Visual treats of 2004

Andrew Lambirth looks forward to this year’s exhibitions — from El Greco to Ken Kiff

Andrew Lambirth looks forward to this year’s exhibitions — from El Greco to Ken Kiff

The chief thrill of this year’s gallery-going has to be the El Greco exhibition at the National Gallery (11 February to 23 May). It will be the first major showing of his work in this country, and for many the first chance to study his visionary paintings in any depth. Domenikos Theotocopulos (1541–1614), who settled in the Spanish city of Toledo in 1577, was known as ‘the Greek’ because he hailed from Crete, whence he introduced a modern version of the Byzantine style to a shocked and admiring audience. Trained as an icon painter before studying Mannerism in Venice and Rome, he forged his own highly individual and luminous style from these components. His elongated figures writhe upwards like flames, flickering with intensely spiritual drama. Many of his paintings look as if they were painted by lightning rather than daylight. The divine Raphael just doesn’t have the same appeal, being over-saccharine to my taste, though I’m sure the National will do the master full justice in their monographic exhibition devoted to him this autumn (20 October to 16 January 2005). However phenomenally skilled Raphael was, it is El Greco who is the more interestingly modern.

The year 2004 promises a bumper crop of exhibitions. At Tate Modern is Constantin Brancusi: The Essence of Things (29 January to 23 May). The Romanian sculptor (1876– 1957) was a founding father of Modernism, pioneering abstraction with his simple yet resonant forms (birds, columns, ovals) and reintroducing the primitive as a driving force in art. Although a deeply sophisticated artist, a naturalness rather at odds with self-conscious Moder- nism clung to him. He didn’t quite fit. At any rate, he has been shamefully neglected: this exhibition will be the first substantial showing of his work in Britain, bringing together some 40 of his sculptures.

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