Art History-El Greco

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Analyse why El Greco’s work had such an impact on Spanish artists at the turn of the twentieth century.

At the heart of painting in Spain in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was a search for self-identity in a time of crisis and change. It was a time of civil disturbances and the loss of the country’s last colonies. In Barcelona social structures were severely taxed by the rapid industrialization of the region and its subsequent explosive population growth. Matters culminated in the unstable atmosphere generated by waves of political terrorism in the Catalan Capital in the 1890s. Escalating anarchist activity and recurrent cycles of labor unrest and harsh official retribution generated a destabilizing uncertainty in the community.[1] This atmosphere gave raise to an intellectual movement during which Catalan writers, artists and intellectuals developed a mode of thinking and writing that questioned inherited values in the areas of religion, politics and aesthetics. This movement is known as Modernisme, a term that first appeared in 1884 in a manifesto accompanying the publication of the Barcelona magazine L’Avenc.[2] The concern for the question of national identity is reflected in the regionalist painting of traditional Spanish themes like bullfights, beautiful women or majas, as for example Mariano Fortuny’s The Bullfighter’s Salute and Ignacio Zuloaga Woman with a Fan, though paradoxically these same themes were developed within the context of a decidedly modern language. In The Bullfighter’s Salute, clear lines dissolve to give way to dynamic brushstrokes adding

to the drama and immediacy of the scene and in Woman with a Fan the woman is not so much a object to be looked at, as was the case with previous depictions of women, but she confronts us with a direct and flirtatious gaze. Ramon Casas advocated powerful immediate emotion over pedantic reconstruction of an idealized national past-painting that reflected the realities, complications, and uncertainties of the contemporary world. Nuances and instability displace strong paint strokes and definitive forms in his painting Garrote Vil and Salvador Rusinol dreamt of the abolition of the line and complete fusion of background and foreground subject and landscape. [3] In Zuloaga’s portrait of Saties the top hat and ornamental ribbon, typical for this time, are gone. Instead the composer seems a living bust in left quarter-profile, emerging from the gloomy surroundings with only the forehead and right half of the face illuminated. This picture is reminiscent of the mysticism of El Greco, an artist who was idolized by Zuloaga and admired by the other artists of his time. For them El Greco embodied the ideals of Modernisme because he was different.

El Greco was different because he was highly individualistic. He ignored the classical rules of balance, proportion and harmonious colors. He treated light and space irrationally and placed forms on the canvas according to the picture's internal pictorial logic. In St Martin and the Beggar, for example, it is as though, in order to compress his story into too narrow a space, El Greco collaged the flattened figures on to the canvas without reference to the laws of proportion or perspective. As Roger Fry observes, El Greco was a pure artist as he expressed his idea with complete indifference to what effect the right expression might have on the public. Fry writes: “At no point is there the slightest compromise with the work, the only issue for him is between him and his idea. Nowhere is a violent form softened, nowhere is the expressive quality of brushwork blurred in order to give verisimilitude of texture, no harshness of accent is shirked, no crudity of color opposition avoided, wherever El Greco felt such things to be necessary to the realization of his idea. It shows us the master at the height of his powers, at last perfectly aware of his personal conception and daring to give it the most complete, most...
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