Revue Picasso and El Greco: kindred spirits separated by centuries

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“The Holy Family with Saint Anne and the Infant Saint John” by El Greco (circa 1600) © Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

A painting shows a strongly stylized group of figures: a man looking at a woman holding a small child

‘Man, Woman and Child’ by Picasso (1906) © Kunstmuseum Basel, Photo: Martin P Bühler, Succession Picasso/2022, ProLitteris, Zurich

Throughout his career, Picasso sought out the Old Masters, struggling with the works of Velázquez, Rembrandt and El Greco in his search for an avant-garde language. “The art of the great painters who lived in other times,” he said in 1923, “is more alive today than it ever was.” Picasso-El Grecoan exhibition at the Kunstmuseum Basel, revisits Picasso’s admiration for the great painters of the Renaissance, in particular his lifelong obsession with one of the most idiosyncratic, through 30 pairs of paintings.

How did this 16th century figure, born Domenikos Theotokopoulos in Crete, become a beacon for Picasso? By the time of Picasso’s birth in 1881, El Greco’s reputation was on the rise after centuries of obscurity. The image of him that had endured until the end of the century was that of a rebel, known to sue his clients for higher pay and to have fallen out of favor with powerful potential patrons (especially Philip II d ‘Spain) because of its unusual reinterpretations of religious scenes. El Greco was then recognized as an expressionist spirit for his quivering, elongated figures and his sacrifice of realism in the name of heightened spirituality.

The exhibit offers a prime example in ‘The Agony in the Garden’ (c1597-1607), where Jesus’ acceptance of his impending crucifixion is illustrated by a dynamic play of color: the vivid purple of Christ’s robe and the almost blinding white figure of the angels blaze triumphantly against a dark, nondescript background, eclipsing from afar the moon, which casts a barely visible glow on the soldiers marching to arrest Christ in the distance. The scene’s anachronistic modernism caused a stir when a replica of the painting was exhibited at the National Gallery in London in 1919, leading critic Roger Fry to observe: “Here is an Old Master who is not not just modern but actually appearing way ahead of us, pulling us back to show us the way.

A Renaissance painting shows the head of a woman with a serene expression, her head covered with a draped cloth

‘The Virgin Mary’ by El Greco (circa 1590) © Strasbourg, Musée des Beaux-Arts

A stylized 20th-century painting shows a woman with exaggeratedly large eyes

‘Bust of a Woman or a Sailor (Study for the Demoiselles d’Avignon)’ by Picasso (1907) © Musée national Picasso, Paris, Succession Picasso/ProLitteris, Zurich

It’s not hard to see why such a non-conformist would capture the imagination of the new wave of innovative and restless artists emerging in Europe. Picasso and his peers perceived a related individuality not only in character but also in the art of the trained icon painter, whose time in Venice, Rome and Toledo resulted in a striking, often disturbing, mixture of styles. Byzantines, Italians and Spaniards.

Picasso’s interest in El Greco was sparked as a young art student in Madrid in the 1890s, where he was drawn during his frequent visits to the Prado by the Greek painter’s portraits. Picasso’s sketches of emaciated faces with dark, angular features reveal his delight in what he called “all those pointy-bearded gentlemen.” But the student was not content to imitate; he declares his identification with the Old Master in a sketch scribbled with the words “Yo El Greco” (“I, El Greco”).

In 1901, tragedy prompted Picasso to turn to this master of emotional drama. The burial scene painted directly after the suicide of his friend Carles Casagemas makes direct reference to El Greco’s “The Burial of the Count of Orgaz” (1586-88), in which the painting is divided into terrestrial and celestial sections ; this image is not in the show, but we see the same technique here in “The Adoration of the Name of Jesus” (c1577-79). Picasso imitates the monochrome cloudy sky of the Greek painter without depth, but instead of a consort of angels, paradise is imagined as a bustling brothel. What is clear is that in El Greco Picasso found a means of free expression.

The exhibition presents Renaissance masterpieces that allow us to see the emotional and formal qualities of Picasso’s work in a new light. His “Man, Woman and Child” (1906) becomes laden with symbolism against the Prado’s “Holy Family with Saint Anne and the Child Saint John” (circa 1600); the young artist depicts himself gazing at his lover, Fernande Olivier, holding a child, his empty expression betraying an ambivalence toward fatherhood that is reminiscent of El Greco’s Joseph, who timidly scrutinizes the towering figures of Saint Anne and the Virgin to look at the infant Jesus.

A Renaissance image shows a woman seated next to a rock wall gazing up in worry at a threatening sky

‘The Penitent Magdalen’ by El Greco (circa 1580-1585) © The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri

A cubist painting shows the suggestion of a female form

‘Seated Nude’ by Picasso (1909-10) © Tate Modern, London, Succession Picasso/2022, ProLitteris, Zurich

El Greco endures as a creative source even as Picasso moved towards abstraction – Picasso is said to have once described him to curator Romuald Dor de la Souchère as “Cubist in construction”. Indeed, the Renaissance painter stood out for his break with conventional perspectives: the collapse of foreground and background in Budapest’s “The Penitent Magdalen” (1576-77), the mantle of the sinner rising abruptly to merge with the steep rock face in the upper right of the painting, bears a strong affinity with the way chair and sitter separate and merge in “Woman Seated in an Armchair” (1910).

This angularity can also be seen in the folds of Saint Bartholomew’s robe in one of the many apostle portraits of El Greco on display. Accentuated by rough brushstrokes of harsh whites and soft blacks – what one of his contemporaries described as “cruel stains” – these find a modernist counterpart in the monochrome palette of 1911’s “Le Poète”, which uses shading to create depth.

Similarly, “The Resurrection”, painted in 1600 for the high altar of the Colegio de la Encarnación in Madrid, precedes the extreme perspective in the narrow “Man with a Mandolin” (1911): Christ ascends to heaven with his legs serenely aligned, contrasting with the chaotic drop of limbs in the lower half of the painting, creating a confusion of depth similar to the angles and circular shapes of Cubist work. The presence of so much religious art opens up a new spiritualism in even Picasso’s most abstract works. Rather than impenetrable and intellectual, his analytical cubism turns into expectant scenes, full of mystery and narrative potential.

A painting shows the mustachioed figure of a musketeer using a variety of styles

Picasso’s ‘The Musketeer’ (1967) pays homage to his artistic heroes © Ludwig Museum — Museum of Contemporary Art, Budapest, Succession Picasso/ProLitteris, Zurich

El Greco continued to inspire Picasso in his late career, which has been much less discussed than his influence on earlier work. Towards the end of the exhibition, we encounter the 1967 painting “The Musketeer”, a caricature figure in Renaissance costume. On the back, the octogenarian wrote “Domenico Theotocopulos van Rijn da Silva”, a mixture of the names of his three artistic heroes (El Greco, Rembrandt, Velázquez). It not only shows how keen the mature artist was to cement his place among them, but also that he never stopped drawing on art history to stay original.

As of September 25, kunstmuseumbasel.ch

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