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El Greco retrospective opens at Met

Greek painter’s work inspired many modern artists
/ Source: The Associated Press

Pablo Picasso admired him, as did Henri Matisse. Jackson Pollock considered him one of his favorite artists. But it wasn’t always that way.

When Domenikos Theotokopoulos, better known as El Greco, was creating his vibrant, brilliantly hued religious paintings in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, his work was seen as extravagant, far from the more realistic style then in vogue.

“The art of the 17th century is ... the art of naturalism,” said Keith Christiansen, one of the curators of a major new retrospective on the artist at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “El Greco’s art is an anti-naturalist art. There was no bridge for the understanding of it.”

It wasn’t until generations later that El Greco (Spanish for “The Greek”) was recognized for his originality and intensity. Since then, he has been considered a genius who found the spiritual essence of his subjects.

“El Greco” will be on view at the Met from Oct. 7 through Jan. 11 and is the first El Greco retrospective to appear in the United States in more than 20 years. The New York museum is its only U.S. stop.

Born in Crete in 1541, El Greco worked as a religious icon painter before moving to Italy in 1567 and then to Spain in 1576, where he died in 1614, in his early 70s.

Organized by the Met and the National Gallery in London and composed of about 70 works from institutions around the world, the exhibition emphasizes works from the end of El Greco’s career. That’s when his colors became most vibrant, his figures most stylized.

“In terms of religious painting, it is a search for the spiritual as opposed to the material,” said David Davies, an El Greco scholar who is guest curator of the exhibit.

“I want to show El Greco at his best. ... His development shows how he continually explored new ideas to seek the essence of the subject.”

Two of the works, “The Virgin of the Immaculate Conception” and a version of “The Adoration of the Shepherds,” have never been shown outside Spain.

“The Adoration,” a 10-foot-tall work El Greco painted for his own tomb, is a prime example of his style. A tiny infant Jesus lies on a white cloth; the light radiating from him brightens the whole image. Around him are numerous worshippers, bodies stretched out and elongated.

Aside from the later works, another highlight of the exhibit is the placement of some canvases next to others that have the same subject but were done by the artist in a different year or even decade. By putting the paintings next to each other, viewers can see changes over time, Christiansen said.

“By seizing on the same subject, the viewer is made acutely aware of the transformation of this artist,” he said.

One room of the exhibit is given over to El Greco’s portraits, the only genre of his career that met with universal admiration from the time he painted them through successive generations.

Even those who didn’t love his religious work appreciated his portraits, in which he tried not only to capture the physical likeness of his subjects, but also some expression of their inner character. His subjects ranged from friends and admirers to religious figures.

“El Greco’s religious paintings are really about the world of the imagination,” Christiansen said. “His portraits put that imagination with reality. ... It’s the one aspect of his career where you feel that the artist is in touch with the world of everyday experience.”

The exhibit also tries to show El Greco’s influence on modern artists. Quotes from such admirers as Picasso and Matisse line the gallery walls. In another gallery, the museum is showing five drawings from Pollock inspired by El Greco’s works.

The museum will host a series of lectures, gallery talks and other programs to coincide with the show. A 320-page catalog will be available in November for $65.