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

“Something Other Than God”: Jennifer Fulwiler at the CIC

In a dynamic, engaging presentation last night, blogger, author, and radio host Jennifer Fulwiler gave a powerful presentation on her journey from atheism to Christianity.  While using the framework of her book, Something Other Than God, which chronicles her conversion, Ms. Fulwiler also managed to touch on a wide range of subjects, from the cultural differences between the Texas Bible Belt and the East Coast, to raising children in a culture which is increasingly hostile to Christianity.  Along the way, the attendees at the Catholic Information Center here in DC were given much to laugh about, and much to think about, over the course of the evening.

It’s hard for me to imagine the kind of atheism that Ms. Fulwiler grew up with.  She noted that when she was little, her father used to read books by Carl Sagan to her, alongside the more typical Nancy Drew stories, and she recalled being a 4th grader and hiding all of the Bibles in a bookstore in the “Fiction” section.  Her atheism was so intrinsically a part of who she was, that as an undergraduate she transferred from Texas A&M to the University of Texas at Austin, because she couldn’t stand the highly Christian environment of the former.

Ms. Fulwiler took the time to speak about the “new” atheism, without lingering upon it too much, since this was her story rather than theirs.  She did however make a very salient point, which is that even though a lot of the new atheism is based upon a shallow understanding or even misunderstanding of the teachings of Christianity, Dawkins, et al., had done one thing well: they were great at marketing and branding.  For young people in particular, being a new atheist can be a way of signaling to others that, “I’m smart,” and wanting to fit in with a group of one’s peers.

I could relate to her childhood fascination with the study of fossils, and her desire to be a paleontologist, something which I, too, experienced.  But whereas I saw the fossils as evidence of the wonder of God’s Creation, Ms. Fulwiler saw them as depressing shadows of herself.  If she was no different from one of these long-dead animals, who would exist, have a series of chemical reactions, and then disappear, then what was the point?  Her book develops her thought process from this nadir.

One key point which I suspect may of us in the Gen X/Gen Y crowd related to during Ms. Fulwiler’s presentation was the theme of the shallowness of not only many people’s understanding of their faith – whether that faith be Christianity or atheism – but also her critique of the American education system our generation grew up in.  Our grasp of subjects is only supposed to be deep enough for the purposes of regurgitation, rather than developing the ability to think and reason, and for the achievement of test score results.  As a result, when in college she began to counter the arguments of Christians with questions like, “If God exists, why then is there suffering?” feeling rather smug and an original thinker for doing so, she was completely unaware of the fact that people of Faith have been attempting to address these questions in philosophy for over 5,000 years.

In eventually coming to believe in God, Ms. Fulwiler pointed to the realization she experienced that atheism did not have the lexicon to explain the human experience, particularly after her first child was born.  This triggered a willingness to give prayer a go, to start reading the Bible, and to engage in conversation online with atheists and theists alike, as she searched for answers to her questions.  It just so happened that those whom she engaged with online who had the answers that made the most sense to her, in countering the arguments of her fellow atheists, were the Catholics.

During the Q&A portion of the evening, I was particularly struck by one concept which Ms. Fulwiler has put into practice.  She noted that when you are trying to make God and the Sacraments the central theme of your life, you tend to live very differently from those who do not, even fellow Catholics who are not quite there yet; there may be parishes full of Catholics, but there are Catholics and there are Catholics.  To that end, particularly in the present malaise, she noted that it was very hard to constantly be swimming upstream against the culture, and the importance of periodically trying to take a break and just be around other devout Catholics who are also trying their best – not to debate theology or the like, but to form communities and enjoy each other’s company.  This is something which she herself has done on rather a large scale for Catholic women, as you can read about on the site for the Edel Gathering.

On a personal note, it was also great to finally meet Ms. Fulwiler, after having been “Tweeps” (Twitter friends) for some time.  She was just as gracious and smart in person as I expected she would be.  I’m looking forward to reading her book, and for those of you who may get the chance to hear her speak in your area, do go: you will not disappointed.  And be sure to check out her new weekly radio show, over on the Catholic Channel at Sirius XM.

Jennifer Fulwiler

Putting Some Color in the Emperor’s Cheeks

Visitors to Washington, DC always remark on the grand public buildings around the National Mall, which look like they were taken from Athens or Rome.  Monumental, temple-like structures house museums and offices, their exteriors often decorated with imposing statuary representing ancient Greek and Roman gods or allegorical virtues, in gleaming white marble.  The problem is, these buildings and their accompanying statuary are historically incorrect, as a new exhibition at Copenhagen’s Glyptotek art museum demonstrates.

Employing a combination of research, technology, and artistic skill, “Transformations: Classical Sculpture in Colour” displays 120 works of sculpture from the ancient world, all of which were once painted and still retain some degree of their original color, even if only on a microscopic level.  These are accompanied by modern recreations showing what they may have looked like when they were new. In mounting the exhibition, scientists and conservators used electron microscopes, infrared, lasers, and other equipment for a close-up examination of the surface of these works.  They were then able to extrapolate the appearance of these sculptures, before they lost their surface decoration.

To our contemporary eyes, the end result is somewhat shocking, as you can see in this short clip.  A 1st century A.D. marble head of the Roman Emperor Caligula is given the color treatment, and the effect is startling.  Instead of a distant, cold figure, we get a more realistic sense of this particularly cruel and insane member of the imperial family.  At the same time however, the colored surface paradoxically flattens the effect, so that the painted Caligula looks more like a giant porcelain doll than the unpainted Caligula, where we have to use more of our imagination to get a picture of the man.

It should not surprise us that sculptures like these were originally brightly painted, when we look at the buildings in which they once stood.  If you recall my article from last week on the just-completed restoration of the Domus Augusti, the home of Caesar Augustus on the Palatine Hill in Rome, rather than a stark, stone environment, the walls of the imperial villa were covered with lively frescoes of landscapes and flowers in rich colors.  The colorful statuary featured in this new exhibition in Copenhagen would have looked perfectly at home in just such a space.

It’s interesting to imagine what Washington would have looked like if the buildings and sculptures which make up the monumental core of the city were decorated with something close to historic authenticity.  Keep in mind however that in trying to evoke the world of Ancient Greece and Rome here in the capital of their new republic, the Founding Fathers and those who came after them were not concerned with completely recreating the past, as if they were about to shoot a movie or stage a play.  Just as the Houses of Parliament and other government buildings in Westminster are a pastiche of British medieval architecture and design, looking back to the foundation of parliamentary rule, so too many of our equivalent structures here in America are adaptation rather than complete recreations.

No doubt a time traveler from Rome or Athens in the 1st century A.D., visiting Washington today, would ask why everything has been left unfinished.  They would comment on the lack of colorful decoration which they would have expected in official buildings and public monuments of their own day.  Yet while it’s certainly fascinating to see in this exhibition just how colorful the ancient world truly was, personally I would prefer that we leave the Lincoln Memorial exactly the way that it is.

Head of the Roman Emperor Caligula (1st Century A.D.) Museum of Archaeology, Munich

Composite of original and restored marble head of the Roman Emperor Caligula (1st Century A.D.)
Museum of Archaeology, Munich