Visitors to Toledo over the next three months will have a unique opportunity to assess the work, life and times of El Greco at the events marking the 400th anniversary of the death of the Crete-born painter.
Two cityscapes of the former Spanish capital set the stage for the main exhibition: one has been in Toledo since 1600; the other has traveled from New York’s MoMA. The city is instantly recognizable in both, its skyline little changed, although the surrounding landscape has been developed over the centuries.
This is the most complete exhibition of El Greco’s work ever mounted. It has cost around €2 million to put together, and features 76 pieces, 45 of which have been lent by 11 countries, though the majority have come from collections in the United States (Saint Peter and Saint Paul has yet to arrive from the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg).
Aside from the Museo de la Santa Cruz, which is hosting the show, visitors to Toledo should also make pilgrimages to five other locations to round out the experience: the cathedral sacristy; the church of Santo Tomé, which houses El Greco’s The Burial of the Count of Orgaz; the Santo Domingo convent, the painter’s first burial place; and the San José chapel, which is normally closed to the public; and of course the Museo del Greco. In total, around 125 of the 300 works he produced over his lifetime will be on view this year in Toledo.
El Greco also worked as an architect, sculptor, set designer and illustrator”
“None of this would have been possible without the support of the private sphere, which has provided 85 percent of the budget,” says Gregorio Marañon, co-director of the Museo del Greco foundation. Most of the works have come from private collections rather than major galleries, he says.
Fernando Marías, the curator of the exhibition, says the image of El Greco that emerges from the exhibition is one viewed from today’s perspective: “An artist able to understand the invisible with the strands of the visible, an excellent painter who enjoys painting beautiful things beautifully, and above all, somebody who not only produced canvases, but who worked as an architect, sculptor, set designer and illustrator; the equivalent of today’s multimedia artist.” All of which, says Marías, makes El Greco arguably one of the most modern painters of the 16th century.
The El Greco of the show is very different to the picture of him that has been painted over the centuries as someone tormented by religious fervor, repressed, excessively pious, the very incarnation of dark Spain – and who supposedly suffered from astigmatism. “Why else would he have painted those long, drawn-out figures?” asks Marías sarcastically. “Well it certainly wasn’t because he had eye trouble. Many of these canvases were meant to be seen from below [which is how they have been hung in the exhibition]. Later on, he came to believe that tall people were more beautiful.”
Most of all, though, El Greco believed in himself: he never forgot his position as a foreigner (signing his pieces in Greek), and never once doubted his style, acquired over time and through the different phases of his life – his time in Italy, his final years in Toledo, and his days in Crete, which are represented in the exhibition by a number of extraordinary icons painted when he was still in his teens, along with the celebrated Modena Triptych.
The show does much to dispel the myths created about the artist over the centuries
One of the joys of the exhibition, it provides strong proof that El Greco never doubted himself or his talent. On one of the corners of the tableau, hell erupts from the nostrils of a dragon that reappears in the final room of the show in The Adoration of the Shepherds.
After walking round the Museo de Santa Cruz, where one masterpiece follows another – Christ Adored on the Cross by Two Donors, The Gentleman with his Hand on his Chest, Portrait of a Cardinal, Probably Cardinal Don Fernando Niño de Guevara – Marías stands before the Risen Christ in the Taverna hospital tabernacle to discuss his theory that El Greco needs to be seen as a multimedia painter. The piece brings to mind the monastery complex at El Escorial, a reminder of the enduring bitterness that El Greco felt after Phillip II rejected his depiction of the Martyrdom of St Maurice.
The event undoubtedly influenced El Greco’s decision to settle in Toledo, says Marías. He later married, had a child, was made a widower, and ran into financial difficulties as a result of the cathedral authorities’ delays in paying for the work he carried out there. By that time, even if he had wanted to leave, it was too late, says Marías.
The exhibition does much to dispel the many myths that have been created over the centuries about El Greco, drawing on recent biographies, as well as the painter’s own writings, but he still remains a shadowy figure.
Here was a man who fought hard in defense of what he saw as his rights as a painter, and who contributed to the creation of painter’s guilds, as well as dignifying his profession in intellectual terms. But he was also always short of money; he would doubtless be astonished to learn about the impact his anniversary is having on the city he made his final home: around 250,000 people are expected to view the exhibition, with around one million due to visit Toledo this year, drawn in large part by the commemorations to mark the 400th anniversary of his death.