New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art may have another blockbuster old master show on its hands with the October 7 opening of the first major retrospective of the work of El Greco in more than two decades. From VOA's New York Bureau, Barbara Schoetzau has the story of the 16th century painter who inspired 20th century modern art.
El Greco was born in Greece on the island of Crete where he trained as a painter of religious icons. A decade of studying and painting in Renaissance Italy transformed his style and technique.
But it was in Toledo, Spain, where he settled in 1577, that the artist the world came to know as El Greco, "The Greek," created his greatest work - work that influenced 20th century artists as diverse as Pablo Picasso and Jackson Pollack.
In Toledo he found an audience for the style that makes his work instantaneously recognizable, the elongated, almost abstract figures, undulating forms, and radiant colors. Philippe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, says El Greco's colors and modernity attract contemporary audiences.
"I think it is the directness of his expression and expressiveness that absolutely touches the heart as well as the eye," says Mr. de Montebello. "To the contemporary eye it is very modern. It is a very spiritual conception and people are, I think, struck right away with this. The brilliance of the color, the freshness, the modernity."
El Greco has long been considered one of the masters of Western art. But few previous exhibitions have shown the scope of his artistic evolution because it was not until 1983 that art restorers discovered early work he did in Greece with his full signature, Domenikos Theotokopoulos. The Metropolitan Museum exhibition begins with Byzantine-inspired icons made in Greece that art historians now firmly attribute to El Greco.
In later centuries, El Greco lost favor with critics who found his turbulent landscapes and mystical religious scenes extravagant and "delirious." Some even found the spirituality and "other worldiness" embarrassing. But his portraits have always been revered, serving as an inspiration to Velazquez among others. Some art historians consider his painting "A Cardinal" a milestone in European portraiture. One art critic, reviewing the new show at the Metropolitan Museum, called it one of the greatest portraits ever painted.
Listen to Philippe de Montebello describing the portrait of a Roman Catholic cardinal during the church's Inquisition of non-believers, namely Muslims and Jews.
"His brilliant crimson robe billows around him like the feathers of some fabulous bird of prey. His eyeglasses focus his gaze, fixing us before him as the object of his scrutiny," explains Mr. de Montebello. "Here portraiture is not a record of superficial appearance, but a profound description of character."
An international team of scholars organized the exhibition. They focus on the late, mystical period of El Greco's career. The final work in the exhibit, the "Adoration of the Shepherds," epitomizes this period: spiritual figures ascend into the heavens exultantly, proportions are distorted, colors almost blinding bright. El Greco painted it to decorate the wall above the spot where he wanted to be buried. Co-curator Keith Christiansen calls it reverential, rather than descriptive.
"It is a picture that is really all about the emotional content of the scene, which is imagined as an internal event, a visionary event, present in the artist's imagination and made visible for the viewer in the most tangible and elegant way imaginable," he explains.
Velazquez, Matisse, van Gogh, Cezanne, Gauguin, all admired his work. Five drawings by abstract expressionist Jackson Pollack, who was heavily influenced by El Greco, are on display in an adjoining gallery. John Christiansen says El Greco was a hero to Picasso, who thought him the artist who best exemplified the soul of Spain.
"It is quite an achievement when you think that you are dealing with a Greek artist, an artist who consistently signed his name in Greek," he notes. "Picasso himself aspired in his youth to becoming the heir of El Greco, representing the alma Espanol, the soul of Spain."
Art historians say the Metropolitan Museum of Art's current exhibition is perhaps the finest group of works of El Greco ever assembled.