I was working in Germany this week and took advantage of being within striking distance of Dusseldorf to see the current El Greco and the Moderns exhibit. I had previously seen a huge exposition in London in 2004 at the National Gallery dedicated to El Greco. The KunstPalas is near the Rhine in downtown Dusseldorf. This temporary exposition features 44 El Greco paintings and probably about 150 or so modern works that show the incredible influence that El Greco had on modern art – particularly modern German art. To be honest, the signage was all in German and I inadvertently did the end of the exhibit before the beginning. Plus, I arrived only an hour before closing (note that on Thursdays it is open until 9pm but I had a business dinner planned on Thursday :( It was wonderful anyway. The painting I show here, La0coon, is a wonderful spectacle despite its violent depiction of the Trojan myth. The blue sky full of ominous clouds, the brightly colored Toledo in the background and the two enigmatic observers on the right serve to heighten the central drama as Laocoon and his sons fight the serpents sent to kill them. Particularly beautiful is the arc of the serpent on the left. It is also notable that all the lines on the left and right of the painting point to the central drama of the dead son and the dying father. This is a truly extraordinary work from El Greco that I have seen before a few times, but which always fascinates me.
The expo basically shows us paintings from the entire career of El Greco and focusses on a few seminal works and their influence on various styles and artists. I was very happy to see the three Schiele works including the splendid Agony. The position of the two bodies, the patchwork of color does recall El Greco’s style. This particular work was shown near several portraits of St Francis d’Assisi by El Greco and we see him there on the right in this painting. What I also like about this painting is that it almost looks like a stained glass window.
There were also some great works by another favorite of mine, Oskar Kokoshka. The dark colors and painful pose of the knight are very close to Greco in style. Plus the whole theme of disorientation and loss as well as the medieval landscape also show the influence of El Greco. There were actually 8 works of Kokoschka in the exposition making it probably the most of his paintings I have seen together since probably the Expressionist collection in Vienna.
El Greco himself has such power and pathos that he can seem unapproachable at first. The colors are dark, the themes are sometimes overwhelmingly violent or focused on death. I think that we have to think about the period in which he lived as being one of incredible violence in senseless European wars – we are still in the middle of the counter revolution here and El Greco had lived in Greece, Italy and Spain where he had most likely seen many horrors over his lifetime. His paintings have a special power, at least for me, in terms of bringing complex emotions to life – we feel Christ’s agony on the cross as his body is elongated in pain. In Christ on the Cross, the choice of placing Toledo in the background brings both a modern feel to the representation as well as a contemporary message – he is telling his fellow citizens that this event for him is as real as the streets they are walking on.
El Greco’s skills as a portraitist are often underestimated as folks tend to focus on the more dramatic paintings as I just mentioned. In Portait of a Trinitarian Monk, we are stared at right between the eyes by the seated figure who grips his seat and his glasses and asks us to contemplate. Here I am showing his portrait of Charles de Guise, Cardinal of Lorraine. This painting reminded me of the Rafael and Titian treatments of similar themes – paintings that El Greco certainly had time to see when he was in Italy. While this portrait is similar in theme to the other two, El Greco turns the Archbishop of Reims in a 3/4 profile and puts the gripping hand (he was quite ambitious with dreams of becoming pope) almost in the center of the canvas (whereas Titian and Rafael had placed similar hands to the sides of the painting). The look of the Cardinal is a bit vacant, perhaps contemplating some of the acts he would have to be performing as part of the Counter Reformation and Inquisition or just his blind ambition. The cloth to his rear on the right adds a little green color to offset the glaring red of the gown and the parrot in the window is one of those typically enigmatic symbols that probably only El Greco quite knew what he meant by it.
All told, this was a fascinating exposition and I wish I had had more than an hour to enjoy it. The catalog for sale in the book store (€45) is available in English and provides extraordinary detail for each painting as well as very readable (as opposed to the typically ultra-academic) articles about El Greco’s life and times and influence on the moderns. Highly recommended if you are anywhere near Dusseldorf before the 18th of August.