Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 11, 2013
Beat Wismer and Michael Scholz-Hänsel, eds. El Greco and Modernism Exh. cat. Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2012. 416 pp.; 273 color ills.; 33 b/w ills. Cloth $75.00 (9783775733274)
Exhibition schedule: Museum Kunstpalast, Düsseldorf, April 28–August 12, 2012
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Published on the occasion of the El Greco und die Moderne exhibition at the Museum Kunstpalast in Düsseldorf, this catalogue examines how artists and writers responded to the figure who, after centuries of neglect, experienced acclaim in the decades around 1900. Historians already know the basic outline, for example, of how Julius Meier-Graefe and Roger Fry linked the work of the native of Crete with the concerns of early twentieth-century painters. Many implications of that development, however, remain largely unfamiliar to scholars and enthusiasts alike. The chief contribution of this book is its ambitious illustration of how international artists drew inspiration from El Greco and canonized him as an exemplar of modernity.

In the first of the catalogue’s three sections, El Greco and his paintings are the primary focus. A concise overview of his life, work, and historiographical fortunes comes from Fernando Marías, who has distinguished himself among Spanish academics for researching the painter. Carmen Garrido, whose expertise as a conservator rests on her record at the Museo Nacional del Prado, then analyzes the composition, style, brushwork, and techniques of selected works. She also identifies the formal properties that captivated proponents of Expressionism and other modernist movements. Anette Schaffer concentrates on Laocoön (ca. 1610–14), which the public saw for the first time in 1911 in Germany. The enigmatic painting fascinated viewers partly because El Greco had diverged from the heroic sculptural group of the same theme enshrined at the Vatican’s galleries since 1506. His break with tradition exemplified the priority of modern artists. Finally, Michael Scholz-Hänsel leads three scholars in providing exhibition catalogue entries of forty-four paintings and three prints marshaled from an international array of museums and private collections.

Despite the fact that Scholz-Hänsel and his team can build on the accomplishments of numerous researchers, the entries make clear that longstanding issues continue to characterize El Greco studies. Although some works, like The Opening of the Fifth Seal (ca. 1608–14), have long been ascribed solely to his hand, a number of other paintings have invited speculation about the participation of his workshop, school, or son, Jorge Manuel Theotocopoulos. The full-page color illustrations clearly illustrate the differences in quality as well as brushwork that drive these unresolved questions. In other instances, such as the Crucifixion (ca. 1573–76), connoisseurs likely will doubt the attribution to the master. While the selection spans the career of El Greco, curator Beat Wismer and his team also sought to illustrate how he composed variations on a theme. Readers may therefore review versions of, for example, The Adoration of the Shepherds (ca. 1569–70, ca. 1603–5), Saint Francis in Prayer (ca. 1577–80, ca. 1587–96, early seventeenth century), and The Immaculate Conception (ca. 1585, ca. 1607–13, ca. 1608–14). These comparisons have been an important method of judging his evolution.

The catalogue entries also provide the foundation for exploring El Greco’s influence on modern art. By staging this exhibition in 2012, the organizers commemorated the centenary of another important show. In 1912, the Kunsthalle of Düsseldorf hosted more than one hundred works owned by the Hungarian collector Marczell von Nemes (1866–1930), with an eye toward purchasing them. Although no acquisitions ultimately materialized, his collection, which included ten works by El Greco, had a substantial impact on viewers before proceeding to Paris for dispersal at auction in 1913. One of the Nemes paintings, The Holy Family with Saint Mary Magdalene (ca. 1590–95), now at the Cleveland Museum of Art, returned on loan to Düsseldorf in 2012; its inclusion establishes a measure of continuity in the city’s contributions to scholarship on the artist. Whereas other Old Masters from, for example, the Italian peninsula and the Netherlands had enjoyed recognition for centuries due to the wide circulation of graphic reproductions, El Greco had had no comparable success with the four known engravings after his work by the Flemish printmaker Diego de Astor. Scholz-Hänsel analyzes three of the little-known prints in a statement about the revelatory experience of viewing the paintings newly available in 1912.

The thirteen essays in the remaining two sections of the book chart the enthusiastic, if sometimes mixed, reception of El Greco in modern times. Notwithstanding references to a broad range of European art, the authors tailor their studies to greater or lesser degrees around the 107 modern works in the loan exhibition, which do not have individual catalogue entries. Paintings account for the vast majority, with a smaller assortment of graphic works and only a handful of sculptures. The selections span from 1869 to 1936, with most from between 1910 and 1920. Paul Cézanne and Robert Delaunay, for example, represent the French, whereas Pablo Picasso and Ignacio Zuloaga bear the torch for Spain. German-speaking artists, however, occupy pride of place in this assessment. The book brings together many images in order to beautifully illustrate connections and affinities between the work of El Greco and that of his modernist heirs, including Max Beckmann, Wilhelm Lehmbruck, Franz Marc, and Ludwig Meidner. The links will come as a revelation to scholars and laypersons alike.

This emphasis on Swiss, Austrian, and German responses to El Greco may surprise many readers, yet the authors make a compelling case for this line of inquiry. Part of the justification lies with the pioneering role of the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, which also displayed the Nemes collection, supplemented by Laocoön and a version of The Disrobing of Christ (between 1580 and 1595); this exhibition overlapped with the first show of Der Blaue Reiter in December 1911 at a nearby gallery. This instance was only one of the opportunities for proponents of modernism to compose panegyrics to the newly prominent works by El Greco. Paul Klee, for example, published a review in which he characterized Laocoön in terms of “compositional and painterly perfection.” German-speaking artists thereby shaped the modern international fame of El Greco. Albert Bloch, an American member of Der Blaue Reiter, conveyed this enthusiasm when he departed Munich around 1920 to teach at Chicago and later in Kansas.

The authors of El Greco and Modernism add that Klee and his contemporaries did not have a purely formal interest in the work. This message contrasts with the legacy of Fry, whose formalist vision has influenced Anglophone responses to El Greco. In her essay, Veronika Schroeder explains how the Expressionists looked to the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century paintings for guidance on imparting emotional and spiritual power to their art. She affirms, for example, that ethereal figures by El Greco enabled Oskar Kokoschka and Max Oppenheimer to compose portraits that visualized “the phenomena and conditions of the soul.” Other expressive qualities provided the tools to convey the suffering and isolation of the prophetic modern artist, as when Egon Schiele depicted himself as Saint Sebastian in 1914. In a related article, Martina Padberg explores developments in early twentieth-century religious painting and cites the dramatic Crucifixion (1913) by Max Ernst, clearly indebted to the View of Toledo (ca. 1597–99).

The final section of the catalogue shines greater light on the dealers, collectors, curators, and historians behind the international recovery of El Greco. For example, when illustrating how the Museo del Prado bolstered its display of his works in the early twentieth century, Leticia Ruiz Gómez confirms that institutional support was crucial to the change in critical fortunes. Nevertheless, German-speaking academics take center stage. Teresa Posada Kubissa deftly encapsulates the occasionally voluminous writings of Carl Justi, August Mayer, and Max Dvořák. Julius Meier-Graefe, as Schroeder shows, released Spanische Reise in 1910, thereby driving the transformation of El Greco into Cézanne’s precursor. Moreover, this publication elevated the visionary imagery of El Greco past the naturalism of Diego Velázquez as exemplary for the German avant-garde. By contrast, Justi had strongly favored the native of Seville, whose impact on modern art had been immense in the nineteenth century.

Readers will regard this volume on El Greco and German modernism as complementary to Manet/Velázquez: The French Taste for Spanish Painting, the exhibition catalogue that the Metropolitan Museum of Art released in 2003. Both publications examine how painters in Spain bequeathed a legacy that, when discovered after the passage of centuries, provided compelling alternatives to artistic norms. The book from Düsseldorf also crystallizes recent research by German-speaking scholars on El Greco, who received significant attention from Justi and his heirs until the 1960s. By undertaking this ambitious study, the authors have revived an important historiographical tradition on this artist and have made a valuable contribution to international scholarship.

Jeffrey Schrader
Associate Professor, Department of Visual Arts, University of Colorado Denver

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.