El Greco At Toledo
( Originally Published 1925 )
Toledo is less than three hours from Madrid; it might be three years away for all the resemblance it bears to the capital. Both situated in New Castille, Madrid seems sharply modern, as modern as the early nineteenth century, when compared to the mediæval cluster of buildings on the horseshoe-shaped granite heights almost entirely hemmed in by the river Tagus. It is not only one of the most original cities in Spain, but in all Europe. No other boasts its incomparable profile, few the extraordinary vicissitudes of its history. Not romantic in the operatic moonlit Grenada fashion, without the sparkle and colour of Seville or the mundane savour of Madrid, Toledo incarnates in its cold, detached, proud, pious way all that we feel as Spain the aristocratic, Spain the theocratic. To this city on a crag there once came, by way of Venice, a wanderer from Crete. Toledo was the final frame of the strange genius of El Greco; he made it the consecrate ground of his new art. It is difficult to imagine him developing in luxuriant Italy as he did in Spain. His nature needed a sombre and magnificent background; this city gave it to him; for no artist can entirely isolate himself from life, can work in vacuo. And El Greco's shivering, spiritual art could have been born on no other soil than Toledo. He is as original as the city.
The place shows traces of its masters - Romans, Goths, Saracens, and Christians. It is, indeed, as much Moorish as Christian — the narrow streets, high, narrow houses often windowless, the inner court replacing the open squares that are to be found in Seville. Miscalled the "Spanish Rome," Gautier's description still holds good: Toledo has the character of a convent, a prison, a fortress with something of a seraglio. The enormous cathedral, which dates back to Visigothic Christianity, is, next to Seville's, the most beautiful in Spain. Such a façade, such stained glass, such ceilings! Blanco Ibanez has written pages about this structure. The synagogues, the Moorish mosque, the Alcazar are picturesque. And then there are the Puente de Alcantara, the Casa de Cervantes, the Puerta del Sol, the Prison of the Inquisition, the Church of Santo Tomé --which holds the most precious example of Greco's art - the Sinagogo del Transito, the Church of San Vicente — with Grecos — Santo Domingo (more Grecos); the Convent, near the Church of San Juan de los Reyes, contains the Museo Provincial in which were formerly a number of Grecos; many of these have been transferred to the new Museo El Greco, founded by the Marquis de la Vega-Inclan, an admirer of the painter. This museum was once the home of Greco, and has been restored, so that if the artist returned he might find himself in familiar quarters. Pictures, furniture, carvings of his are there, while the adjoining house is rebuilt in a harmonious style of old material. Remain various antique patios or court-like interiors, the sword manu factory, and the general view from the top of the town. El Greco's romantic portrayment of his adopted city is as true now as the day it was painted — one catches a glimpse of the scene when the contrasts of light and shadow are strong. During a thunderstorm illuminated by blazing shafts of Peninsular lightning Toledo resembles a page torn from the Apocalypse.
The cathedral is the usual objective; instead, we first went to the church of Santo Tomé. It is a small Gothic structure, rebuilt from a mosque by Count Orgaz. In commemoration of this gift a large canvas, entitled El Entierro, depicting the funeral of Orgaz, by El Greco, has made Santo Tomé more celebrated than the cathedral. It is an amazing, a thrilling work, nevertheless, on a scale that prevents it from giving completely the quintessence of El Greco. No doubt he was a pupil of Titian; Gautier but repeated current gossip when he said that the Greek went mad in his attempt to emulate his master. But Tintoretto's influence counts heavier in this picture than Titian's, a picture assigned by Cossio midway between Greco's first and second period. Decorative as is the general scheme, the emotional in-tensity aroused by the row of portraits in the second plan, the touching expression of the two saints, Augustine and Stephen, as they gently bear the corpse of the Count, the murky light of the torches in the background, while overhead the saintly hierarchy terminating in a white radiance, Christ the Comforter, His mother at His right hand, quiring hosts at His left — all these figures make an ensemble that at first glance benumbs the critical faculty. You recall the solemn and spasmodic music of Michael Angelo (of whom El Greco is reported to have irreverently declared that he couldn't paint); then as your perspective slowly shapes itself you note that Tintoretto, plus a certain personal accent of morbid magnificence, is the artistic progenitor of this art, an art which otherwise furiously boils over with Spanish characteristics.
Nothing could be more vivid and various than the twenty-odd heads near the bottom of the picture. Expression, character, race are not pushed beyond normal limits. The Spaniard, truly noble here, is seen at a half-dozen periods of life. El Greco himself is said to be in the group; the portrait certainly tallies with a reputed one of his. The sumptuousness of the ecclesiastical vestments, court costumes, ruffs, and eloquent hands, the grays, whites, golds, blues, blacks, chord rolling upon chord of subtle tonalities, the supreme illumination of the scene, with its suggestion of a moment swiftly trapped forever in eternity, hook this masterpiece firmly to your memory. It is not one of the greatest pictures in the pantheon of art, not Rembrandt, Velasquez, Hals, Raphael, Michael Angelo, Titian, or Rubens; yet it stands close to them all because of its massed effect of light, life, and emotional situation. We confess to liking it better than the Gloria at the Escorial Palace. This glorification of a dream of Philip II does not pluck electrically at your heart-strings as does the Burial of Count Orgáz, though the two canvases are similar in architectonic.
The Expolio is in the cathedral; it belongs to the first period, before El Greco had shaken off Italian influences. The colouring is rather cold. The St. Maurice in the chapter hall of the Escorial is a long step toward a new method of expression. (A replica is in Bucharest.) The Ascension altar piece, formerly in Santo Domingo, now hangs in the Art Institute, Chicago. At Toledo there are about eighty pieces of the master, not including his sculpture, retablos; like Tintoretto, he was accustomed to make little models in clay or wax for the figures in his pictures. His last manner is best exemplified in the Divine Love and Profane Love, belonging to Senor Zuloaga, in The Adoration of the Shepherds, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Assumption at the Church of St. Vicente, Toledo.
His chalky whites, poisonous greens, violet shadows, discordant passages of lighting are, as Arthur Symons puts it: Sharp and dim, gray and green, the colour of Toledo. Greco composed his palette with white vermilion, lake, yellow ochre, ivory black, Senor Beruete says that "he generally laid on an impasto for his flesh, put on in little touches, and then added a few definite strokes with the brush which, though accentuated, are very delicate. The gradations of the values is in itself instructive."
His human forms became more elongated as he aged; this applies only to his males; his women are of sweetness compounded and graceful in con-tour. Some a mere arabesque, or living flames; some sinister and fantastic; from the sublime to the silly is with Greco not a wide stride. But in all his surging, writhing sea of wraiths, saints, kings, damned souls and blest, a cerebral grip is manifest. He knew a hawk from a handsaw despite his temperament of a mystic. "He who carries his own most intimate emotions to their highest point becomes the first in a file of a long series of men"; but, adds Mr. Ellis: "To be a leader of men one must turn one's back on men." El Greco, like Charles Baudelaire, cultivated his hysteria. He developed his individuality to the border line across which looms madness. The transmogrification of his temperament after living in Toledo was profound. Born Greek, in art a Venetian, the atmosphere of the Castilian plain changed the colour of his soul. In him there was material enough for both a Savonarola or a Torquemada — his piety was at once iconoclastic and fanatical. And his restlessness, his ceaseless experiments, his absolute discoveries of new tonalities, his sense of mystic grandeur-- why here you have, if you will, a Berlioz of paint, a man of cold ardours, hot ecstasies, visions apocalyptic, with a brain like a gloomy cathedral in which the Tuba Minim is sonorously chanted. But Greco is on the side of the angels; Berlioz, like Goya, too often joined in the infernal antiphonies of Satan Mekatrig. And Greco is as dramatic as either.
Beruete admits that his idol, Velasquez, was affected by the study of El Greco's colouring. Camille Saint-Saëns, when Liszt and Rubinstein were compared, exclaimed: "Two great artists who have nothing in common except their superiority." It is bootless to bracket Velasquez with his elder. And Gautier was off the track when he spoke of Greco's resemblance to the bizarre romances of Mrs. Radcliffe; bizarre Greco was, but not trivial nor a charlatan. As to his decadent tendencies we side with the opinion of Mr. Frank Jewett Mather, Jr.: " Certain pedants have writ-ten as if the world would be better without its disorderly geniuses. There could, I think, be no sorer error. We need the unbalanced talents, the poètes damnés of every craft. They strew the passions that enrich a' lordlier art than their own. They fight valiantly, a little at the expense of their fame, against the only unpardonable sins, stupidity and indifference. Greco should always be-an honoured name in this ill-destined company."
In the Prado Museum there is a goodly collection. The Annunciation, The Holy Family, Jesus Christ Dead, The Baptism of Christ, The Resurrection, The Crucifixion tremendous conception; and The Coming of the Holy Ghost; this latter, with its tongues of fire, its flickering torches, its ecstatic apostles and Mary, her face flooded by a supernal illumination, mightily stirs the aesthetic pulse. The Prado has two dozen specimens, though two of them at least — a poor replica of the Orgáz burial, and another - are known to be by El Greco's son, Jorge Manuel Theotocopuli; of the numerous portraits and other pictures dispersed by time and chance to the four quarters of the globe, we have written earlier in this volume, when dealing with the definitive work on this Greek by Senor Manuel B. Cossio. El Greco, through sheer intensity of temperament and fierce sincerity, could pluck out from men who had be-come, because of their apathy and grotesque pride, mere vegetable growths, their very souls afire; or if stained by crimes, these souls, he shot them up to God like green meteors. To be sure they have eyes drunk with dreams, the pointed skull of the mystic, and betray a plentiful lack of chin and often an atrabilious nature. When old his saints resemble him, when young he must have looked like his saints, Sebastian and Martin. With his ardent faith he could have confuted the Gnostic or the Manichean heresies in colourful allegory, but instead he sang fervid hosannahs on his canvases to the greater glory of Christ and His saints. Perhaps if he had lived in our times he might have painted heads of fashionable cour tesans or equivocal statesmen. But whether primitive or modem, realist or symbolist, he would always have been a painter of dramatic genius. He is the unicorn among artists.