El Greco “The Resurrection” Photograph [Public Domain] Wikiart
“You must study the Masters but guard the original style that beats within your soul and put to sword those who would try to steal it.”
-Attributed to El Greco
We call him El Greco, “The Greek.” His real name was Doménikos Theotokópoulos (October 1, 1541 – April 7, 1614). He was born in the Venetian colony of the Kingdom of Candia, the island now named Crete. He appears to have been raised Greek Orthodox, and received his initial artistic training in icon painting. He moved onto Venice and Rome before ultimately settling in Toledo, Spain in 1577. El Greco spent the rest of his life there, picking up the Spanish nickname we know him by.
El Greco came to Spain with ambitions to become a court painter for King Philip II, but it seems the ruler didn’t care for his art. The monarch commissioned two paintings, but the King was so displeased with The Martyrdom of Saint Maurice El Greco produced, it was never installed in its intended location, and no more royal commissions were given.
We don’t know why Philip rejected the work, but it an indicator of things to come. El Greco seems to have been successful as an artist while he lived, but his paintings generated mixed responses. After his death his paintings fell into disrepute and obscurity. It was only in the twentieth century El Greco was rediscovered as a significant artist.
The problem may have been there is nothing else like El Greco. Institutionally, the art world is a trend follower. El Greco came of age during an art period referred to as Mannerism. After the peak achievements of giants like Michelangelo and Raphael, the next generation of artists moved away the idealized, harmonious naturalism of the High Renaissance. Mannerists incorporated distortions and tensions into their art, to increase dramatic impact.
While El Greco was influenced by his early icon painting and Mannerism, it was just a departure point for his own idiosyncratic artistic style. It’s said he kept his curtains drawn while he worked, all the better to draw upon his “inner light.” Ghostly figures, glowing with garish colors, stretch and float across his paintings. They are eerie and turbulent while simultaneously radiating an otherworldly stillness. “The spirit of creation is an excruciating, intricate exploration from within the soul,” El Greco reportedly stated; this is reflected in how his unique art resonates.
El Greco was delving into his own particular nature to find a means of universal communication. To me, this is where the most exciting art comes from – the honest exploration of individual character. All an artist needs to do to be original and compelling is to be themselves. El Greco put himself on those paintings, telling more about who he really was than any words could ever do. He displayed an understanding of holiness and the surprising ways to convey it through exaggerating certain elements of his art.
The problem with being so much yourself in art is sometimes conventional thought is slow to recognize the accomplishment. A personal vision, even an exquisitely realized one, can be so different than the status quo the public misses the point. In El Greco’s case it took centuries before artists, and the audience, learned from his example. Later art movements such as Expressionism and Cubism are said to have been led by El Greco’s achievements. He’s a good example of how trailblazers appear in art to show all the possibilities we’ve yet to discover when we explore the worlds we contain within.
El Greco “The Adoration of the Shepherds” Photograph [Public Domain] Wikiart