Sunday, January 18, 2015

Domenikos Theotokopoulos

The Opening of the Fifth Seal
oil on canvas
224.8 × 199.4 cm
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, NY, USA

The Opening of the Fifth Seal (or The Fifth Seal of the Apocalypse or The Vision of Saint John) was painted in the last years of the artist's life for a side-altar of the church of Saint John the Baptist outside the walls of Toledo. Before 1908 this painting was referred to as Profane Love. A prominent El Greco scholar had doubts about the title and suggested the Opening of the Fifth Seal. The Metropolitan Museum, where the painting is kept, comments: "the picture is unfinished and much damaged and abraded."

Domenikos Theotokopoulos (1541-1614) is one of the few old master painters who enjoys widespread popularity. "El Greco" (which means "The Greek") was a nickname, a reference to his national Greek origin. Like Vermeer, Piero della Francesca, and Botticelli, he was rescued from obscurity by an avid group of nineteenth-century collectors, critics, and artists and became one of the select members of the modern pantheon of great painters. For Picasso, as for so many later admirers, El Greco was both the quintessential Spaniard and a proto-modern, a painter of the spirit.

Born Domenikos Theotokopoulos (El Greco) was a Greek artist whose painting and sculpture helped define the Spanish Renaissance and influence various movements to come. He is the most unusual painter in 16th-century Europe. He combined the strict Byzantine style of his homeland, Greece, with influences received during his studies in Venice and the medieval tradition of the country where he worked, Spain.

He was born around 1541 in Crete, which was then part of the Republic of Venice, the center of Post-Byzantine art. In his mid-twenties, somewhere between 1560 and 1565, he traveled to Venice and studied under Titian, who was the most renowned painter of his day. Under Titian, he began mastering the fundamental aspects of Renaissance painting - e.g., perspective, constructing figures, and staging detailed narrative scenes. Then he moved to Rome from Venice, remaining from 1570 to 1576, staying initially in the palace of one of the most influential and wealthy individuals in Rome. In 1572, he joined the painters’ academy and established a studio, but he criticized Michelangelo’s artistic abilities, which likely led to him being ostracized by the Roman art establishments, and he left Rome to Madrid, at age 35.

In Madrid, he tried to secure royal patronage from King Philip II, but to no avail, so he moved on to Toledo, where he lived and worked for the rest of his life, producing his best-known paintings. His works from this period are seen as precursors of both Expressionism and Cubism. He is remembered chiefly for his elongated, tortured figures, often religious in nature, the style of which baffled his contemporaries but helped establish his reputation in the years to come. His later works are marked by exaggerated, and often distorted, figures, stretching beyond the realities of the human body. He did not have followers. He died on April 7, 1614, unappreciated in his time and his art was forgotten for 250 years.

The re-discovery of his painting was a sensation. El Greco’s effect on Picasso’s evolution is just one thread of his influence. The twisting figures and brash, unreal colors that form the very foundation of his art influenced scores of artists, from the cubists following Picasso to the German expressionists to the abstract impressionists after them. His work also inspired those outside the realm of painting, such as writers Rainer Maria Rilke and Nikos Kazantzakis.