Friday, October 14, 2016

El Greco the Greek

Last night we attended Professor Marinia Lambraki-Plaka's very interesting lecture, PowerPoint presentation, and film screening, co-sponsored by the Society for the Preservation of the Greek Heritage, at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington, "The Enduring Legacy of El Greco: Monumental Works in Toledo and Escorial." She was introduced, in part in Greek, by Professor Gregory Nagy of Harvard, the Center's charismatic director.

Speaking inside Washington, DC's mini-Acropolis, just across Whitehaven Street from the Washington home of Hillary Clinton, Professor Lambraki-Plaka presented her case that the work of El Greco, seen by many as one of the foremost Spanish artists of all time, reflects his youthful Byzantine origins as an icon-painter in the town of Candia, prior to his migration to Rome and Toledo. Some 402 years after his death, it was time to recognize that El Greco was Greek.

Professor Lambraki-Plaka is director of the Glyptotek in Athens, and a leading scholar of El Greco. She began her talk by showing slides of thousands of Athenians lined up to view two works by El Greco purchased for the National Museum in Athens upon the 400th anniversary of his death in 2014, truly an impressive sight. On one level, her plea to treat El Greco as a Greek was a curious one, mostly because his name translates from Spanish to English directly as, "The Greek." So what exactly is the problem?

According to the professor, the problem is that many do not accept that The Greek was a Greek artist. She argued that El Greco's artistic style, which may appear strange or personal or avant-garde to the uninitiated, can best be explained through an understanding of Eastern iconographic traditions which El Greco brought to Western art. El Greco is a Greek artist, which explains some of his unconventional techniques, for his approach is rooted in Hellenism and Byzantium. His technical choices are an expression of the Greek Way, as Edith Hamilton called it, and his peculiar style a Greek choice by an artist who was a master of artistic technique of all kinds, including the Western portraiture techniques in his portrait of his son, Jorge Manuel (above).

His mastery of so many styles inspired modern artists such as Picasso, who adapted his works as templates for modernist interpretation, for example, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, based upon El Greco's Vision of St. John.

El Greco's own years spent in Rome, as well as a bitter Counter-Reformation dispute over nudity in The Last Judgement with followers of Michaelangelo, may have led to his move to the ancient Spanish capital of Phillip II, where he could paint in his own personal style. Furthermore, according to Professor Lambraki-Plaka, the Greek element is especially signficant because the development of art in Greece itself, birthplace of Western Civilization and humanism rediscovered by the Renaissance, was denied to the Greeks by Ottoman occupation. In order to participate in the flowering of Western Civilization, El Greco needed to migrate to the West, to Rome and then Toledo--but in so doing, he never lost touch with his Byzantine roots, one reason he signed his name in Greek rather than Latin script.

Professor Lambraki-Plaka's remarks did not sound controversial when she made them to the audience at the Hellenic Center, but have been strongly disputed by Professor Cyril Mango, who wrote in The Oxford History of Byzantium: "The most famous Greek painter hailing from Crete, Dominico Theotokopoulos (El Greco), started his career with some rather Italianate icons, but was then completely won over by Mannerism. Despite claims to the contrary, the only Byzantine element of his famous paintings was his signature in Greek lettering." (left)

However, to this writer, admittedly an amateur, Professor Lambarki-Plaka's case sounded reasonably persuasive. First, because she displayed early icons painted by El Greco in the Byzantine style; secondly, because she analyzed the composition of El Greco's later Italian and Spanish paintings in comparison to the Byzantine works; thirdly, because of her Greek enthusiasm--and that of Greeks at the reception following her talk as well as those who lined up in Athens; and finally because of detailed visual analysis and comparison of early works to later ones, such as the Cretan Dormition of the Virgin (pre-1567) (left) and the Spanish Burial of Count Orgaz (1586-88) (right).

In a deft and diplomatic touch, the Hellenic Center reception following Professor Lambraki-Plaka's talk featured Spanish tapas, a culinary nod to the master's adopted country, as a member of the Greek diaspora who not only contributed to the Western canon, but who also indisputably influenced the development of modern art. Thus Picasso's modernism, in some sense, served as commentary on Byzantine icon-painting, just as El Greco's work did, perhaps nowhere more obviously than in Picasso's iconic 1950 Portrait of a Painter after El Greco.