New York Review of Books
June 19, 2014
For many of the four hundred years since the death of Domenikos Theotokopoulos, the artist known to his Spanish neighbors as El Greco, his work was regarded with the same disdain as that of his younger contemporary Caravaggio. If Caravaggio’s detractors vowed that, as Poussin put it, he had “come into the world to ruin painting,” the Greek who made his career in the land of Don Quixote was “contemptible and ridiculous, as much for the disjointed drawing as for the insipid colors.” In the nineteenth century, El Greco’s monumental Burial of the Count of Orgaz lay rolled up and despised in a basement of the Toledan church of Santo Tomé, the venue for which he had painted it in 1586–1588 (and where it hangs again today in glory).
In the early twentieth century, the Benedictine sisters in the convent of Santo Domingo de Silos sold their altarpiece, an El Greco Assumption of the Virgin, to a Chicago art collector, just like many other Toledans who decided to unload their ugly, inconvenient canvases on wealthy foreigners just before the tides of taste began to turn. One Castilian count liquidated his El Greco to invest in a collection of contemporary art—yet it was modern painters who first began to open their eyes, and ours, to the color, the fantastic imagination, and the supreme elegance that “the Greek” brought to his work. By 1914, the three hundredth anniversary of his death, he could count admirers like Delacroix, Manet, Picasso, Miguel de Unamuno, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Benigno de la Vega-Inclán, who created the Museo del Greco in Toledo in 1911. The pintor extravagante, no longer an embarrassment, had become a guiding light.
The year 1914 was not an auspicious time to mount an international exhibition, as Europe prepared for self-lacerating war. One hundred years later, the continent may be racked by economic crisis, but it is a united Europe, in which all of the countries through which El Greco passed share the same currency and the same problems; furthermore, it was only Greece, Italy, and Spain together that could have made him an artist of such universal scope as well as startling individuality.