Doménicos Theotokópoulos, better known simply as El Greco, did more than his share of traveling during his lifetime. Born October 1, 1541 in Crete, El Greco traveled to Rome in 1570 to hone his already formidable skills. Although Michelangelo, Raphael, and other giants of the High Renaissance no longer lived, their influence was inescapable. However, El Greco found himself drawn the school of Mannerism and masters such as Tintoretto and Titian. El Greco soon took the eccentricities of Mannerism beyond acceptable levels for Italy and traveled to Spain in 1577 in search of royal patronage from King Philip II. The good Spanish king longed for a proper Counter-Reformation artist who would place religious substance over personal style. El Greco sadly didn’t fit the bill, but he remained in Toledo for the rest of his days. El Greco’s View of Toledo (above, from 1596-1600) shows the then-vibrant city, the religious capital of Spain in its day, beneath a tormented sky. Arriving during the height of the Spanish Renaissance, after artists such as Alonso Berruguete had already pushed the envelope of what was acceptable stylistically, El Greco should have fit right in, but his unique style, although enjoyed by some contemporaries, remained an enigma for most until the twentieth century, when Expressionism and even Cubism “discovered” El Greco as a long-lost predecessor.
Despite the overarching influence of Michelangelo, or perhaps because of it, El Greco couldn’t stand Michelangelo. El Greco believed Michelangelo to be a good man who just didn’t know how to paint. In 1610, El Greco painted his version of the Laokoön, the classical sculpture unearthed during Michelangelo’s time that some suspect Michelangelo sculpted himself and planted to cause a stir. In El Greco’s version, that classical, Michelangelo-esque story gets the full El Greco treatment. The tight arrangement of the original sculpture comes unravelled in El Greco’s hands. Even the snakes seem stretched across the landscape. So many El Greco works stretch vertically that this horizontal work stands out even more. In the background , El Greco models the doomed city of Troy with the Trojan Horse at its gates on his adopted home of Toledo. Compositionally, El Greco’s version is brilliant—years, if not centuries ahead of its time. Painting at a time when religious works always were the most profitable, El Greco’s choice of a classical subject done in such an un-classical way seems odd, unless he intentionally wanted to cast off the burden of Michelangelo and all he stood for once and for all.
When El Greco died in 1614, The Opening of the Fifth Seal (above, from 1609-1614) remained in his studio, finished or unfinished depending on who you ask. El Greco remained one of those strange offshoots of the tree of art history—a fruitless branch until the twentieth century adopted him almost three centuries later. Paul Cézanne saw traces of what would flower into Cubism in El Greco’s stylized figures and landscapes. Pablo Picasso saw such bizarre figures as the risen souls of The Opening of the Fifth Seal and incorporated El Greco’s vision along with countless other influences into his landmark Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. Much modern appreciation for El Greco comes from the fact that our eyes are now accustomed to his style after more than a century of similar stylistic experimentation. Taken out of context, El Greco doesn’t seem that different from us today. Returned to his context of time and place, El Greco becomes once again as foreign and difficult to understand as his name once was to his Spanish contemporaries.