Thunderbolts of Ecstasy

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The Opening of the Fifth Seal (The Vision of St. John), 1608-1614

If it weren't for Van Gogh, who but El Greco would be our best symbol for the individual genius, the artist working in a style unlike any other of his time? All that lashing brushwork; the torqued, lunging figures; the saints stretched as tight as thunderbolts by their passion for God — if ever there was an artist whose work seems edged all around by fire, it's El Greco.

All the same, he appears less strange to us than he did to the 19th century that rediscovered him. Manet, who admired his portraits, still pronounced him "bizarre" overall. But now, after the fractured space of Cezanne, the shivering stridencies of Klimt and Kokoschka, the old Greek is not as much of a challenge anymore. There are even trace elements of his tussling space in the tangled drippings of Jackson Pollock. What El Greco remains is a jolt to the senses. In the superabundance of his strange devices, there are still things that shock. In the El Greco show that opens this week at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, there are nearly 80 of his canvases, including many of his most headlong, floodlit and clamoring. Earlier this year, for its exhibition of small drawings by Leonardo, the Met sold magnifying glasses at the door. For this one, they may want to think about Ray-Bans.

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The Met show, which runs through Jan. 11 and then travels to London, aims partly to underline the ways in which El Greco was not so much another of art history's lone wolves as he was a man connected to the prevailing lines of art, religion and philosophy in Europe at the time of the Counter Reformation. In the catalog, David Davies, the El Greco scholar who organized the show, patiently draws him down to earth. Then you look at the pictures, and El Greco's irreducible strangeness simply strikes you all over again.

Even the eccentricities of Mannerism, the 16th century style that we generally group him within, can't fully account for him. His figures may be elongated in the Mannerist style, but the swanning courtiers in Pontormo or Parmigianino, most of them as slender as greyhounds, are nothing like El Greco's rough-cut saints, famished men with skin the color of split timber and stiff robes draped around them like crumpled fenders. And while the Mannerist palette, all that coy bump and grind of pink and yellow, is calculated sometimes to startle, the explosive oddity of El Greco is something else altogether. In his magnificent late canvas The Adoration of the Shepherds, the yellows and crimson, acid green and purple, jammed together to ecstatic effect, are so artificial that they give parts of the scene the impression of being painted on tinfoil.

He comes down to us as El Greco — "the Greek" — because he was born Domenikos Theotokopoulos in Crete. At the time, 1541, the island was a colony of Venice, but one that looked east in artistic matters to the traditions of the Byzantine. By his 20s he was already a recognized local practitioner of the religious-icon style. His gifts and ambition eventually took him to Venice, where his art was transformed by the twisting energies and sensual palettes of Titian and Tintoretto, all of which he turned to his own purposes. In The Purification of the Temple, a scene that he produced in many versions over the years, the poses are borrowed from Michelangelo and Tintoretto, among other sources. And the temple is the familiar architectural space of Italian painting. But El Greco has pushed the figures forward until they, not the arches and columns, define the space. Scooping and gyring, they roil the surface of the scene until the picture plane fractures like a broken ice floe.

From Venice he made his way to Rome, where he found no major commissions. It may not have helped that while there he managed to criticize, loudly, Michelangelo, the local god who had died just six years earlier. It will come as no surprise to hear that an artist as original as El Greco could be a difficult and opinionated man; his correspondence is full of squabbles over how much he should rightfully be paid. It was the same in Madrid, where he went in hope of securing work from Philip II, the Habsburg King who was then completing El Escorial, his immense new monastery-palace. But El Greco's turbulent canvases were nothing like the serene, legible art that Philip had in mind. Disappointed again, El Greco moved on, this time to Toledo, where he would spend the rest of an increasingly productive life.

A jewel-box city over the Tagus river, Toledo was also a center of the Counter Reformation, which sought to mobilize the faithful and harden the lines of Roman Catholic dogma. In the face of the Protestant challenge, the inquiring spirit of the High Renaissance had been overtaken by the dogmas of the Council of Trent. Eager to exploit the power of art but wary all the same of wayward artists, Rome operated like the old Hays office in Hollywood, mandating what could be shown and how to show it. Spain in particular was a cockpit of militant piety, the forcing ground for St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, as well as for the mysticism of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross.

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