Some art talk: I couldn’t find the Spaniards last time I went to the Met, but after a visit yesterday to the Pierre Bonnard exhibit (see it, it’s worth the hype), I walked around and bumped into my boys–Goya, Zurburan, Velazquez, El Greco. Good heavens, how have you been? And, my, how you’ve grown!
There aren’t many, but El Greco’s Toledo landscape alone is almost enough. It’s like looking through a pinhole camera with all that distortion, those cathedrals and low-slung homes either blurred or crystalline clear. A somniferous illusion, yet so awake, so alive! I still remembering seeing my first El Greco with my mom; I remember still all that verticality, those velvety purples, fuschias, shamrock greens. And, of course, that perpetual imbalance, as if van Gogh, Bonnard, and Munch all caught vertigo from him.
Jed Perl, The New Republic’s art critic, makes the point in the current issue that painters often strive for the exalted, the intense transcendent emotion we usually associate with religious feeling.
Lionell Trilling, Perl’s intellectual forebearer, made a similar observation: could it be that at the core of religion is just that peculiar human feeling we call transcendence? (Collected in the Trilling re-issue by the New York Review of Books). It’s a profound human emotion, religious feeling, but is all the stuff we build around it, what we call organized religion, just edifice: the buildings, the diets, the books, the whole thing about God?
Back to El Greco, who, anyway, was a very pious man. You feel that religious intensity in the secular Toledo landscape just as you do in his religious scenes.
El Greco’s “View of Toledo,” 1600
Just look at his Toledo a little longer: the inky blue sky pierced by a blinding yellow-white light; that then ringed by foreboding grey clouds. There’s even an omnipotence in the artist’s perspective, with those tiny wisps of people barely brushed in, toiling on a much more vast, verdant green ground. I wanted to sing my praise, Praised be he!
But, alas, who’s he? Greco or God?, Capital “H” or not?
Also, it was nice to see more clearly the El Greco – Picasso connection. The Met’s got El Greco’s “Opening of the Fifth Seal” (MOMA has Pablo’s “Demoisselles”). The placard for the Met’s “Seal” notes that Picasso studied it for a long time before starting “Demoiselles,” and immediately it’s apparent.
You can see right away the parallel with El Greco’s three white women, proto-Cubist in pose. That is, they’re shown in completely unrelated perspectives. If you look at Picasso’s “Demoiselles”, the riffing is uncanny. Pablo’s girls might as will be El Greco’s daughters, striking their masked pose.
And isn’t there some beauty in this: masters conversing over centuries; history as its own kind of muse. Just another pleasure of a visit to the Met.