The Museo del Prado presents El Greco’s Library until June 2014. The exhibition surveys the Spanish Renaissance painter’s work from a fresh perspective. The museum has studied the inventory list of the books that El Greco had in his working library. The exhibit includes about 40 book volumes that are copiously marked with comments by the artist, sketches of architecture and form, a letter to Cardinal Alessandro Farnes, prints and five of his paintings including The Annunciation. The museum’s intention is to recreate the literary and the theoretical origins of El Greco’s work through his books so visitors can recognize the source and basis of his inspiration.
El Greco, born Doménikos Theotokópoulos, was a Greek painter-sculptor whose passionate style expressed the fervidness of Counter-Reformation Spain. The intense melancholy of his paintings is the consequence of their uncharacteristically elongated, tortured figures and use of heavy contrasts of color and light. His subject matter was often religious or even spiritual in style such as his dichotomy of heaven and earth called, The Burial of Count Orgaz, This painting portrayed a “visionary experience, transcending the known and revealing that which exists in the spiritual imagination.”
The nature of his subject matter has brought a kind of mythmaking about his life and art. He has been called a spiritualist of modern art, a diviner, and even “a man whose eyes were distorted by astigmatism,” all false impressions that have blurred over his individualistic but methodical approach.
Following his death in 1614, El Greco’s work fell into obscurity. After its rediscovery in the 19th century, it was still misunderstood. El Greco’s son, Jorge Manuel, compiled two inventories of the painter’s books as proof of possessions that he would bring into his marriage. Centered on these original documents, the show has been set into five sections.
The first section investigates Greek Forefathers and the Classical Heritage. Greek culture was central to El Greco, who was proud of his Crete origins. Visitors will note that he owned classical texts by the historian Appian of Alexandria, the Greek poet, Homer and Greek historian-solider Xenophon of Athens among others, based on the life of Alexander the Great, king of Macedonia. To El Greco, the king was a hero of Greek history and the archetype of artistic benefaction due to his support for the painter, Apelles of Kos.
The second part entitled, Metamorphosis in Italy examines the decisive transformation of El Greco’s painting after his time in Venice and Rome studying under the Italian painter Titian (Tiziano Vecellio), mastering the fundamental aspects of Renaissance painting. It was during this period and after rigorous undergoing of self-education based on his understanding of other artists’ work, his connections with academics and thinkers, and his own interpretation that he adapted the “current” practice and theory of art. At this point El Greco began to view the process of painting as self-directed, well beyond the moralistic depiction of subject matter inspired by history, religion and mythology.
For the exhibit’s central focus, the Prado studies Painting as a Speculative Science. El Greco thought that painting could not only mimic the invisible, but the impossible. He used this line of thought as a method in which to study the “wonders of the real” and to denote “mythological subjects or sacred mysteries.”
Vitruvius and the Terms of Architecture are explored in the largest part of the exhibit. El Greco’s library included copies of Vitruvius’s treatise on architecture, along with copies of the most important published architectural treatises in his time such as works by the 16th century architects, Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola and Sebastiano Serlio’s architectural treatise with more annotations by the artist. This section highlights El Greco’s interest in “the universal nature” of architecture and its effect on the importance of painting. El Greco designed the architectural settings for some of the altarpieces into which his paintings were set, and it is said that he wrote an architectural treatise, as well.
The exhibit closes with a smaller section on The Problem of Religious Imagery, which instead of the genre itself being problematic; the section stresses the fact that while El Greco’s body of work mainly consists of religious paintings, he did not dedicate any of his personal reflections to the subject. He had about 11 books on religion in his library, which shows that they were used to ensure his artwork were “doctrinally correct,” and followed the existing principles of propriety.
Besides reconstructing El Greco’s library, the Prado exhibition encourages visitors to reflect on the traditional interpretation of the painter and his artwork, based on the books that he owned and the annotations he made on his copies. The exhibit, El Greco’s Library reveals the relationship between the artist’s pictorial creations and his books which provide a better understanding of the ideas on the art of painting that underpinned the painter’s creative actions.
By: Dawn Levesque