Last updated: April 28, 2012 12:57 am

Aware of the Greek’s gifts

It took three centuries before El Greco’s subversive strategies infiltrated western art

Towards the late 16th century, Domenikos Theotokopoulos, Greek icon-painter from Crete, sought his fortune in Venice, then Rome, then at Philip II’s court in Madrid. His quirky genius and difficult manners were rejected everywhere, and he wound up in Toledo, then a Spanish backwater. Here, despite falling out with senior clerics, he won acclaim, and lived for decades away from the mainstream, developing an increasingly visionary private universe of distorted, strangely lit pictorial forms.

At his death, the great outsider was working on “Laocoön” – a portrayal of the elderly Trojan priest, his serpentine naked body twisted in pain, his eyes rolling, as he tries to fend off the looping, rearing snake sent by Minerva to kill him for daring to distrust “Greeks bearing gifts”. One of his sons lies dead, a ghostly figure; the other arches back as a second snake spans his body in dynamic circular motion, setting the entire composition whirling. In the background, the wooden horse trots calmly on, set not for ancient Troy but for a heaving, darkening nightmare version of the city of Toledo beneath a sky rent with storm clouds, streaked with white highlights.

If El Greco saw himself as the Trojan horse of European painting, his subversive strategies had to wait three centuries before they truly infiltrated western art – in the deformations of modernism. El Greco had been more or less forgotten by history when Picasso studied “The Opening of the Fifth Seal” while at work on “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907), calling its creator “a cubist in construction”. A year later, a German critic lamented that “the youth have discovered Greco and now, besides this newest god, can tolerate no other”.

This is a story long waiting to be told: El Greco and Modernism, opening on Saturday in Düsseldorf’s magnificent art deco Kunstpalast, is, however, the first exhibition to dramatise, with some 100 canvases, the decisive effect on 20th-century painting of the Greek-Spanish master’s jagged, abstracting compositions, attenuated figures, and radical treatment of colour and light.

“Laocoön”, a rare loan from Washington, has a special place here: exhibited in Munich from 1911-14, its elemental drama provoked young German and Austrian experimenters to produce a crowd of explosive scenarios that now appear to anticipate the catastrophe of the first world war.

In Ludwig Meidner’s “Apocalyptic Landscape”, a seer-like figure, sprawled in the pose of El Greco’s tragic hero, collapses before a surging, ruined midnight-blue cityscape lit by glaring stars. Adriaan Korteweg’s “Laocoön” reworks the narrative in violent pink-grey swirling marks as a near-abstract composition. Oskar Kokoschka’s innocuous-sounding “Still Life with Putto and Rabbit” has the theatricality of a horror film, with grotesquely enlarged, mocking cherubs and a monster rabbit melting into a destabilised nocturnal landscape following the forms of El Greco’s Toledo.

Photo of Egon Schiele's Agony©FT

Egon Schiele's 1912 'Agony (Death Struggle)'

The most innovative modernists, as this show perceptively demonstrates, sought in El Greco mirror images of their own concerns. For Egon Schiele it was emotional expressiveness: the skeletal, pallid, racked bodies in “Agony (Death Struggle)” and “Prophets (Double Self-portraits)” have the elongated forms and agitated, nervous manner of El Greco’s saints, such as “St Francis and Brother Leo Meditating on Death”. For Max Ernst it was the proto-surreal disjunctions of colour and scale: Ernst’s sallow-green, reddish-orange “Crucifixion”, with stretched-out figures and many-towered cityscape, is clearly modelled on El Greco’s “Christ on the Cross”.

For Max Beckmann, such oversized figures compressed into claustrophobic picture spaces opened the way to his own mythic narratives of good and evil. This can be seen most notably here in Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza’s “The Immaculate Conception” and Munich’s “The Disrobing of Christ”, where spiritual significance is implied by enlarging Mary and Jesus, icon-like, out of all proportion to setting and other characters.

In Beckmann’s “Descent from the Cross”, Christ’s corpse – emaciated, gigantic, taller than the cross – dominates the entire picture plane as a descending diagonal. Impossibly long arms extend like wheel-spokes to form a second, ascending diagonal jutting into a red sun – a rare note of colour in the bleak, milky-gray tonality of a wartime composition defiantly playing religious motif against lack of transcendence or redemptive hope.

This is an emphatically German show. Düsseldorf positions El Greco unequivocally as spiritual godfather to the angst-ridden expressionist generation, although a few choice works deftly chart El Greco’s influence on Robert Delaunay and early Picasso. The latter’s “Portrait of an Unknown Painted Like El Greco” (1899) is an impressionistic monochrome depiction exhibited opposite El Greco’s stark but warm, quaveringly lifelike “Antonio de Covarrubias”. And in the Cubist “Woman Resting on Her Elbows (Madonna)” (1909), Picasso’s thrusting planes echo the upward movement, towards dematerialisation, of almost all El Greco’s forms.

Photo of Ludwig Meidner's Three Wailing Figures in the Apocalyptic Landscape©FT

Ludwig Meidner's 'Three Wailing Figures in the Apocalyptic Landscape' (1915)

By no means every example here is a masterpiece and, at times, the show risks heaviness and repetition. What saves it is a brilliant selection of secular pieces illustrating the inventiveness with which German artists reworked El Greco in modern urban contexts.

In August Macke’s “Bright Women in Front of the Hat Shop”, for instance, prismatic fragmentation of colour and form, the tilting axes of the buildings, the swaying red tram, base point of the picture’s diagonal connecting figures and city, all echo El Greco’s formal devices. And the towering, slender woman structured by a simplified pattern of folds, her head framed by a yellow hat as if by a halo, references the pared-down forms of Mary and Elizabeth in El Greco’s “The Visitation”, exhibited alongside.

Heinrich Davringhausen’s angular, harsh “The Madman” adopts the imploring, ecstatic pose of St John in “The Opening of the Fifth Seal”. Albert Bloch’s “Prize Fight” has a classic El Greco vertical structure, with massed top-hatted men surging towards a boxing ring, whose star fighters are illuminated by a triangular spotlight.

It was not coincidence that many of these artists belonged to the Munich-based Blaue Reiter led by the Russian Wassily Kandinsky. “Salvation from the East!” was Kandinsky’s war-cry for a pioneering non-representational art, as he looked back to the flattened planes and ritualised compositions of Russian-byzantine icons. Which was where, in the 1560s, El Greco had begun.

The first painting in this show is El Greco’s tempera and gold icon “Saint Luke Painting the Virgin and Child”. Absorbing lessons from Tintoretto in Venice (as in “The Last Supper” here) and, reluctantly, from Michelangelo in Rome (the muscular “Pietà”) he learnt European perspective and modelling, only to jettison it in part as he developed a more personal language, for a return to Byzantine frontality and stylisation.

That is what makes late works such as “The Opening of the Fifth Seal” and “Laocoön” not only spectacular but, to western eyes a century ago and even now, spectacularly odd – as this mesmerising double show proves.

‘El Greco and Modernism’, Kunstpalast, Düsseldorf, until August 12

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