El Greco and the Moderns

El Greco und die Moderne

Düsseldorf, Museum Kunstpalast, from 28 April to 12 August 2012.

The Düsseldorf Museum has achieved the challenging task of assembling about forty paintings by El Greco (and his studio), including The Opening of the Fifth Seal of the Apocalypse (ill. 1), The Laocoon (ill. 2) and a version of The Disrobing, featuring them in a dialogue with the "Modernists" of the 1910’s and 1920’s.

1. Domenico Theotokopoulos,
called El Greco (c. 1541-1614)
The Opening of the Fifth Seal of the Apocalypse, c. 1608–1614
Oil on Canvas - 222.3 x 193 cm
New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo : The Metropolitan Museum of Art

2. Domenico Theotokopoulos,
called El Greco (c. 1541-1614)
The Laocoon, c. 1610–1614
Oil on Canvas - 137.5 x 172.5 cm
Washington, National Gallery of Art
Photo : National Gallery of Art

Visitors should be warned that this is essentially a confrontation with German or Austrian painters and sculptors, around thirty, among which they will find Beckmann, Kokoschka, Schiele, Oppenheimer and other, lesser known names who were not all geniuses...This over-abundance of artists, alas, mars the clarity of the exhibition’s theme to such an extent that one wonders which ones really looked at El Greco, which were presented because their contorted figures offer, accidentally, a reflection of the master’s or those whose presence serves simply to evoke the artistic context of the time. Of the last group, a few non-German painters pop up here and there, such as Cézanne, Picasso, Delaunay, with two or three works scattered throughout the exhibition. For instance, visitors might ask themselves why the small Cézanne canvas, Paul Alexis Reading at Zola’s (ill. 3) was selected for the section devoted to the cycle of the apostles, all superb and monumental (ill. 4).

3. Paul Cézanne (1839-1906)
Paul Alexis Reading at Zola’s, 1869–1870
Oil on Canvas - 52 x 56 cm
Private Collection
Photo : D.R.

4. Domenico Theotokopoulos,
called El Greco (c. 1541-1614)
James the Greater, c. 1610–1614
Oil on Canvas - 97 x 77 cm
Tolède, Museo del Greco, Photo : Museo del Greco

The exhibition is divided into thematic sections, the first being around El Greco’s most important works - the series on Saint Francis, The Disrobing, the cycle of the apostles, The Opening of the Fifth Seal, The Laocoon - then on groups of artists - the Blaue Reiter and the German Expressionists. Each section offers a dialogue between the 20th century and the art of the Spanish painter by distinguishing the master’s canvases, set against dark gray walls and the others, on pale gray.

5. El Greco ?
Crucifixion, c. 1573–1576
Oil on Canvas - 111 x 158 cm
Switzerland, Private Collection
Photo : BBSG

Germany discovered Dominikos Theotokopoulos rather belatedly and he first joined the Dresden museum under the attribution of Bassano : Christ Healing the Blind Man at the Gemäldegalerie was indeed considered to be Venetian until Carl Justi gave the painting to El Greco in 1874. Two works attest to the problems encountered in attribution. Unfortunately, their presentation between two sections, with no further explanations, is sure to discourage uninformed visitors, or those not interested in playing guessing games, from attempting to determine just who painted what. Thus, the majestic portrait of Charles de Guise, Cardinal of Lorraine (Kunsthaus Zurich) was attributed to Tintoretto in the 19th century, then to El Greco in 1978, still contested by some ; a comparison with the Portrait of a Cardinal (Fernando Niño de Guevara) would be most useful. A bit further on, a Crucifixion from a private collection (ill. 5), was long considered to be a study by Tintoretto, again, preparatory for a work produced between 1554 and 1555 for the Scuola del Santissimo Sacramento, today residing at the Galleria dell’Accademia. Filippo Podrocco suggests attributing it to El Greco, but José Alvarez Lopera did not include it in the catalogue raisonné of the artist.

6. View of the Exhibition
Max Oppenheimer (1885-1954)
On the left : Portrait of Egon Schiele, c. 1910
Oil on Canvas - 46 x 44 cm
On the right : Portrait of Franz Blei,1910–1911
Oil on Canvas - 79 x 70 cm
Photo : BBSG

7. View of the Exhibition
Domenico Theotokopoulos,
called El Greco (c. 1541-1614)
Saint Jerome, c. 1600
On the left : Oil on Canvas - 80 x 65 cm
New York, The Hispanic Society of America.
On the Right : Oil on Canvas - 105 x 90 cm
Madrid, Museo de la Real Academia
de Bellas Artes de San Fernando

A series of events led to the resurgence of Dominikos Theotokopoulos in Germany : first, Julius Meier-Graefe published his Spanische Reisen, in 1910, (later appearing in English as The Spanish Journey) considering the master a forerunner to the early 20th century avant-garde just coming to light. Then the collection of the Hungarian, Marczell von Nemes, containing about ten works by the artist, was exhibited at the Munich art museum in 1911 and in Düsseldorf in 1912. The year 1911 also saw the staging of the Blaue Reiter exhibition in Munich, the appearance of an Almanach reproducing El Greco’s Saint John the Baptist across from an Eiffel Tower by Delaunay. Finally, in 1912 in Cologne, at the fourth Sonderbund, several of the artist’s paintings were shown along with works by Cézanne, Picasso and some Germans like Heinrich Nauen and Wilhelm Lehmbruck, whose elongated figures recall those of the Spanish Mannerist.

8. Heinrich Nauen (1880-1940)
Lamentation of Christ Dead, 1913
Tempera, 210 x 320 cm
Krefeld, Kunstmuseum
Photo : Krefeld Kunstmuseum

9. Domenico Theotokopoulos,
called El Greco (c. 1541-1614)
Pietà, c. 1565–1570
Oil on Panel - 28.9 x 20 cm
Philadelphia, Museum of Art
Photo : Museum of Art of Philadelphia

While this emulation at the time explains and justifies the subject of today’s exhibition, the juxtapositon of the works is not always fruitful : we remain skeptical when looking at the presentation of Egon Schiele’s Prophets - Double Self-portrait and the many replicas of Saint Francis by El Greco. We found the comparison of Max Oppenheimer’s portraits (ill. 6) with the tormented hands, and the various versions of Saint Jerome (ill. 7), more convincing.
Even when appearing quite evident, the connections between certain canvases are not always direct. For instance, the Lamentation of Christ Dead by Heinrich Nauen (ill. 8) was not inspired by El Greco’s Pietà which it faces (ill. 9) ; the two artists in fact both looked at Michelangelo’s masterpiece, as did many others. Finally, some visual resemblances result simply from a coincidence : Max Ernst’s Crucifixion (ill. 10) which seemingly influenced by the Christ on the Cross (ill. 11) since it reproduces the motif of the bridge in the background, when in fact it is more indebted to Grünewald than to El Greco and , besides, there is nothing to assure us that Max Ernst was fascinated by the Spanish master...

10. Max Ernst (1891-1976)
Crucifixion, 1913
Oil on Board - 50.5 x 43 cm
Cologne, Museum Ludwig
Photo : Museum Ludwig

11. Domenico Theotokopoulos,
called El Greco (c. 1541-1614)
Christ on the Cross, 1613
Oil on Canvas - 111 x 69 cm
Colección Santander
Photo : Colección Santander

Of course, certain artists such as Beckmann, Edwin, Scharff, Leo von König executed copies after El Greco, and their presentation here provides proof that they drew directly from his work ; but what about the rest ? The exhibition unfortunately does not distinguish clearly between suppositions and certitudes. Nevertheless, it provides us with an opportunity to see El Greco masterpieces brought here from all over the world and also does an excellent job of enhancing his work with series.

Curator : Beat Wismer

Collective work, El Greco und die Moderne, Hatje Cantz, Museum Kunstpalast, 2012, 416p., 49.80€. ISBN : 978-3-7757-3326-7.

Visitor information : Museum Kunstpalast, Ehrenhof 4-5, 40479 Düsseldorf. Open every day except Monday, from 11 am to 6 pm, Thursdays until 9 pm. Admission : 12€, 14€.

Version française

Bénédicte Bonnet Saint-Georges, mardi 12 juin 2012

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