. Oct. 16 to Feb. 10, 2020
Greco - Retrospective
Grand Palais, Galerie Sud-Est
3, avenue du Général Eisenhower
Doménikos Theotokópoulos, known as Greco, is undeniably one of the most original painters in the history of art. His unique style has given rise to many often-outlandish theories. He has been cast as a madman, a heretic and a mystic. His bold palette has even led some to suggest he suffered from astigmatism. The truth is less romantic... but no less fascinating. His extraordinary career, which took him from Crete to Venice, Rome and finally Toledo, and stubborn defence of his artistic vision made him, by sheer force of talent, one of the great masters of the Renaissance and, much later, the prophet of modernity.
STYLE AND IMAGE
The artistic scene Greco discovered on moving to Italy around 1567 was split between Titian, whose brushwork reigned supreme in Venice, and the art of Michelangelo, who had died in 1564, which still dominated Rome and Florence. Charting his own course, Greco embraced the colour of the Venetian school and reconciled it with the power of Michelangelo’s design and form. In parallel, the Roman Catholic Church, as a reply to Protestant iconoclasm and to reclaim souls, was in search of new images, and Greco used his fertile imagination to devise innovative figurative solutions. For an artist keen to break into the market and make his name, the time seemed ripe. Everything - images and style - was to be reinvented. Greco decided the prize was his for the taking.
The 75 masterpieces gathered in this exhibition pay tribute to the wild and unclassifiable geni-us that Greco was. With simple white walls, the scenography leaves the monopoly on colour to the artist and recreates the modern gaze of the avant-garde when they rediscovered his work.
FROM EASTERN TO WESTERN
Greco was born around 1541 in Candie, now Heraklion, in Crete, a Greek island, then a Venetian possession. He trained as an icon painter in the Byzantine tradition as we can see in his Saint Luke Painting the Virgin [cat. 1*], but he also developed a hybrid style inspired by the Western art he discov-ered through engravings and paintings imported from Venice [Adoration of the Magi - cat. 2]. Aspir-ing to the title of artist acquired by the painters of Renaissance Italy, he settled in Venice. But he was soon faced with the reality of an art market with little room for a recently arrived young foreigner with no patron.
1. FROM CRETE TO ITALY - 1560-1576
When Greco arrived in Venice in early 1567, he discovered a cosmopolitan society with similar eastern influences to his native Crete. This is where he discovered Titian, his model, whose studio he may have visited, the energetic style of Tintoretto, the architectural perspectives of Paris Bordone, and Jacopo Bassano, whose chiaroscuro style had a life-long influence on his work. It was also here that he learned the grammar of Renaissance art and the language of colour much admired in Venice. Against the practitioners of design, led by the Tuscan Giorgio Vasari [cat. 19], he sided with the champions of colorito. His artistic style was transformed by his early years in Italy, from 1567 to 1570. Inspired by engravings but even more by the observation and direct intuition of painting, he abandoned the decorative art of the icon to pursue the ambitions of the Renaissance. The Modena Triptych [cat. 03], the cornerstone of his develop-ment, echoes this shift. His two Adoration of the Magi [Benaki Museum - cat. 2, and Lázaro Galdiano Foundation - cat. 6] show how far and fast he had come and paved the way for his first truly Venetian paintings. When Greco failed to break into the highly competitive Venetian market, he decided to try his luck in Rome.
THINK BIG, PAINT SMALL
From Venice to Rome, Greco primarily painted small-scale works on wood. Intrinsic to iconic art, wood was long one of his preferred media. It allowed him to hone his skills and experiment with new solutions, as we can see in the iconography of Saint Francis [cat. 11, 12]. Virtually unknown in Italy and not trained to paint frescoes, he was unable to win commissions for large decorative works or altarpieces. The market for small devotional and cabinet paintings was easier for him to access.The Pietà [cat. 13] and The Entombment of Christ[cat. 14] are typical of his Rome years and his critical response to Michelangelo’s art, which he was keen to reformulate and «correct». In 1572, his arrogance towards Michelangelo may have been the reason for his expulsion from the Farnese Pal-ace, where he was staying. The same year, his name appeared on the register of the painters’ guild of Saint Luke. A misreading of the entry gave rise to a long-held belief that he was listed as a miniature painter. Although this was not the case, he did have an abiding interest in small-scale paintings, at which he excelled, and readily depicted Saint Luke, patron saint of painters, as an illuminator [cat. 10].
Greco’s ability as a portrait painter was not the least of his talents. During his years in Rome (1570- 1576) he seems to have established a strong reputation in the genre. In his letter of recommen-dation to Cardinal Farnese, the miniaturist painter Giulio Clovio mentions a self-portrait by Greco admired by every painter in Rome. Although the painting is now lost, others vouch for his success as a portraitist. As in his other works, he evolved from a distinctly Venetian style to one that was powerful and more personal.
At the Farnese Palace, he moved in humanist cir-cles, giving him access to the learned society of his day. Many became friends, supporters and patrons throughout his life. Like a hall of fame, his portraits capture the features and intelligence of these bril-liant characters - some profound, others powerful - who posed for him in Rome and then Toledo.
3. FIRST MAJOR COMMISSIONS
Rome proved no more open to Greco than Venice. His arrogance has long been seen as the reason for his continued lack of success. But we should not underestimate the problems he might have faced as a foreign painter. Greco did not have a patron, he had an imperfect grasp of Italian and did not paint frescoes, making it difficult to carve out a space in a city controlled by dynasties of well-established artists. He hoped Spain would be his Eldorado. Philip II, a great admirer of Titian, was said to be looking for painters to decorate his vast El Escorial monastery. Luis de Castilla, a Spanish friend he met in Rome, assured him of the support of his father, dean of Toledo cathedral.
Before the rise of Madrid, Toledo was the most prosperous city in Castile. Greco saw his opportuni-ty. In 1577, he signed two contracts with Diego de Castilla: one for El Expolio in the cathedral sacristy [cat. 15], the other for the high altar and two side altars of the convent church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo [cat 35, 36, 37]. Greco at last had the chance to show the breadth of his talent. Shortly afterwards, around 1578-1579, the king commis-sioned him to paint the Adoration of the Name of Jesus [cat. 18], a declaration of the Christian faith, which received widespread praise. Phillip II then commissioned him to paint an altarpiece for a chapel in El Escorial dedicated to the martyrdom of Saint Maurice, but this time, accused of lacking piety, the work was not well received. He was not given a third chance.
4. EL GRECO AND TOLEDO
Toledo was renowned as one of Europe’s leading artistic and cultural centres. Greco felt at ease with its cultivated clientele, who shared the humanist spirit of his Italian years. The old imperial city became the setting - and almost a minor character - for many of his compositions, with the cathedral, Alcazar, Alcántara bridge and other landmarks serving as his backdrop. Saint Martin and the Beg-gar [cat. 32] is an outstanding example.
The spread of private devotion led many families in Toledo to found their own chapels and oratories. This increased demand for paintings. Greco quickly took advantage of the situation by setting up a studio to meet orders for ordinary works while he himself focused on larger commissions. He also devoted much time and energy to legal disputes over payments from patrons, often the Church, which tried to bargain down the price of his works once delivered.
VARIATIONS ON A THEME
Variation was central to Greco’s creative process. Should we see this as a legacy of his Byzantine training and its repetition of prototypes? Or was it inspired by practices observed in the studios of Venice? Either way, this permanent tension between invention and variation animates his art. It provided him with the opportunity to rework a for-mula, identify alternatives and develop original and refined solutions for each variation. To some extent, this original technique paved the way for the serial work of the Impressionists and Cézanne. It also led Greco to create his own artistic alphabet and to as-sert his canons through a catalogue of images and types. A testament to his incredibly fertile imagina-tion, it also led him to produce self-referential works that eventually formed a closed world, self-sustain-ing and sovereign but increasingly isolated.
EL GRECO, ARCHITECT AND SCULPTOR
From his early years in Italy, Greco showed an obvi-ous interest in architecture. He admired Sebastiano Serlio (c. 1475-1564) and particularly Andrea Pal-ladio (1508-1580), who he met. His library included Ten Books on Architecture by Vitruvius [cat. 45], architect and Latin theorist, republished in 1556 by Daniele Barbaro. His own heavily annotated copy suggests he may have planned to write a treatise himself. Although no constructions have been identified as the work of Greco he created, certain temporary structures, now lost, along with designs for altarpieces commissioned from him, which leave no doubt as to his authorship. His tabernacle for the Taverna Hospital [cat. 40] is one outstanding example. This miniature monument also contained a sculptural ensemble which the contract of 1595 specified he design himself. Only The Risen Christhas survived [cat. 39]. This is one of the very few examples of Greco’s work as a sculptor and the only one beyond doubt.
5. EL GRECO AND DRAWING
Greco placed painting above all other arts. In the debate between design and colour, he clearly sided with the latter. His rarely conserved draw-ings were not central to his work and fulfilled a simple functional role in his creative process. Only seven sheets can now be attributed to Greco with any certainty: two, from his Italian period, are meditations in the style of Michelangelo [cat. 43, presented at the beginning of the exhibition]; three are preparatory drawings for the high altarpiece of Santo Domingo el Antiguo in Toledo [cat. 41, 42]; the final two were produced for a major commis-sion for the Colegio de Doña Maria de Aragón in Madrid [cat. 44].
In 1585, Greco moved his family and studio to three apartments rented from the palace of the Marquis of Villena. The studio allowed him to devel-op the commercial side of his work by producing multiple copies of the same composition, which on occasion he retouched and even signed. This made it possible to produce works at a steady and, from the early 1600s onwards, increasingly fast pace.
It is very tempting to attribute part of this produc-tion to his son, [cat. 72] but this is not borne out by the evidence. The archives suggest that Jorge Ma-nuel would have preferred to be an architect, which he became after his father’s death. From 1603, however, his name does appear in contracts along-side Greco. This guaranteed the painting would be finished in the event of Greco’s death. This precau-tionary measure reassured clients that he would be able to make good on his many contracts.
CHRIST DRIVING THE TRADERS FROM THE TEMPLE 1570-1614
One of his best-known series, Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple allows us to trace, through a single theme and composition, Greco’s evolution from his early life in Italy to his final years in Toledo. Not only does the artist’s style, technique, format and medium vary from painting to painting, he also finds new sources of inspiration to reinvent himself.
The subject must have struck a particular chord with Greco. Did he identify himself with the angry Christ purifying the Temple, just as he intended to purify painting of those he felt had betrayed it, failed to appreciate it or were reluctant to reward artistic creation at its true value? Whatever his motives, he returned to this composition through-out his career. It borrows alternately from Venetian and Roman architecture, ancient sculpture and the works of Michelangelo. Greco finally referenced himself in this composition by including in the painting for the church of San Ginès in Madrid [cat. 53] the motif of the altarpiece he made for the church of Illescas. Like a persistence of vision, the frightened figure, arms in the air, reappears over the years in The Modena Triptych [cat. 03], The Dream of Philip II [cat. 18] and The Adoration of the Shepherds in the National Museum of Art in Bucharest (1596-1600). At the very end of his life, it became the main character in The Vision of Saint John [cat. 76].
6. FINAL SPLENDOUR - 1600-1614
By the time Greco died in 1614, Caravaggio had already been dead four years. Who would have thought that this style of painting could still be possible so late in what was soon be called the “Baroque” century? This anomaly is due solely to Greco’s artistic resistance and the proud isolation of Toledo, now his citadel. In many ways, however, his chiaroscuro style, heightened declamatory effects, and free spirited approach foreshadow the art of some 17th century painters. After falling into almost total obscurity, Impressionists and avant-garde artists rediscovered and understood Greco to such an extent they made him their prophet, and even, more intimately, their fellow pupil in the unruly classrooms of modernity.
Exhibition curator : Guillaume Kientz, Curator of European Art, Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, USA
Associate curator : Charlotte Chastel-Rousseau,Curator of Spanish and Portuguese Painting, Department of Paintings, Musée du Louvre
Exhibition curator for the Art Institute of Chicago : Rebecca Long, Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Associate Curator of European Painting and Sculpture before 1750, The Art Institute of Chicago
Set designer : Véronique Dollfus
Graphics : Claire Boitel, atelier JBL
This exhibition is organised by the Réunion des Musées Nationaux – Grand Palais, the Musée du Louvre and The Art Institute of Chicago.