When asked what he thought of Michelangelo, El Greco remarked indignantly and controversially, “He was a good man, but he did not know how to paint.”
El Greco is the illegitimate child of the Renaissance. At the time, his work was considered scandalous among Italy’s elite. He was a deviant—an outcast, even. But today, El Greco’s works are heralded as brilliant with a style both avant-garde and uncharacteristically modern for a Renaissance artist.
Last year marked the 400th Anniversary of El Greco’s death. To celebrate his life and works, the National Gallery of Art has brought together seven paintings by El Greco (1541-1614) in their current West Gallery exhibition.
One of the largest collections of his works in the U.S., this exhibition brings together four paintings recently returned from Spain (Christ Cleansing the Temple, two altarpieces from a chapel in Toledo, and the Laocoön), and three additional works from Dumbarton Oaks, the Phillips Collection, and the Walters Art Museum, in Baltimore, Md.
The drama in El Greco’s work is evident upon first glance. The unconventionality of the El Greco style is striking; it is clear that his works were the Renaissance precursor to expressionism and cubism, though the art itself blends Byzantine, Renaissance, and mannerist styles into fierce visions.
The works are quite unsettling, but the discomfort they ensue is easily overcome by the underlying beauty of the paintings.
As I walked through the high ceilinged exhibit, I noticed a level of darkness in the religious figures present in El Greco’s work.
Unlike the works of other Renaissance greats, El Greco’s pieces do not always display an idyllic and serene interpretation of biblical occurrences.
Rather, his works are acknowledged as sublime and anomalous for a multitude of reasons: its striking colors, sophisticated simplicity, and serpentine figures.
His works are simply grotesque.
Take for instance the painting “Madonna and Child with Saint Martina and Saint Agnes.” It is certainly one of the more nondescript works in the collection, containing the eponymous Madonna and Child in typical Renaissance fashion. But here, the visage of Madonna and Child is menacing and watchful, like nothing else from the era.
All seven works in the exhibit carry a unique emotional context, from providing artistic narration to less common biblical scenes as in “The Visitation,” a canvas that depicts the meeting between the Virgin Mary and her cousin Elizabeth, both pregnant at the time, to a depiction of the mythological legend from Virgil’s “Aneid.”
Of course, each of El Greco’s works in this exhibit are remarkable as magnificent, stand alone compositions. But having the works together makes them all the more powerful. Each one of the seven paintings is provided the unique oppurtunity to play off of the rest of the works in a way that does their creator proud.
And at the very least, the exhibit does what might be considered impossible—it proves Michelangelo wrong.
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