New Shows in DC, New York Celebrating El Greco

To mark the 400th anniversary of the death of El Greco (1541-1614), both the National Gallery of Art here in Washington and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York have just opened new exhibitions celebrating his life and work.  Although ethnically Greek and born on the island of Crete, El Greco – whose proper name was Doménikos Theotokópoulos – did the vast majority of his work in Spain, where he settled in his mid-30′s and spent the rest of his life.  His is quite a fascinating story of how a creative person’s output can completely change over time, based on the environment they work in.

In Manhattan, “El Greco in New York” runs from now until February 1st, and features 16 paintings by El Greco from the collections of both the Metropolitan Museum and the Hispanic Society of America. The show includes El Greco’s stunning “View of Toledo”, a landscape of his adopted city under storm clouds and lightning,which looks as though it could have been painted centuries later; his captivating portrait of the very intimidating  Cardinal Fernando Niño de Guevara, whom you clearly did not want to tangle with; and two very different versions of a nocturnal “Adoration of the Shepherds”, showing the shepherds arriving at the stable with joy to meet the Christ Child.

Here in Washington, the National Gallery has mounted “El Greco: A 400th Anniversary Celebration” of the artist’s work, in collaboration with The Philips Collection, Dumbarton Oaks in Georgetown, and The Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore.  There are 10 paintings in the exhibition, which opened this past weekend and continues until February 16th.  Highlights include his charming, bright altarpiece of “St. Martin and the Beggar”, which is one of my favorites for showing the Roman soldier and martyr dressed in contemporary Spanish armor; the powerful, heavy contrasts of the “Repentant St. Peter” from The Philips; and the almost-abstract “Visitation” from Dumbarton Oaks, which I always make a point of seeing when I drop by the museum.

Unusually for an important artist of the late Renaissance, El Greco began his working life as an icon painter.   While there is always some room for individual expression in the creation of such works, the repetition of familiar and well-established elements is very important to that school of Christian art.  As a result, it makes it difficult for the average person to tell what century a particular icon was painted in, from simple observation.  El Greco might have remained content to stay in the tradition of icon painting, or “writing” as it is often referred to, but instead he decided to take a chance and go to Venice, which ruled Crete at the time.

Once he got to Italy, El Greco began to change radically as an artist.  From his work and studies in Venice and Rome, he absorbed what he observed in the late Renaissance and Mannerist art that was being created around him, so different from the Byzantine icons he himself had been trained to create. He was able to study with Titian, the last of the living great masters of the High Renaissance, explore the churches and palaces, and meet with a number of very important people.  He even communicated with Pope St. Pius V, offering to wipe out Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” in the Sistine Chapel and paint something more suitable, noting that the late Florentine master was a great sculptor who did not know how to paint very well (a sentiment I share.)

However most of El Greco’s greatest work even today is located in Spain, because that is where he moved after job opportunities in Italy were not working out as he had hoped. The Spanish imperial court was quite different from the flashy, humanist salons in Rome or Florence that El Greco had grown accustomed to.  Serious, stiff, and devoutly Catholic, the Spanish aristocracy when El Greco arrived was not interested in showing off.  They dressed almost exclusively in black most of the time, seeking to impress through sober formality rather than over-familiarity or flippancy, and saved their decoration for their churches.

As a result, El Greco’s art began to change once again.  Whereas previously, he mimicked the colors and light of the Italy he experienced as a young man, as he grew older and spent more and more time in the barren, desert-like plains and cities of central Spain, El Greco’s paintings gradually became darker, featuring stark outlines and contrasts, more elongation and distortion.  His style changed to the point that by the end of his life, some of his later pieces could very easily be mistaken for being works created by a Modern artist in the 20th century.

While you may not be able to get to Madrid or Toledo to see El Greco’s finest work, here in the United States we are fortunate to have about 4 dozen works by El Greco, many of them quite good, in collections around the country.  And now, even more fortunately for those in the Northeast Corridor, two of the best places to see his work are New York and DC.  With these anniversary exhibitions having just opened, you’ll be able to more closely observe his progression as a creative thinker for yourself.

"St. Martin and the Beggar" by El Greco (c. 1597) National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

“St. Martin and the Beggar” by El Greco (c. 1597)
National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Totus Tuus: Marian Suffering and Pope St. John Paul II

Today for the first time in the liturgical calendar, the Church celebrates the feast of Pope St. John Paul II.  For many of us as we were growing up, JPII – as we affectionately call him – was the only pope we had ever known, thanks to his long pontificate from 1978 until 2005.  There is so much that one could reflect on about the man today, but I want to focus on just one aspect of his life, thanks to a work of art I stumbled upon yesterday.

The image of JPII reproduced below is part of a huge canvas about 40 feet long and 30 feet wide.  It depicts the Coronation of the Virgin Mary following her arrival in Heaven, and was painted by contemporary Spanish artist Raúl Berzosa Fernández (born 1979).  The work covers the ceiling of the Oratory of Santa Maria Reina (Mary, Queen of Heaven) of the Hermandad de las Penas (Brotherhood of the Sorrows) in the Andalusian city of Málaga.  The painting took 6 years to completeand was just finished and dedicated a month ago.

The Brotherhood is one of the religious associations which participate in the famous Holy Week processions in Spain.  Each of these groups typically has their own church or chapel where they preserve the elaborate floats and statues used in these processions, and where members gather throughout the year for prayer, services, and to encourage the local community in their faith.  This particular group cares for two historic images used during Holy Week: one a highly-detailed sculpture of Christ on the Cross, and the other of the sorrowful Virgin Mary, weeping over the pains being suffered by her Divine Son.

Not only is Sr. Berzosa Fernández’ work magnificent, it demonstrates that the study of classical art is not yet dead, thank goodness.  Yet it also gives us an image of the late Pontiff in a wider theological context, not simply as a portrait.  As one of the figures in a piece celebrating the Blessed Mother, in the chapel of a group dedicated to meditating on the suffering which she and Her Son endured, the presence of St. John Paul II in this painting is more than simply a pious inclusion. It exemplifies the Pope’s deep understanding as a result of his own, personal suffering of how Mary’s example of suffering along with Her Son can lead us to better follow Him.

St. John Paul II’s devotion to Our Lady, particularly at her shrine of Czestochowa in Poland, and at Fátima in Portugal following the attempt on his life, is well known, of course.  His motto on his Papal coat of arms was the same which he had as Cardinal Archbishop of Krakow, “Totus Tuus” – “All Yours” – referring to the opening consecration to the Virgin Mary of St. Louis de Montfort. The coat of arms also featured an initial “M” beneath the cross, recalling the presence of the Blessed Virgin beneath the cross at the Crucifixion, witnessing the suffering of her Son and sharing in His sorrows.  And sorrow was something JPII understood all too well, under the Nazis, later under the Communists, and still later in surviving an assassination attempt and suffering the ravages of Parkinson’s disease.

Yet for JPII, while sorrow and suffering was a reality not to be shied away from, he recognized that these things were ways to bring us closer to Christ, as indeed the Mother of Christ herself understood by remaining close to her Son.  In his 1987 encyclical “Redemptoris Mater”, a complex theological document which has been studied and commented on by many far more educated than I, St. John Paul II reflected on the relationship of Mary to Christ and His Church.  I won’t even attempt to unpack it in a blog post.  Instead, I wanted to highlight one of my favorite passages in the text, which is relevant for our consideration here.

Toward the end of the encyclical, when the late pope points out Mary’s role as an example and as an intercessor in helping us to struggle against evil and do good, to carry on even though suffering, and to pick ourselves up and rise after we have fallen, he reflects on the times in which we live, when we can be so easily deluded into thinking everything is fine and dandy in the world:

Mankind has made wonderful discoveries and achieved extraordinary results in the fields of science and technology. It has made great advances along the path of progress and civilization, and in recent times one could say that it has succeeded in speeding up the pace of history. But the fundamental transformation, the one which can be called “original,” constantly accompanies man’s journey, and through all the events of history accompanies each and every individual. It is the transformation from “falling” to “rising,” from death to life. It is also a constant challenge to people’s consciences, a challenge to man’s whole historical awareness: the challenge to follow the path of “not falling” in ways that are ever old and ever new, and of “rising again” if a fall has occurred.

Just as the painting which brought about today’s post was something that took many years to complete, so too, our own lives are a constant work in progress, not something which is ever going to be perfected in this life.  Christ taught us this, His Mother understood it, and St. John Paul II certainly tried to live it and pass that reminder along to us.  As we remember him today, let us also remember that picking up our cross and soldiering on, however difficult it may be, is what all Christians are called to do.

Detail of "The Coronation of the Virgin" by Raúl Berzosa Fernández (2008-2014) Oratory of Santa Maria Reina, Malaga

Detail of “The Coronation of the Virgin” by Raúl Berzosa Fernández (2008-2014)
Oratory of Santa Maria Reina, Málaga

Mystery Solved? Debating the Case of Yale’s Basement Masterpiece

Readers may recall a piece I wrote some time ago about an Old Master painting which may or may not be by the greatest of all Spanish painters, Diego Velázquez.  “The Education of the Virgin” was donated to Yale not quite a century ago, and lay forgotten in the basement storage area of the university art museum for many years, until an art historian there first attributed the piece to the painter.  Although more and more experts have come to accept it, the attribution has remained controversial ever since.

Now, as part of the picture’s international exhibition travels to Madrid, Seville, Paris, Minneapolis, and back to New Haven, following its cleaning and restoration, a symposium has been announced for October 15-17 in Seville.  Experts will gather in the Andalusian cultural capital to examine the piece, and debate whether the painting is indeed by Velázquez or not.  If you are an art history nerd, as I am, you would love to be a fly on the wall for this.  If you are not, then you might conclude that these sorts of arguments really don’t matter.  Yet in truth these issues really are important, for several reasons.

From a purely economic standpoint, there is a huge difference between owning an original work of art by a well-known artist, and owning one by an unknown or lesser-known artist.  We might like to think that a quality work of art can stand on its own, without attribution, and sometimes it does.  However more often than not, whether you are talking insurance values or auction prices or ways to draw in the public, art from the hand of someone prestigious is always going to command a higher value than if the same work of art was created by an unknown.

Think about how this works on a more pop culture level.  I can draw fairly well, as it happens, and I might be able to do a fairly accurate drawing of Snoopy or one of the other Peanuts characters. But would you really pay the same price for my work, whether to own it or go see it in an exhibition, as you would for one that came from the hand of Charles Schultz himself?  Part of the value in a work of art lies in the intangible connection to something larger than the work itself provides at first glance.

This brings us to the larger issue, which is the importance in Western culture of understanding artistic development.  Unlike in many other artistic traditions around the world, Western artists have spent centuries adapting and changing how they and we see things.  Many cultures value an exact or near-exact continuity with the past, so that the differences between works of art created in one century and another are so slight, that it would take a serious expert to be able to discern the differences between them.

In addition, many times artists in other cultures did not date or sign their works, thus leaving their identities unknown to history.  While not all Western art is signed, we do have a long history from the beginning of Western culture of artists proudly placing their names on their paintings and sculptures.  We actually know the names of some of the most famous painters and sculptors of Ancient Greece, for example, even if in many cases their works only survive in copies.  When an artist did not sign his work however, historians and experts can look at works that are known for certain to be by that artist, and compare styles, techniques, and methods with the piece that is being examined; such is the case with the attribution of “The Education of the Virgin”.

One way to go about doing this is by getting a good sense of how that artist and his world changed over time.  If you look at an image of The Education of the Virgin created 100 years before this purported Velázquez, say this French example [N.B. yes, I realize it's not entirely fair to compare these, but bear with me], there is a movement in the later work away from the rigid formality of the earlier.  This was mirrored in Western society of the time, as everything from clothing to homes, government, technology, and business, became more recognizable to us living in today’s culture, even though we are still far removed from it.

What’s more, often an individual Western artist himself could and did change quite a bit during his career.  Look at how Raphael painted the Madonna and Child when he was a young artist of 20, versus how he painted them as a mature artist of 30, a mere decade later, and you can see the dramatic difference.  If you were unaware of all of the works of art that Raphael painted between these two pictures, growing and changing as he experimented and studied, chances are you would never have guessed that they were by the same person.  Thus, art history in the West is often a combination of detective story, painstaking research, and really knowing your subject inside and out.

Whatever the result of the conference in Seville, the prospect of determining that this is a very early work by Spain’s most important artist, a man who influenced everyone from Edouard Manet and John Singer Sargent to Pablo Picasso and Francis Bacon, is very exciting.  It shows us not only how accomplished he really was at a young age, but it helps us to understand why his career catapulted so quickly, leading him to become the official painter for the Spanish court.  I’m looking forward to learning of the outcome from the experts.

"The Education of the Virgin" Attr. to Diego Velázquez (c. 1617) Yale University Art Gallery

“The Education of the Virgin” Attr. to Diego Velázquez (c. 1617)
Yale University Art Gallery