El Greco at Grand Palais

El Greco at Grand Palais

Hello, everyone!

Today we’re talking about the lovely, very crowded exhibition of El Greco, whose name was Domínikos Theotokópoulos (1541–1614).

El Greco St Martin painting
St. Martin and the Beggar

First, I have something to confess. Before even going in, I was really prejudiced because this painter was definitely not one of my favorites. 

El Greco religious painting
St Luke El Greco

And so, when I came out…My opinion was confirmed (with one exception I’ll tell you about).

Because to my eyes — so immersed in classical culture, as classical as you can get — El Greco has a serious strike against him, being the purest heir of Byzantine art (he actually started as an icon painter).

El Greco's son portrait
Portrait of Jorge Manuel Theotokopoulos El Greco’s son

We know that Byzantine art was frozen in its form that had always been the same since the time of the Eastern Roman Empire.

To this day, the artisan workshops and artists of the Orthodox area still keep to the same themes and forms of the icons that their colleagues used centuries ago. 

El Greco the holy face of Jesus
The holy face of Jesus

Of course, this has nothing to do with artistic skills, being about religion. 

For Orthodox countries, representing the sacred has the sole purpose of evoking the spiritual impetus to carry the faithful into intimacy with images, such as the Virgin Mary. 

According to this principle, changing the “style” of a painting makes no sense.

The opposite is true of Western art.

After the human and cultural catastrophe of the fall of the Roman Empire, from Giotto on, art developed at a dizzying speed.

Saint Louis portrait by El Greco
Saint Louis King by El Greco

The Western artist seems in the grip of an irrepressible need to keep on evolving, changing, and inventing new approaches and styles almost every generation.

Is this a good thing? Considering the direction that Western contemporary art has gone, I have very serious doubts about it.

El Greco painting
El Greco and the choice of Sabrina

I’ll end my digression there, and let’s get back to our exhibition.

Visiting the exhibition, we realize how hard it is for a painter who started as Byzantine to establish himself in the sophisticated worlds of 16th-century Venice and Rome. 

There is good reason that he made his name in Toledo where he had failed in Italy, i.e. getting commissions from royal families.

 The Resurrected Christ and his tabernacle in carving wood. It is currently in Toledo
El Greco resurrected Jesus wood carving

El Greco’s style and color would owe a great deal to his time in Italy.

In Venice, he learned the use of color from his teachers Titian and Tintoretto. And the invention of new classicist forms came out of seeing Roman masterpieces by Michelangelo and Raphael.

Looking at the paintings in the exhibition, I kept on getting the feeling that our artist was held back in his creations, as if something was keeping his instinct in check. 

I know nothing about El Greco’s story, and the exhibition panels offered no help, but I think this aspect has to do with the realm of religious denomination.

El Greco Assumption of the Virgin currently at the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL, US
Assumption of the Virgin by El Greco

All the paintings exhibited are religious. Could it be that our artist had an issue in this area? 

Maybe he was a non-believer?

Or maybe he was in conflict with his consciousness because he was of the Orthodox faith?   Who knows?

El Greco paintings
El Greco portraits

But can we really dismiss El Greco’s art just like that?  No, definitely not.

There’s a piece at the end of that exhibition — as I mentioned at the start of this post —  that had the effect of a lightning bolt piercing the dark. 

The painting is titled “The Opening of the Fifth Seal” and refers to a passage from the Apocalypse of St. John. Indeed, this painting is truly “apocalyptic” in its incredible modernity.

El Greco
The Opening of the Fifth Seal El Greco

It is like looking at a 20th-century avant-garde painting, like one from Cezanne or Pablo Picasso.

Perhaps here we can finally glean El Greco’s true art, freed from all restraints.

El Greco
St. Veronica with the Holy Shroud El Greco

Grand Palais

3 Avenue du Général Eisenhower

75008 Paris

from October 16, 2019

to February 10, 2020