It’s been 114 years since El Greco’s “Assumption of the Virgin” landed on Michigan Avenue, so it’s surprising that this is the first exhibition that the Art Institute of Chicago has devoted to the artist. Along with “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte” and “Nighthawks,” it’s one of the highlights of the collection and possibly the greatest Old Master painting in Chicago, if not the entire Midwest. It’s far less strange and visionary than the artist’s later work, but its forceful, traditional faith and gritty realism seem perfectly fit for our pragmatic, often corrupt, broad-shouldered city.
This career-spanning exhibition, arranged in partnership with the Louvre, is an amazing collaboration. It begins with the artist’s early Greek Orthodox icons, on loan from a museum in Athens. It ends with his last completed signature work, the ten-foot-high “Adoration of the Shepherds,” on loan from the Prado. In between are several of his very best pieces from American museums: the expressive portrait of the neurotic Fray Hortensio Félix Paravicino from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the magical “View of Toledo” from the Met and the original version of “St. Martin and the Beggar” from the National Gallery—so much larger and more impressive than the copy in the Art Institute’s permanent collection. Even greater is a piece left unfinished at his death, “The Vision of St. John,” from the Met; the very same piece that young Pablo Picasso saw in the studio of a fellow painter, inspiring him, some believe, to create “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.”
El Greco was something of a hero to the early proponents of Modernism—one of whom, Mary Cassatt, took it upon herself to guide the “Assumption of the Virgin” to an American museum and eventually Chicago. His forms lose none of their inner fire as they mark off recognizable objects in a readable space. That quality has appeared regularly throughout art history, before and since, but it was especially important in the late nineteenth century when it had disappeared from a rigorously mimetic academicism. It appeared so unusual that some scholars suggested that the evident distortions were caused by the artist’s astigmatism.
Yet unlike other exhibitions, this show chose not to emphasize El Greco’s importance to canonical Modernists. Nor does it emphasize the counter reformation, Spanish mysticism or any other grand historical context. It is instead centered on the most documented aspect of the artist’s life: the endless litigation concerning payment for his work. In that time and place, the price of a commission was settled after the work was finished, and this artist hardly ever agreed with his client. So this show is appropriately called “El Greco: Ambition and Defiance.”
Doménikos Theotokópoulos had no inherited wealth, unlike so many innovators of early Modernism: Cezanne, Degas, Manet. Nor was he supported by great kings and princes as Michelangelo and Titian had been. Unsatisfied with the opportunities available to him as a master icon painter in Crete, he went to Venice to teach himself how to paint bodies in space like Tintoretto. Then he went to Rome to look for wealthy patrons like Cardinal Farnese. After some unknown dispute with the cardinal, he sought out the wealthiest monarch of his time in Spain. He was perhaps too unconventional for Phillip II, so he ended up in Toledo, a religious and cultural center where he began his first really great project: a high altar whose prominent central panel was “Assumption of the Virgin.” Remarkably, two other original pieces have joined it for this show, the first time in nearly 200 years.
Much of the other work here is deplorable. As an ambitious and defiant man, El Greco needed cash, so he opened a workshop to crank out up to a dozen copies of each painting. The quality was not high. Multiple versions of several pieces hang side-by-side and though different, both are usually just as bad. They proliferate throughout American art museums, however, so people apparently want to see them. They have the flavor of El Greco’s eccentricity without the power of his spirit.
By the way, you might want to hunt for the two pieces in this exhibition attributed to El Greco’s son, Jorge Manuel, whose mother the great artist never married. With a gentler, more delicate spirit, his life must have been a kind of hell trying to work in his father’s bold, explosive style. The father depicted the son as something of a witless dolt in the same “Adoration of the Shepherds” that had his own self-portrait prominently featured in the center. He appears to have been talented, just not sufficiently ambitious and defiant. (Chris Miller)
“El Greco: Ambition and Defiance” is at the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 South Michigan, through June 21. Although the museum is closed indefinitely, there is an interactive feature of the exhibition at artic.edu.