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Issue 3

Modern Master

The curator of the Prado Museum's 'El Greco and Modern Painting' exhibition on the artist's enduring influence

BY Lorena Muñoz-Alonso in Interviews | 10 OCT 14

In 2007, Javier Barón, Head of the Department of 19th Century Painting at the Prado Museum in Madrid, published a short essay in the book El Museo del Prado y el arte contemporáneo (The Prado Museum and Contemporary Art) exploring the influence of El Greco on 20th-century Spanish art. It marked the beginning of Barón’s research into the role the Greek painter played on the development of  Western painting. The project culminated this summer  —  400 years after El Greco’s death —  with the exhibition he curated for the Prado, ‘El Greco and Modern Painting’, which paired 26 of El Greco’s works with those of 80 modern artists, including Francis Bacon, Paul Cézanne, Édouard Manet, Pablo Picasso and Jackson Pollock. Lorena Muñoz-Alonso spoke with Barón in Madrid to discuss the life and legacy of this influential and enigmatic artist.

El Greco, A Gentleman with his Hand on his Chest, c.1580, oil on canvas, 82 x 66 cm. Courtesy: Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

Lorena Muñoz-Alonso  Why did El Greco exert such a huge influence on the painters of the 19th and 20th centuries?

Javier Barón  It’s fair to say that El Greco is the most influential painter of the last two centuries. For a long time, painters were in awe of Diego Velázquez, but when El Greco was rediscovered there was a huge paradigm shift. Even though he enjoyed great success during his lifetime, El Greco sank into obscurity after his death. For a couple of centuries, he was considered an oddity, a forgotten genius. Although he aligned himself with Mannerism, his work is still difficult to explain in the context of 16th century painting. Young artists saw him as a strong-minded character, a maverick who developed a unique style. El Greco is also one of the first painters to have instigated lawsuits to determine the price of his work. He was very conscious of his artistic worth, and the importance of the role of the artist in society, which, of course, is incredibly inspiring for young artists, too.

LM-A  What lead to the re-discovery of El Greco?

JB  It began in Spain, in the first half of the 19th century, and had a lot to do with the royal family. The Infante Gabriel Sebastián was an avid art collector who had purchased several El Grecos during the 18th century. The paintings were bequeathed to the Prado as part of the Royal Collection when it opened in 1819. When Ferdinand VII of Spain bought El Greco’s La Trinidad (The Trinity, 1577 – 79) in 1832, he requested some of the best painters of the time — including Juan Antonio de Ribera, Vicente López and José de Madrazo  —  to assess the painting in support of its acquisition, in turn sparking their interest in his work. López, for example, who was the greatest portrait painter of the period, bought the Caballero anciano (An Old Gentleman, 1587–1600) and hung it in his studio. 

In 1838, King Louis-Philippe of France founded the Galerie Espagnole (Spanish Gallery) at the Louvre: nine paintings by El Greco were hung alongside other Spanish masters, including Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, José de Ribera, Velázquez and Francisco de Zurbarán. The Avant-garde art critic Théophile Gautier waxed lyrical about El Greco’s La dama del armiño (The Lady in a Fur Wrap, 1577 – 79); Charles Baudelaire was also an admirer. The collection was displayed until the 1848 revolution, after which it was dismantled, put up for sale and dispersed across Europe. One of the collectors was the British art historian Sir William Stirling-Maxwell, who had recently published the first illustrated book about Spanish art, Annals of the Artists of Spain (1848). It contained a reproduction of The Lady in a Fur Wrap, a painting that fascinated him so much that he ended up buying it. Also, in the 19th century, it became fashionable for artists to travel across Europe looking at masterpieces and many saw the work of El Greco in Toledo and at the Prado.

Paul Cézanne, Lady in a Fur Wrap, After El Greco, 1885-86, oil on canvas, 53 x 49 cm. Courtesy: Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, and private collection, London

LM-A  The Lady in a Fur Wrap was a key work in the reappraisal of El Greco, and your exhibition juxtaposes the painting with Paul Cézanne’s version of it. However, today its authorship is widely disputed and many specialists believe that it may have been painted by the female painter Sofonisba Anguissola.

JB  This is the first time that these two paintings of The Lady in a Fur Wrap have been exhibited alongside each other, which is quite extraordinary. We decided to show the original because, as you say, it is key when discussing the legacy of El Greco, as it was admired by many modern painters, as well as critics. The painting is a milestone but, indeed, nowadays there are several opinions about its authorship. The style is clearly different to El Greco’s, which is why we have chosen to put a question mark alongside his name. However, Cézanne copied the work thinking that it was by El Greco as, at the time, the discovery and reappraisal of Anguissola had a long way to go. Interestingly, Cézanne painted it from a reproduction, since the original painting was in the uk, which probably explains why he simplified the lines so much and invented the colour scheme, with its unique blue hues.

In El Greco's paintings, the material world is depicted as the expression of a philosophical and theological outlook. 

LM-A  The paintings the young El Greco made from around 1567 — when he travelled from his birthplace in Crete to Venice and then, a few years later, to Rome — are more conventional than the paintings he created when he moved to Spain in 1577. What happened when he arrived in Toledo that developed his style in such an extraordinary manner? 

JB  El Greco started painting icons in Crete, then moved to Venice to work in Titian’s workshop, where his painting made an enormous leap, and then moved to Rome to establish his own studio. Although he was successful at first, it didn’t last. Italy was a highly competitive environment for a painter and he was rather opinionated, rejecting Renaissance conventions and criticizing the work of Michelangelo and Raphael, which probably didn’t do wonders for his career there. He was looking for a way out when he heard that King Philip II was recruiting painters for the Spanish court. Philip had invited Titian, who had declined, but had convinced painters Romulo Cincinato and Pellegrino Tibaldi to move to Spain. El Greco, a fellow Mannerist, decided to go along too.

In the beginning, he worked at the court in Madrid, but his paintings, which were full of formal and intellectual complications, didn’t suit the counter-reformist ideas of the King and they soon fell out. El Greco then relocated to Toledo where he had a much more favourable reception, securing important commissions and developing his signature style. Interestingly, Toledo in the 16th century was rather like Paris in the 19th century: a cosmopolitan cultural capital with a thriving intellectual community. Although Philip II moved his court to El Escorial, Toledo retained the richness of its Catholic, Jewish and Muslim cultures. The peripatetic, multicultural nature of El Greco’s life, which is reflected in his paintings, goes some way to explaining why his work became so appealing to modern painters.

Attributed to El Greco, The Lady in a Fur Wrap, c.1577-79, oil on canvas, 60 x 50 cm. Courtesy: © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection. (Many scholars now believe this painting to be the work of Sofonisba Anguissola)

LM-A  What is the relationship between El Greco and the Prado? When did his work enter the collection?

JB  The Prado has an incredibly long relationship with the work of El Greco, and played a crucial role in his rediscovery, both in Spain and abroad. It is important to mention as well that the museum organized his first solo exhibition in 1902. The first key work to enter the collection was La Trinidad and, nowadays, the Prado holds the world’s biggest collection of paintings by El Greco, including masterpieces such as the aforementioned Caballero anciano, as well as El caballero de la mano en el pecho (Nobleman with his Hand on his Chest, c. 1580), Bautismo de Cristo (The Baptism of Christ, 1597–1600), La Resurreccion de Cristo (The Resurrection, 1597–1600), San Bernardino (Saint Bernard of Siena, 1603), San Sebastian (Saint Sebastian, 1610–14) and Cristo abrazado a la Cruz (Christ Clasping the Cross, 1602).

LM-A  Would it be fair to say that El Greco was the first painter to depict the subconscious and a sense of existential angst?

JB  Nowadays, we tend to interpret El Greco’s artistic vision as Neoplatonic. Ideas contained in the paintings were very important to him: the material world is depicted not in a realist style but as the expression of a philosophical and theological outlook. Of course, this exhibition focuses on the reception of El Greco’s work in the 19th and 20th centuries so there is some truth in what you propose. The reading of his paintings as depicting angst and suffering is typical of the Expressionist artists from around 1900. Many Jewish painters, including Marc Chagall, Chaïm Soutine, Jakob Steinhardt and Max Weber, saw El Greco as the epitome of an artist who conveyed his suffering through art. For Picasso, El Greco was a ‘painter of the spirit’, and for the members of Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) school he was a sort of mystical existentialist. But these interpretations do not correspond to how we see El Greco today. He was not a tortured soul: he liked to live comfortably and he often had musicians entertain him and his family at home.

For Picasso, El Greco was a 'painter of the spirit', and for the members of Der Blaue Reiter school he was a mystical existentialist.

LM-A  But his work is tremendously religious and dramatic, and, at times, even mystical.

JB  I don’t think of El Greco as a mystic. He enjoyed success during his lifetime and if most of his work is indeed thematically religious, it’s because it was in demand at the time and where the most lucrative commissions came from. But in his oeuvre we also find a great number of portraits and even mythological themes, like in Laocoön (1610 – 14).

LM-A  In works like Agonía en el Jardín (The Agony in the Garden, c. 1600) the composition is very theatrical. The lighting is completely artificial, which accentuates the unreality of the scene. Could you perhaps talk about the theatrical, even cinematic, aspects of El Greco’s work and his influence on contemporary artists?

JB  As you say, the lighting in El Greco’s painting is consistently artificial; he used it as an expressive device to create highly unreal atmospheres. It could even be said that his use of lighting, which follows the ideal of light of the Neoplatonic philosopher Plotinus, is one of the keys to his enduring appeal. The end of this exhibition’s time period falls just before the beginning of appropriationist practices, around 1968, as seen in the work of the Spanish group Equipo Crónica, who used and subverted El Greco’s symbols and icons. However, as Equipo Crónica weren’t concerned with painting as a language, but rather with the semiotics of the image, we chose not to include their work. Artists such as Bacon and Picasso obviously still believed in the language of painting and celebrated El Greco’s legacy in a pictorial way, which is what this show explores. El Greco is still very influential to many contemporary artists — not just painters, but artists working with moving image or using mise-en-scène and installation.

El Greco, Laocoön, c.1610-14, oil on canvas, 1.4 x 1.7 m. Courtesy: National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

LM-A  The exhibition argues that Picasso was a crucial bridge between El Greco and the 20th-century Avant-gardes. How did Picasso discover El Greco and what did his work mean to him?

JB  Picasso became interested in El Greco in 1895, when he was 14, and his father took him to visit the Prado. The artist then moved to Madrid to study painting, etching and sculpture in art school, where he copied works by El Greco, which are shown in the exhibition. When he returned to Barcelona, he mingled with the artists who gathered at Els Quatre Gats café, becoming good friends with Santiago Rusiñol, who was a collector of El Greco and even commissioned a portrait of himself in the style of El caballero de la mano en el pecho (The Nobleman with his Hand on his Chest) from his friend Ramon Pichot, which is also shown in the exhibition. Like Rusiñol, Picasso felt a total identification with El Greco, even titling one self-portrait, Yo, El Greco (I, El Greco, 1899).

But if El Greco’s influence is clear during Picasso’s early Modernist phase, it is even starker in his blue period. Evocación. El entierro de Casagemas (Evocation. The Burial of Casagemas, 1901), a key work of this period, is hugely influenced by El Entierro del Conde de Orgaz (The Burial of Count Orgaz, 1586 – 88). In addition to the funerary theme, Picasso depicts the two realms (earthly and divine). This painting obsessed him. We know that while still a student in Madrid, he went to Toledo to see it, and the Picasso Museum in Paris has a postcard of a reproduction of the painting that he had in his studio. In other works of his blue period, such as the etching La Comida Frugal (The Frugal Meal, 1904), you can also see this influence in the expressive and elegant treatment of the hands and the stylization of the sinuous figures.

Chagall depicts a visitation that is not religious but creative, with a muse rather than an angel. It's a great modern reinterpretation of an El Greco work. 

In 1897, a close friend of Picasso, the painter Ignacio Zuloaga, bought El Greco’s La visión de San Juan (The Vision of St John, 1608 – 22), and Picasso used to visit him regularly to look at it, eventually using it as inspiration for Les demoiselles d’Avignon (The Young Ladies of Avignon, 1907). Consequently, it was a key source in the development of Cubism. The relationship between El Greco’s work and Cubism is clear. El Greco compresses the figures in the compositional space; there is barely any air. The figures are monumental and full of plasticity, constructed in volumes and sculpted in sinuous and uneven lines. Also typical of El Greco’s paintings are the autonomous planes and compositional alcoves, as well as the use of colour as a constructive element. If you compare Picasso’s Desnudo recostado con personajes (Reclining Nude with Figures, 1908) with El Greco’s Agonía en el Jardín, for example, the influence is clear.

LM-A  What was the influence of El Greco on Surrealism?

JB  André Masson took a trip to Toledo in 1934, painting Emblematic View of Toledo (1942) shortly after. Oscar Domínguez’s La Pareja (The Couple, 1937) was hugely influenced by El Greco’s La Visitación (The Visitation, 1610 – 13) and Henry Moore’s Homage to El Greco (c. 1921), resembles La visión de San Juan. It is also important to discuss Roberto Matta, who travelled to see the work of El Greco in Madrid, Toledo and Paris; it had a great impact on his series ‘Morfologías psicológicas’ (Psychological Morphologies, 1938 – 39). The flowing aspect of the shapes, the composition, and the green and yellow colours are all elements that stem from El Greco.

During Pollock’s first working period of the 1930s, when he was still a figurative Expressionist, he was fascinated by El Greco, Orozco and Picasso. The vertical, ascendant rhythms of El Greco are particularly clear in Pollock’s painting Gothic (1944).

Marc Chagall, Vision (Self-portrait with Muse), 1917-18, oil on canvas, 1.5 x 1.3 m. Courtesy: Museum of the Avant-Garde of Europe

LM-A  Your exhibition juxtaposes paintings by El Greco with modern works. Has anything in particular surprised you?

JB  I was pleasantly surprised by quite a lot! For example, Picasso’s late works. When he showed Mosquetero con Espada y Amorcillo (Musketeer with Sword and Cupid, 1969) and Hombre (Man, 1970) in Avignon in 1970, the critics panned him. It was a moment of triumph for Conceptualism, a very anti-pictorial phase. Picasso persevered, however, and declared himself a total painter, returning to El Greco and to old Spanish painting through a Cubist strategy. It’s an ironic vision, but also one full of melancholy, mocking his heritage while identifying with it. With the new pictorial wave that took place at the end of the 1970s — manifested in Germany’s Neo-expressionism, North America’s New Image Painting and Italy’s Transavanguardia  —  Picasso, alongside Philip Guston, became a key reference once more, and the cycle of influence of El Greco began all over again.

There is a pairing in the show that I love: La Anunciación (The Annunciation, c. 1576) alongside Marc Chagall’s L’Apparition, autoportrait avec muse (Vision: Self-portrait with Muse, 1917 – 18). The composition is exactly the same, yet Chagall depicts a visitation that is not religious but creative, with a muse, rather than an angel, coming to see him in the studio. It’s a great modern reinterpretation of an El Greco work.

LM-A  Do you have a favourite work by El Greco?

JB  It’s hard to say, as I am fascinated by so many. But there are two that are crucial in understanding the influence of El Greco on modern painting and his enduring appeal for artists today: the Laocoön and La visión de San Juan. The former is essential to Expressionism and the latter to Cubism.

Translated by Lorena Muñoz-Alonso.

Javier Barón is Head of the Department of 19th Century Painting at the Prado Museum in Madrid, Spain, and the curator of ‘El Greco and Modern Painting’.

Lorena Muñoz-Alonso is a writer and editor based in London, UK.