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Museum of Fine Arts – El Greco

El Greco

28 October 2022 – 19 February 2023

Museum of Fine Arts

The first comprehensive exhibition of El Greco’s oeuvre ever organised in Budapest can be viewed at the Museum of Fine Arts from 28 October. The exhibition seeks to provide a broad overview of the life’s work of one of the foremost masters of European art, Domenikos Theotokopoulos, most widely known as El Greco (1541–1614), through presenting the complexity of his visual world and sweeping stylistic development. The almost seventy displayed works include more than fifty autograph paintings by the Cretan-Spanish master.

The Museum of Fine Arts houses one of the most important collections of Spanish painting in Europe, with the highest number of autograph paintings by El Greco on the continent, second only to Spain. Besides pieces from the museum’s own collection, the displayed works were loaned by more than forty private and public collections, including the Museo Nacional del Prado and the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid, the Museo del Greco in Toledo, the Musée du Louvre in Paris, the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and The National Gallery in London. The large-scale exhibition will show numerous outstanding works, such as Saint Sebastian from the Sacristy of the Cathedral in Palencia, The Baptism of Christ from the Prado in Madrid, Laocoön from the National Gallery of Art, Washington, Saint Louis, King of France, with a Page from the Louvre in Paris, Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple from The National Gallery in London, and Saint James the Elder as Pilgrim from the Church of San Nicolás de Bari in the jurisdiction of the Archdiocese of Toledo, as well as the altarpiece titled The Resurrection, loaned by the Monastery of Santo Domingo el Antiguo in Toledo, that leaves the city for the very first time. El Greco’s Portrait of Saint Aloysius Gonzaga is shown for the first time at the exhibition. The painting was purchased by MOL – New Europe Foundation for the museum.

 The exhibition guides visitors through the geographical locations and art centres that El Greco travelled to, with a special focus on the Italian cities of Venice and Rome, which had a decisive influence on his development as a painter, all the way to Toledo, where the master spent more than half of his life and where his art came into its fullest expression. The show, open until mid-February, presents the works in seven thematically and chronologically arranged sections. Historical narratives, explanations, captions, and audiovisual tools help visitors to form an in-depth picture of the unique oeuvre of the Cretan-Spanish master. The fifty autograph masterpieces of the exhibition – including several emblematic compositions that enjoyed great popularity already in El Greco’s lifetime – showcase the master’s oeuvre and his unparalleled stylistic development starting from his early, small panel pictures painted in Italy, still strongly inspired by the Byzantine traditions of icon painting, through his large-format altarpieces executed in Spain, his religious depictions intended for private devotion, and his secular portraits, all the way to the visionary pieces of his last period. Besides a comprehensive presentation of El Greco’s oeuvre, the large-scale exhibition evokes the environments in which the master lived, studied, and worked in an attempt to provide the context for how he drew on and built into his own works the various influences, such as the teachings of several masters active at the time in Venice and Rome. The displayed material also includes works with certain attributions by two of El Greco’s pupils: Luis Tristán, and the master’s son, Jorge Manuel Theotokopouli.

El Greco grew up and was trained in the vibrant artistic milieu of Crete. Several painting workshops, mainly specialised in portable icons, were active on the island in the mid-sixteenth century. The artistic expression and symbolism of the depictions were linked to the traditions of Byzantine tradition, with the influence of the new formal language and compositional methods of western art, mostly those of the Italian Renaissance, also being discernible. During this early  period, El Greco had a keen interest in the colour and material properties of paints. He worked with tempera on small panels, in which he combined local traditions with the inspiration he drew from the painting techniques of Venetian masters. During his stay in Italy he became increasingly familiar with western, primarily Venetian art. The three years he spent in the city proved to be a defining time of learning for him, even though he pursued extended and significant studies in other parts of Italy too, mainly in Rome. Besides the skill of oil-on-canvas painting, he also mastered other fundamental aspects of western art, such as working with colours, the composition of scenes, as well as a thorough knowledge of the concepts of landscape and spatial representation. Later in Spain, El Greco had the opportunity to explore the full creative genius and tools characteristic of a mature painter. His first, ambitious commissions in Toledo attest to the extraordinary skills that he had acquired in the execution of large-scale works with complicated composition, confirming that El Greco had managed to develop the modes of expression inherent in oil painting to a mastery on large canvases, with his works bearing the hallmarks of an original and unrivalled painter distinguished by an unmistakable visual language.

By the early 1580s, El Greco indisputably had become a leading figure of the religious art scene in Toledo. From settling in the city until his death in 1614, he probably ran a smallish workshop, which produced retablos (structured altarpieces), as well as pictures with religious themes. El Greco painted the most impactful subjects of the Castilian religious spirit of the period: numerous copies and replicas were made in his workshop of scenes featuring the Holy Family, Christ Bearing the Cross, Christ on the Mount of Olives, the Annunciation, and Christ on the Cross. Other frequently produced paintings included depictions of saints in prayer or ecstatic visions in half-length positions and close to the viewer: the highly expressive nature of these pieces strongly anticipated the aesthetics of Spanish baroque. El Greco was aware of the positive reception of these works and in all likelihood, following the example of the great Italian masters (Raphael, Titian, and Michelangelo), he tried to promote his art and fame by producing copper engravings. This form of self-marketing undoubtedly contributed to the success of the master’s most popular compositions. El Greco also introduced a new genre to Toledo: the profane portrait, which emerged in Spain around the king and in the royal court. Adapting the tools of Venetian portraiture to Spanish taste and needs, he created portrait types distinguished by intensity and lively expression, which elevated him among the foremost Renaissance portraitists. The Budapest exhibition ends with a selection focusing on El Greco’s last creative period, when he increasingly relied on collaboration with his workshop. Standing as proof of his endless search for new ways of expression, some of his most innovative pieces also date from this period. In his late works, space and figures meld into riveting plays of form, thus anticipating the expressive features of modern art by centuries.

Since only four drawings have survived from El Greco’s oeuvre, it is extraordinary that two of them, Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist, are displayed at the Budapest show.

The curator of the exhibition, Dr Leticia Ruiz Gómez, is the director of the Patrimonio Nacional Royal Collections of Spain, who is currently working on the catalogue raisonné of El Greco’s works.

 

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