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El Greco And Rubens
If Titian is the truest representative of Venetian ideals in painting, he is also the arch-enemy, not of Modernists, who stand in awe of his achievements, but of Modernism, which finds his principles a reflection of a stupid, materialistic society living on life's surface. His talents were devoted to outward, surface beauty, free of implications and comment. Opposed to his sensuousness is the fervid spirit of Fra Angelico or the phantasmal "ultimate truth" of present-day Surrealists whom we shall later consider.
Yet without Titian there would have been no Tintoretto. And without Tintoretto who was the first to employ rhythms of dark and light for dramatic purposes there might have been no El Greco. Who was this prophet El Greco, to whom all Modernists pay homage? He was, according to several eminent critics, the greatest painter of all time. But before telling of his accomplishments let us set the stage for his appearance.
First let us review the transition of Renaissance art. With the death of Florentine painting the greatest revival of Classicism since the pagan Romans can be said to have ended. We recall that Classicism in art means adherence to a system of proportion, the following of conventional, unrealistic standards. The Romans copied the Greeks, the Florentines copied the Romans. But with Leonardo's science and the Venetians' realistic temperament, Romanticism pushed aside the conventional. While Titian captivated the masses, Tintoretto set afire the ambitions of young painters by his unhesitating manner of picturing whole panoramas of Heaven and Hell just as if they had been posed for his benefit-nothing weird nor supernatural, everything lifelike and true to nature. Romanticism came to mean realism in extravagant gesture or in turbulence.
This doctrine of art captivated Europe. The Spanish temperament particularly was fascinated by it, adopted it, and remained loyal to it for four centuries. Every painter became a Romantic. But within the meaning of this term is such a latitude of difference in temperament and ideals, that the name can only be a pitfall to the novitiate in art. Men who from every scale of human values are found to be at opposite poles are indifferently called Romantics. Thus we have in the same breath, or in the same chapter, the names of Rubens and El Greco.
It is true that both are technically the heirs of Titian and Tintoretto. . But as individuals they have nothing in common. Rubens is the Realist-Romantic, the painter of dramatic action as he imagined it in life; El Greco, on the other hand, is the painter of the realm of the spirit as he imagined it, and is a Romantic by nature of his dramatic force in depicting stories of the aspirations of man, the ecstatic, the unreal, the subjective.
When we said that the name of El Greco is apt to be in the same chapter in art books with that of Rubens, we were stretching the truth. The fact is that up to two decades ago the name of the expatriated Greek was scarcely mentioned. As recently as ten years ago there appeared a compendium of painting in which a great chapter on Spanish Art failed to mention him even in the footnotes. A few American museums have recently obtained examples of his work, but the sudden rage of popularity that has swept over all civilized countries can only be attributed to the mystical inspiration his pictures hold for a world plunged ever deeper in materialism.
It was the French essayist and philosopher Maurice Barres who in 1912 really discovered El Greco for the of stained glass windows, were intrusted to Greek artisans whose Byzantine heritage fitted them for such work. It is possible that Domenico was the son of such an artisan. At any rate he is found at an early age an apprentice in the atelier of Titian. At this time Tintoretto and the Bassano brothers were enjoying sufficient popularity to attract to Venice the most ambitious young painters, so that however apt a pupil the young Greek may have been, there seemed little field in the tottering republic upon which he could win renown, or at least his daily bread.
He went on to Rome. The date of his arrival in the capital is fixed by the letter of a friend, Clovio, an old painter himself. This friend wrote in 1570 to the Cardinal Farnesa asking for work in behalf of his protege. "A Cretan youth, Titian's pupil, has arrived in Rome ... his painting seems remarkable to me."
The Cardinal, it seems, held Clovio's judgment in high esteem, since he commissioned the young Greek to paint several pictures. These are now in the museums of Naples and of Parma, and elsewhere. They are distinctly Venetian in manner, recalling both Titian and Tintoretto.
Rome, however, was too overcrowded with painters to afford El Greco any opportunity to distinguish himself. About 1575, heeding the call of rich Spain, he set out for Castile. He found in Toledo an environment in accord with his nature. The town was the center of artistic life in Spain. Italian painters of the Roman school were at work on the Escorial, the magnificent palace of Philip II. world. Making a pilgrimage to the old Castilian city of Toledo he was able to see there, often in their original settings, dozens of masterpieces of the mystic. The impression created by these was so powerful that Barres was moved to write a book explaining the reasons for the Greek's ecstatic art. He called this book El Greco or The Secret of Toledo. It was his thesis that the old city, huge clusters of Roman ruins, Gothic basilisks and Arab mosques, perched upon bleak, barren mountains and silhouetted against a blackish ripped-open sky, must inspire a religious terrorism in any painter's heart, particularly one with El Greco's background; and that only in its native settings can one grasp the significance of the man's work. This argument must only be tested to be found valid. Whoever has since gone to Toledo has come away thrilled. Hundreds of pilgrims journey annually to the little dingy church of Santa Tome to stand enraptured before the Burial o f Count Orgaz. Books on El Greco have appeared in all languages, their authors claiming that they and not Toledo possess the secret of the painter's art.
While the technical experts and the psychiatrists are holding the battlefield we shall advance certain observations which the reader can supplant at his leisure. A brief account of the facts of El Greco's life may be of use.
His real name was Domenico Theotocopuli. He was born in Candia in the Isle of Crete. The family migrated to Venice to the colony of Greeks who found living there profitable. The ornamental arts, particularly the making "El Greco must have eyed them (the painters) and their local brethren with disdain," says the biographer Cossioand, we may add, with great envy and longing, since his hope was that the doors of the Escorial might be opened to him.
The first work which fell to him in Toledo was the commission for the altar-piece in the Church of Santo Domingo. This included five compositions and four single figures of saints. It was painted in 1577 and already marked a great technical advance over his Italian product.
A year later he painted his famous Espolio or Christ Deprived o f His Vestments. This is one of the most dramatic of his compositions, but the reception which it met on the part of the Holy Fathers would have discouraged most men. He was asked to remove the nuns incorporated in the scene and the soldiers in armor standing about, as they were disrespectful to the figure of Christ. When he refused he was threatened with imprisonment. Fortunately both he and the picture escaped serious consequences. But that the painter was no prophet in his adopted country is easily apparent. A contemporary, Father Siguenza, speaking of Greco's St. Maurice, commissioned by Philip II, said, "It did not satisfy his Majesty and that is saying nothing, because it contented very few, although they say there is much art in it, and that its author knows much and that many excellent things have come from his hand." Such was El Greco's early reception by Spanish connoisseurs.
Nevertheless he was not discouraged. He continued to paint and to seek church commissions. And with the completion of his third great composition, The Burial o f Count Orgaz, he established himself as the foremost painter of Spain. Convents and churches sought his services, and the elite Castilians bid for his talents as portraitist. About this time he began his mystical paintings which have remained the highest attainments of their kind in European art.
El Greco was a tireless, resourceful genius. Although not of the mental stature of Leonardo, his interests were almost as diverse. He was an architect, builder, sculptor, poet and writer. His pupils, notably a certain Pacheco, declared that their master was a great philosopher as well. His writings, however, are unaccountably missing. Yet we have only to glance at the inventory of books left by him at his death to see that he was a man of great intellectual appetite. There are twenty-seven Greek volumes, including Aristotle, Socrates, Plutarch, Homer, Euripides, Xenophon, Aesop, etc.; sixty-seven volumes of the most profound Renaissance Italian thought; a treatise on painting; nineteen volumes on architecture and seventeen miscellaneous works not described. These are in addition to the books written in Castilian.
The Spanish writer Tirso de Molino, a contemporary of El Greco, throws some light upon the painter's social life and his companions. Each evening the most gracious and cultured people of the city gathered to chat in the gardens of Buena Vista, across the River Tagus. "More was said in one word than in a book by a philosopher of Athens," says the writer. The great Cervantes, the playwright Lope de Vega, the eminent jurisconsult Covarrubias, the famous Cordovan priest Gongora were some of the painter's cronies. He upheld the Florentine tradition of Giotto and Leonardo and Raphael who by the magnetism of their speech charmed the most illustrious gatherings of their time.
El Greco's house in the old Jewish quarter had once been the elegant mansion of Samuel Levi, Treasurer of the King. The painter was extravagant in his ways. "He earned many ducats but spent them all in pompous living, and even kept paid musicians to play to him, that he might enjoy every pleasure while he ate," wrote his friend Martinez. From the inventory of his worldly goods, in which the furniture listed seems inadequate and even mean for the twenty-four fine rooms in the house, it is plain that elegance had given way to decay. And in the will there are more debts than dues; in fact, hardly any assets besides the two hundred unfinished pictures. From these facts we can reconstruct the picture of the man moving dignified and serene through life, oblivious to materialistic things, his mind ever wrestling with philosophical problems, and his desire for entertaining brilliant society the principal luxury indulged.
Now let us turn to his work.
El Greco's paintings can be divided into three groups:
Those which reflect his Venetian training, those which are chiefly technical accomplishments achieved in his first Toledan manner, like many of his portraits, and those which are expressive of his nervous, excitable, dramatic spirit. There were it is true times in his life as a portraitist when the face of a sitter would move him as much as a religious subject. At such times he strove to express character by means of distortion. No painter has used this device more successfully, possibly because with him it was an emotional urge and not an esthetic or technical principle. We shall see in our review of Modernists that some painters use distortion for purposes of design. Not so El Greco. When he distorted his figures it was to make them take on greater dramatic significance, to make us writhe in seeing them writhe. This, we remember, was the Byzantine method.
Dramatic force is obtained by another method. Tintoretto's sharp use of light and dark is employed much more effectively than the Venetian could foresee. The swirling lights and shadows instill in us the fear of the unknown and it is this quality of fear and religious ecstasy that grips us and reveals the inspired fanatic.
His color also serves his one purpose. He early abandoned the warm flesh tints of the Venetians. He discovered that he could obtain a heightened dramatic effect by painting most of his canvas in black and white color, giving pointed emphasis to his composition by adding a spot of vivid red or orange. He understood the psychological effect of color upon the spectator as no one had before him. Since his belated discovery many Modernists have ventured into the realm of the mystical and the supernatural. But perhaps no mortal will ever approach him. The mystical was in his Byzantine blood, the eerie drama in his Toledo skies. Living three and a half centuries ago, this introspective Greek was the first Modernist.
The Crucifixion reproduced illustrates all his dramatic qualities. The pose and gesture of each figure are as expressive as the arrested actions of dancers. In proportion and drawing they are distorted, the figure on the extreme right being enormously tall in comparison with the size of his head. Even the angels are not immune from this treatment. The size of their hands is out of all proportion to their forearms, especially in the one on the right. In the Christ, the lower leg is much longer in proportion to the thigh than is normal.
Just as effective emotionally as this expressiveness of pose and gesture and exaggeration of drawing is the rhythmic brilliance of light which moves excitedly from one part of the canvas to another. Yet there is an organization or arrangement of figures and of lights and darks which is the opposite of confusion. The lower figures are almost symmetrical in their grouping, and the upper part of the canvas is certainly so. We are not to infer from this that all of El Greco's compositions are symmetrical. But even in his most elaborate designs, where countless figures writhe in ecstasy or despair, there is an organization of mass and light and line which stimulates our emotions without confusing us or giving us the feeling of incompleteness. This is the secret of composition in painting.
Before leaving his picture, we may note that the emotional effect is also due to the use of the diagonal in his rhythms of light. To explain this statement we must digress a little. The painter can always depend upon an elementary device to convey the mood of his picture. This trick is the direction o f line in a composition. For instance, when we wish to attain a mood of quiet, rest, the opposite of activity, we make as many lines as possible horizontal. The seascape, the prairie, the deserted street, suggest this means. Again, when we wish to convey the religious mood, awe, reverence, we use as many vertical lines as possible. We soar to Heaven. This is the principle employed in Gothic architecture. Tall trees in the forest affect us much the same way. The feeling of peace and plenty, contentment, the abundance of nature, is expressed by curves. Rolling hills, sheep, fruits and vegetables symbolize abundance and are expressed in round lines. But the emotion opposed to all of these, the dramatic emotion, is expressed by the diagonal. Slanting rain, lightning, the brandishing of sticks, the lunge into action, are all so conveyed.
Looking then at El Greco's composition with half-closed eyes, we see that the two angels in the upper section of the canvas slant to the right. This action is accomplished by the use of light rather than by line. The diagonal is repeated in the lower group most forcefully. We can follow the arm of the kneeling girl to the point where it joins the sharp light of the fold in the disciple's gown. Both light and dark emphasize the diagonal.
So much for El Greco's technical means of attaining drama. While analysis may clarify his composition and turn apparent confusion to dramatic power, no picking of a canvas to pieces can uncover the sources of the painter's ecstatic Orientalism. There is a school of critics who maintain that he was the victim of insanity. But their hypothesis is unfounded in view of the painter's most rational and brilliant command of organization. Others have attributed his peculiar methods to the consuming egotism of the man, who feared to be accused of painting like Titian, and so sought to be wildly eccentric. This is a negative argument since it fails to account for his superior powers. The latest interpretation of El Greco's transformation from an ordinary Venetian painter to the Toledo mystic is from the pen of a Spaniard, Jose Merediz. This critic states with tiring redundancy that the young Greek was so struck with the beauty of the stained glass windows in the Toledo Cathedral that the urge to translate their spiritual force into paint possessed him and also lent him the technique with which to do it. This explanation is farfetched.
To understand the nature of the work, we must keep in mind the facts pertaining to the man. He was born in a Greek city with a Byzantine tradition. He was then an Oriental. He came fresh from jovial sunny Italy to a city which not only by its physical Arab character and frightening setting was enough to awaken his imagination, but which was submerged in an Oriental ritual that must have spoken to him in loud and familiar voices. We must keep in mind that Toledo, while a stronghold of Roman Catholicism, was peopled by a race of Spaniards in whom were fused the Jew and the Arab. So that not only in the architecture of the city, but in the song of the people, in their nervous reactions and mental qualities there was everything to appeal to the atavism of El Greco and evoke responses from him as Italy never could do. His is the spirit of Fra Angelico and of the Hebrew prophets; of Chassidic songs and the tortures of Arab devil dancers. The lucid mind is driven by aspiring heart to put down in paint what remains today a shrine for the troubled, drifting Westerner.
When El Greco died, the Flemish painter Rubens was at the height of his career. Like the Spanish Greek he was noted for his social grace. Not even Leonardo was more at home in the company of kings and princes. In the capacity of diplomat he passed from one palace to another settling affairs of state and painting compositions and portraits in his leisure. At an early age he was invited to the household of the Lord of Mantua, Gonzaga, and so had many opportunities to study the work of the Venetians. Their influence is apparent in all his paintings. He was an ardent admirer of Titian's color, particularly in the latter's paintings of nudes; he was evidently greatly impressed by Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne, a swirling dynamic picture of pagan pleasure. There is no doubt that Rubens felt himself atune to the note of animal joyousness struck occasionally by Titian.
The Flemish painter's compositions are often as involved as Tintoretto's; his figures gesture as violently. For this reason he is called a Romantic. There is a total absence of the romantic spirit in his work for all his borrowing of romantic traps. His faces are pretty but often banal. His drawing is sometimes crude, his compositions uninventive and tiring, his carelessness in rendering form often apparent; but while these limitations may be dismissed, his point of view is subject to endless debate and criticism.
For whether he is painting crucifixions, nudes, or scenes of violence, he is seldom more than a realist. His Christs have nothing of the spirituality of the Christs of Perugino, of El Greco, of Giotto. They seem rather to have been posed for by the village blacksmith. His nudes are not the ideally beautiful women of Titian but are more often the girls whose voluptuous amplitude prompted him to engage them as models. His nudes are therefore nothing more than portraits of exuberant types pleasing to his fancy. They are not esthetically ideal. We shall see in our survey of Modernism that the present-day artist also dispenses with types which conform to the tastes of the spectator. But the difference between an enormous nude with bulging fat as painted by Picasso and as painted by Rubens is of fundamental importance. In the hands of the latter it is the woman who appeals to the artist; while the Modernist is intent upon the swelling volume and form and the rhythm of line for their own sake, thus creating a new and harmonious ideal.
Putting aside matters of ideals, we must attribute to Rubens the development of the art of color. With the passing of the Venetians he was the only great colorist left in Europe. He carried his experiments far beyond the range of Titian. He found nuances in the painting of flesh that had never before been apparent; so that there is hardly a square inch in his acres of nudes which is not beautiful in color. His own lusty, assertive nature establishes him as a personality embodying not only the ideals of his race, but of all painters of all time and place who are mentally and biologically constituted like him.
The influence of Rubens in the development of painting is historically of the greatest importance. A corps of students executed his involved conceptions: among them Jordaens, whose rather ordinary mind was able to add little to his master's art, and Van Dyck who far surpassed his energetic teacher in grace, feeling and technical skill.
But the lessons of the Flemish master were not confined to his studio. They were spread to foreign countries by his visits on affairs of state. In England it was his paintings rather than his diplomatic genius which caused him to be knighted. Marie de Medici brought him to France to make the colossal decorations which are now in the Louvre. Philip IV of Spain who first received him coldly, since he had little confidence in diplomats who were artists, was very quickly charmed by his person and his painting. The mollified king even gave him a studio in his palace, and here Rubens made the acquaintance of the young court painter, Velasquez. It is fairly evident from a perusal of the Spaniard's work that the dazzling realism of the Flemish courtier-artist captivated his responsive pupil. No painter's influence had ever been more widespread.