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Seek those things that are above

Andrew Lambirth urges everyone to go to the El Greco exhibition at the National Gallery

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Something extraordinary and rare is happening in London: we have an incomparable El Greco exhibition in our midst. It doesn’t really matter that it’s being staged in the rebarbative dungeon-like rooms of the National Gallery’s Sainsbury wing basement, for even those inconsiderate walls are alive with the strange music of El Greco’s vision. For a few months the dungeon becomes a sacred crypt, filled with the fluttering spirits of El Greco’s agonies, ecstasies and visitations, with a wild chant that cannot be stilled. Against such strong magic we are powerless: along with El Greco’s saints and sinners our gaze drifts inevitably heavenwards.

The artist John Craxton has spent more than 50 years in close study of El Greco, and has lived much in Crete, the island from which El Greco himself hailed. He believes that the artist’s upbringing in Crete was crucial to his development as a painter, that he was very much a Cretan painter, rather than a Greek Byzantine one.

Crete under the Venetians, whose colony it then was, was a culturally liberated land when the young Domenikos Theotokopoulos (1541-1614) began to train as an icon painter. In the first room of the exhibition is a recently discovered icon of ‘The Dormition of the Virgin’, from the Monastery of Ermoupolis on the island of Syros. In muted gold and red it greets the visitor with only a shadowy premonition of what will be El Greco’s mature style, for it conforms to the accepted template for this subject and presents few opportunities for experiment. Together with the much-damaged panel of ‘St Luke Painting the Virgin and Child’, with its dim echoes of an emerging Italian influence, the artist’s early years are adumbrated. But in the same room hangs ‘The Entombment of Christ’, dating to the late 1560s, in which the expressiveness of the faces clearly shows El Greco’s growing powers of characterisation.

In 1568 El Greco travelled to Venice, where he is said to have studied briefly under Titian. Certainly that master’s influence, along with the colour sense and chiaroscuro of Tintoretto, may be increasingly discerned in El Greco’s work. By 1570 he had moved on to Rome, where he spent several years drinking at the fount of classical art, but only absorbing what would be useful to his increasingly defined personal vision. (Interestingly, Michelangelo was a key inspiration.) In 1577 he settled in Toledo, the ecclesiastical capital of Spain, where he was to make a substantial reputation with his religious paintings and portraits. After his death his work was forgotten with shocking rapidity, until rediscovered and reappraised in the 19th century. Today his rough brushwork and radical distortions look surprisingly modern. (I have to keep reminding myself that he was a 16th-century painter, a near-contemporary of Nicholas Hilliard.) We are touched upon the raw by his directness.

In a recent letter John Craxton pointed out that it is El Greco’s ability to dematerialise flesh that sets him apart from his contemporaries — a quality that was inherent in the Byzantine traditions of the artists among whom he was brought up in Crete. This is why his work seems so spiritual — it effectively renounces the physical world. His flickering attenuated figures writhe upwards like candle flames, aspirant in both senses. Look at the gleaming exophthalmic gaze of ‘St Peter in Penitence’ and ‘St Mary Magdalen in Penitence’ hung on either side of ‘Christ Crucified’ in Room 2 of the show. St Peter’s lustrous eyes (the subject became something of a speciality for El Greco) are fixed on the possibility of forgiveness, looking inward rather than at the world about him, and even the dramatically lit sky behind his head cannot distract him.

El Greco’s art is one of action and reaction, of twist and surge and complex dynamics. A typical palette soon emerged, of green golds, opalescent blues, lime-green and whited magenta. He returned to the same subjects again and again, and although it may seem a dry art-historical occupation to compare different versions of the same scene, much can be learnt from this about El Greco’s approach to his art. There are four variants of ‘The Purification of the Temple’ on view, for instance, each with a slightly different emphasis given to the vertiginous swirl of this extraordinary centrifugal composition. Compare the peripheral figures — the man lifting a chest at bottom left in the two later versions, for example. Why does he appear more convincing in the National Gallery’s own version? Is it the play of light across his back and arms, or the stricter definition of a cooler palette? We need to look at El Greco with close attention, and this is a good way of focusing the mind.

Certain paintings stand out. The magisterial portrait of St Jerome in the third gallery, with the brushwork of his robe taking on some of the same quality as that of his beard — a textural kinship which brings a memorable unity to the image. Opposite hangs ‘The Agony in the Garden’, all pupate rock forms and flowing drapes. The hanging is most effective in its juxtapositions: an emphatic installation for an emphatic artist. St Francis and St Dominic lean towards each other in prayer. In Room 4 of the exhibition, the central space is dominated by huge virtuoso canvases such as ‘The Virgin of the Immaculate Conception’ with its poignant background landscape and foreground flowers, and the amazing disjunctions of scale in ‘The Opening of the Fifth Seal’. Here, in a vast outpouring which is both emotional and spiritual, is the concentrated genius of El Greco. Through broken, fluttery brushstrokes, the focus is gathered and dispersed over the whole surface of the picture. Traditional single-point perspective is abandoned, and the entire picture surface is activated through intricate rhythms and echoes.

The fifth and sixth galleries contain their share of wonders, including the magnificent landscape of Toledo and a strange, wild ‘Laocoön’. The last room is filled with portraits of gentlemen in ruffs, a sardonic bespectacled Cardinal and a romantically disdainful Trinitarian friar. Compared with the religious paintings, the portraits are considered and controlled, though painted with a dashingly effective freedom of gesture. The depth of feeling in ‘Portrait of a Man’, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is almost excruciating in its humanity.

Some who have travelled the world and visited its museums are apt to belittle El Greco simply because they have seen too many copies, ‘school of’ or not so good variations on a theme. But this show is different. It is an exceptional privilege to have an El Greco exhibition of such quality in London. Such a thing is a once-in-a-lifetime event. No one, literally no one, should hesitate before being wrapped in the beautiful luminous ambience of his work. It is unique.

El Greco continues at the National Gallery until 23 May.