El Greco at the Frick: The Most Compelling Museum Exhibition in New York This Spring

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The last decade has seen trouble for art in New York museums. Fashionista exhibitions like the Met's Jackie Kennedy show and the Guggenheim's Armani "blockbuster" plump the bottom line at the cost of defrauding the art-loving public. Mediagenic flare-ups such as Yo Mama's Last Supper trade in vacuity and hype for real controversy. Pharaonic architecture like Thomas Krens' Frank Gehry-designed waterfront dwarf the pretensions of even the most grandiose art and artists. So where is an avid museum-lover to go to see first-rate art exhibitions unblemished by catwalks, entertainment values and tycoonish real estate schemes?

"A small museum like the Frick," director Samuel Sachs II writes in the preface to his institution's newest catalog, "does not organize the large exhibitions that have become a hallmark of the museum experience during the past quarter century." Making a virtue of necessity, the Frick Collection has opted instead for small, highly concentrated shows built around seminal works in its own proud collection. Following this gemlike model, the museum inaugurated "Velazquez in New York" two years ago to critical praise. This spring the Frick has put together another such exhibition, "El Greco: Themes and Variations," proving, once again, that great things can indeed come in small packages. Call it the anti-blockbuster.

This latest show is a crowning example of pinpoint curatorial accuracy and expert, comprehensible scholarship: it captures El Greco and his work in a transparent and multilayered nutshell. Bringing together just seven paintings by the Greek-born, Italian-trained Spanish master, the museum pits two of its own holdings, St. Jerome and The Purification of the Temple, against similar masterpieces borrowed from five other national and international collections. The effect of viewing seven El Greco paintings hung in the same room compares only to seeing the many works available in the artist's adoptive hometown of Toledo. The fact that five of the compositions in the show are repeated from two originals on view calls attention to a bizarre, revealing aspect of El Greco's production: the replicas this quarrelsome, irascible artist was forced to paint to earn a living.

Organized by guest curator and distinguished Toledo scholar Jonathan Brown, the seven paintings in "Themes and Variations" span the entirety of El Greco's career, from his arrival in Venice in 1567 to his death in Spain in 1614. They're hung chronologically, left to right, and describe the painter's artistic growth from virtual novice in the evolving tradition of the Renaissance to master of a uniquely dramatic and visionary brand of mannerism. A sort of time-travel trip through El Greco's embrace and later shuttling of Italian naturalism, the paintings summarize the artist's autodidacticism, his artistic struggle and eventual mastery over an initially foreign if compelling idea: the painting of lifelike figures in realistic space.

Born Domenikos Theotokopoulos in Crete, El Greco was trained as an icon painter in a late-medieval style properly known as post-Byzantine. Like Chinese landscape painting, Byzantine icon painting did not vary its accepted representations of godliness for centuries. The tradition young Domenikos learned, highly formalized and largely unconcerned with the imitation of nature, eschewed illusionistic space, natural colors and psychological insight. He arrived in Italy at the for the time rather advanced age of 25, and was forced to start from scratch. Just as centuries later the writer Joseph Conrad would literally learn a new vocabulary in order to write in English, so El Greco had to rapidly assimilate the lessons of the Italian Renaissance to become fluent in the language of naturalism.

"The key piece for understanding El Greco's Venetian period," Jonathan Brown wrote in the 1982 catalog that accompanied a major U.S. El Greco exhibition, "is The Purification of the Temple, in the National Gallery of Art." The linchpin around which the Frick's present exhibition turns, this loaned work, executed on wood in the manner of a Byzantine painting, clearly shows the young artist struggling to teach himself a new style of pictorial representation. Purification, El Greco's first version of Christ ejecting the money changers, is a patchwork of visual tropes learned from studying the Italian style in the work of artists like Titian and Tintoretto. It features an undifferentiated mass of apostles and merchants, an architectural proscenium worthy of M.C. Escher and lots and lots of short, detailed brushstrokes?a technique better suited to the making of icons than to the fluid applications of paint demanded by Renaissance canvases and frescoes.

When compared to the three other versions of The Purification of the Temple hung inside the Frick's oval exhibition room, a clear progression emerges. From this first hesitant rendition of a biblical story made popular during the Counter-reformation (in Catholic countries, it was read as a symbol of the church's purging itself of heresy), El Greco moves through steadily evolving versions of the same picture, first mimicking, then manipulating the major ideas of Renaissance painting?namely, the crafting of well-rounded, contoured figures in action-filled arrangements inside convincing facsimiles of three-dimensional space. As El Greco matured as a painter, the arrangements of The Purification of the Temple matured with him. The painting's composition was sharply cropped to bring the viewer closer to the action; the figures were refashioned in the artist's trademark attenuated manner; the canvas' halting movement flew into an expertly orchestrated ballet; and the picture's setting was transformed from a rationalized, Renaissance arcade to a pious, cathedral-like church interior. Gone was Domenikos Theotokopoulos of Crete, the slavish, ungrammatical student of Italian naturalism. The last version of The Purification of the Temple, finished close to the end of his life, was unequivocally painted by El Greco of Toledo.

But why did El Greco recycle and cannibalize his own paintings? The answer is rather simple. In a time dominated even more than our own by the cult of originality, El Greco found it perennially difficult to obtain and keep wealthy patrons. A late bloomer with a chip on his shoulder the size of a train trestle, El Greco alienated collectors in the artistic capitals of Europe's leading nations. Moving from Venice to Rome in 1570 to perfect his Italianate hand, he quickly offended Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, one of the city's most important art patrons, and was forced to move to Spain for work. El Greco received commissions both from Philip II and the cathedral of Toledo, then Spain's richest diocese. It took him a mere five years to fall out permanently with both of the kingdom's most powerful forces.

Down but not out, the 41-year-old El Greco turned to smaller commissions and a proto-industrial method for producing devotional paintings of modest sizes and prices. El Greco churned out novel interpretations of traditional Christian themes (geared for clients considerably less important than Phillip II and the church) not at all unlike the three versions of St. Jerome now on view at the Frick. They were copied either by himself or an apprentice from small-scale replicas the painter kept on hand in his workshop; prospective clients could choose the scene that was most to their liking on terms friendly to their limited pocketbooks.

Following a Venetian pattern of mass production and an ingrained Byzantine penchant for reproducing familiar imagery, El Greco's studio cranked out enough similar compositions to make it hard for even the all-powerful princes of the American Gilded Age like Henry Clay Frick to tell a copy from the original. Happily for us, Frick, thanks to his army of advisers, succeeded both in acquiring paintings that should have been decreed national treasures (a scandal erupted in Spain after the sale of the St. Jerome and a prohibition was placed on the unauthorized exportation of art works) and discriminating well. On the backs of just two such purchases of works by the brilliant visionary El Greco, Frick's namesake museum has succeeded in presenting what is hands-down the most compelling museum exhibition in New York this spring.

"El Greco: Themes and Variations," through July 29 at the Frick Collection, 1 E. 70th St. (5th Ave.), 288-0700.

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