The nickname “El Greco” reveals two things about Doménikos Theotokópoulos, the weird and sublime painter of the Counter-Reformation: He was Greek, and he was a stranger. When everybody around you is Greek, nobody is “the Greek.” El Greco’s vision reflected the second part of his identity even more than the first.
El Greco’s work followed the twisting path of his life. He was born in 1541 in Crete and became an icon painter there; then he traveled to Italy, where he learned the luxe Cecil B. DeMille style of the Venetians. He ended up in Toledo by way of Rome, where he developed the feverish, glowing style that would influence modern artists like Picasso and Kokoschka. This year is the 400th anniversary of his death, and Spanish cities have clamored to honor the artist who was rescued from semi-obscurity by Romantic critics and modern artists. Washington is getting in on the excitement with this small but punchy one-room show.
Here are no icons, but the paintings represent several of El Greco’s later styles, showing the increasing individuality and intensity of his approach. A visitor could be forgiven for thinking that this show honors several different painters: one who likes to paint biblical scenes; a mystic influenced by painters like Zurbarán; a modern artist for whom the tortured human body reveals the alienated soul; a dream-scape surrealist in the vein of Magritte. Yet, all of these are El Greco: From this welter of styles a unified religious vision emerges in which tenderness, penitence, and estrangement comprise the human condition.
The earliest work here is Christ Cleansing the Temple (ca. 1570). The wall caption notes that this was a popular subject for Roman Catholic painters during the Counter-Reformation. To Catholic artists, the church bore responsibility for the reaction its ministers’ sins and distortions had provoked, and the artists didn’t shy away from comparing their own church to the money-grubbing, Pharisaical religion confronted by Jesus. El Greco’s version of this scene is derivative and somewhat confused, but hints of his sensibility emerge: that characteristic blue-and-claret color scheme in Christ’s robes, the unearthly glow of the flesh.
Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata is surprisingly restrained. It’s another relatively early piece, from 1585-90, and although it’s a dramatic image, in which the saint is enraptured by his vision of the cross, there’s a quiet solitude to this painting. It doesn’t feel the need to shout. The tones are soft blacks and grays. The stigmata themselves are small: A dark red dot is visible on the big vein on the back of Francis’s left hand, as if an IV needle had been inserted there by a well-trained nurse. El Greco’s painting, in which flesh reveals that the crucifixion underlies all everyday experience, is not tormented. The saint’s expression speaks more of acceptance than agony or ecstasy. The cross itself is sketchy, blurred, in a frame of deep, black, rolling clouds.
El Greco’s saints often have this gentleness to them. His Holy Family with Saint Anne and the Infant John the Baptist (ca. 1595) gives Mary a tender, tilted, heart-shaped face. She gazes down at her son with a wry, off-kilter smile. Anne is intent and maternal; Joseph is watchful. Mary’s arm is around her mother, her blue mantle hiked up on one side, with streaks of light caught in her burgundy dress. This is a family filled with love, but already recognizing that they are under threat.
The other painting which depicts Mary with her family is startlingly different. In The Visitation, the human warmth and individual expressions are hidden. Mary and Elizabeth, with Jesus and John the Baptist unseen in their wombs, stand with their arms on one another’s shoulders, monumental, swathed in blue. They look like characters in a tragedy, or visitors from a dream. The canvas is closed off at the top and sides, as if viewed through a lens, adding to the feeling of a staged tableau. The image is dominated by the women’s light-strewn cloaks, the cousins’ hushed and intimate solidarity, with no hint of their holy children.