had been slain for the work of God and for the witness they had borne.’ The missing upper part may have shown the Sacrificial Lamb opening the Fifth Seal. The canvas was an iconic work for twentieth-century artists and Picasso, who knew it in Paris, used it as an inspiration for Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.”   If you go to Google images and put in The 5 Fifth Seal you will find many images of El Greco’s images of St. John as well as Les Demoiselles d’Avingnon.


We are fortunate indeed to have such riches in this country and easily accessible in New York’s public collections, albeit that one of them is generally overlooked!

The images have been each kindly supplied by their institutions.