BY Jennifer Higgie in Opinion | 10 OCT 14
Featured in
Issue 3

In the First Place

What the story of El Greco tells us about how art history is made

BY Jennifer Higgie in Opinion | 10 OCT 14

Earlier this year, I was in Madrid and saw some extraordinary paintings. Blazingly fresh, religious, despairing and hallucinatory, their intensity and inventiveness echoed the complexities of our complicated century. The artist? El Greco, a painter who died 400 years ago this year. For this third issue of Frieze Masters Magazine, Lorena Muñoz-Alonso interviews Javier Barón — who curated this summer’s ‘El Greco and Modern Painting’ at the Prado in Madrid — about the influence the Greek painter had on the development of Modernism. Barón discusses how, in the late 16th century, El Greco travelled from his home in Crete to Venice, to work in Titian’s studio; he then moved to Rome, where — in the great tradition of young artists railing against their elders — he opened his own studio, had access to patrons, became friends with the major artists of the day and then insulted the work of Michelangelo, who had recently died, proposing that he re-paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. According to legend, he described the great artist as ‘a good man who couldn’t paint’. Nonetheless, after he moved to Toledo in Spain, El Greco’s ceaseless experimentation incorporated the lessons he had learnt from Michelangelo — and Parmigianino and Tintoretto, too — into his own paintings. El Greco died in 1614 and, despite doing well in his lifetime, his work quickly faded into obscurity, its Mannerism out of fashion with the Baroque style that would soon sweep Europe. It wasn’t long before entirely unfounded rumours swirled that the wild distortions of El Greco’s pictures resulted from his supposed insanity — despite the fact that in his lifetime he ran a comfortable home, was a genial host and a canny self-promoter.

In 1838, King Louis-Philippe of France inaugurated a ‘Spanish Museum’ in the Louvre, and sent an advisor, Baron Isidore Justin Séverin Taylor, to Spain in order to buy work to fill it. Taylor bought nine El Grecos, which were then displayed in Paris. The French critic Théophile Gautier waxed lyrical about the paintings, and Charles Baudelaire also paid homage to them. In the 20th century, Pablo Picasso was obsessed with El Greco; his Cubist masterpiece, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (The Young Ladies of Avignon, 1907), is indebted to the painter. But it wasn’t just Picasso who was crazy about El Greco: the anti-Naturalism of his work was to influence both Surrealism and Action Painting — Jackson Pollock was enthralled by him — while his importance to young artists today can’t be underestimated. And so the conversation of art continues.

The rise and fall and rise of El Greco is symptomatic not only of how art is made but of how it is disseminated. Artists don’t work in a vacuum: they push against what has come before them, reinventing their language time and again. But without supporters — collectors, curators, art historians, critics, fellow artists — the work of even a great artist can quickly disappear into obscurity. That we are as indebted to a king as we are to critics and to artists for El Greco’s re-discovery is a telling reminder of how crucial the role of patronage is to the development of culture.

That the past continues to exert a strong hold on the present is evident time and again in the art of today. In the following pages, you can read Amy Sherlock on a group of young UK-based artists who are in thrall to the west coast ceramics of the 1950s; Ara Merjian on the enduring legacy of Giorgio De Chirico; and Charlie Fox on the ongoing tradition of the artist’s memoir, from the Renaissance sculptor Benvenuto Cellini to the contemporary Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. We’re also honoured to publish a wide-ranging conversation between the German artist, Thomas Demand, and our cover star, the great American painter Wayne Thiebaud. Demand asked Thiebaud if he had any advice for young artists. Thiebaud’s reply? ‘Consult with tradition. Look at a lot of paintings and love what you’re doing. Go to museums. Do lots of drawing.’

In this year’s ‘Artists’ Artists’ section, Ed Atkins, Jeremy Deller, Rachel Feinstein and Naeem Mohaiemen, among others, have nominated works that have influenced them — from a prehistoric stone circle and a 16th-century German wood carving to a Cy Twombly painting and a Bangladeshi filmmaker from the 1980s. Their choices remind us, yet again, that much of the most radical of today’s art owes a debt to paintings, sculptures and drawings that were created decades, even centuries, ago. This shouldn’t surprise us; after all, the only way that art has ever moved forward is by constantly looking back.

Jennifer Higgie is a writer who lives in London. Her book The Mirror and the Palette – Rebellion, Revolution and Resilience: 500 Years of Women’s Self-Portraits is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, and she is currently working on another – about women, art and the spirit world.