Domenikos Theotokopoulos (1541-1614), known as El Greco, was a man out of time. He learned to paint Byzantine icons in his home on Crete, studied with Titian and others in Italy, and made a successful art career for himself in Spain. His name reflects this cosmopolitanism. He is known as El Greco– “the Greek”– but the “el” is Spanish for “the” and the word “Greco” is Italian for “Greek.”
One of the exciting visual characteristics about El Greco is his penchant for tangents. In visual art, tangents are different than they are in conversation where tangents distract from the core of the discussion. Visual tangents are actually more aligned to the mathematical definition where objects just touch, “a straight line or plane that touches a curve or curved surface at a point.”
In art, what happens with tangents is that the eye works really hard at trying to figure out what is in front and what is behind and usually results in a bizarre and vibrating flattening of space. This kind of visual tension is very apparent in modern works of art, and was particularly exploited by Cezanne. But El Greco, over 400 years ago, was exploring this phenomena before anyone had the vocabulary or awareness to name it. And of course for some 300 years after his death, he was totally forgotten until a few impressionists “rediscovered” his work.
The above painting of El Greco’s, in the Toledo Museum of Art, is his Agony in the Garden. Note the many tangents in this painting: the wing of the angel to the edge of the painting, the goblet the angel is carrying to both his arm and robe, the angel’s thumb to the cloud fold, the edge of the angel’s robe to the circular cloud formation around the sleeping apostles, the alignment of the cloud to the highlight of the hill behind Christ, the finger of Christ’s right hand just touching the edge of the circular formation around said sleeping apostles, the cloud obscuring the moon just touching the inside edge of a cloud bank, Christ’s robe just touching the foreground rock, a spear of one of the Romans in the mid-ground just touching the edge of a background hill…have you had enough? (There’s actually more.)
The point to all of this is that the tangents electrify this image which seems to rush at you, reach out for you. This was magic to me when I was growing up. I spent a great deal of time in this Museum when I was a child. Every Saturday, for years, I took art classes and music appreciation classes all day and just generally hung out there until late in the afternoon. (The Toledo Museum of Art was one of the earliest institutions to create art programming for children in the 60s. A Mrs. Bippus, I believe, was the person whose vision organized this early experiment.) And I often hung out in front of this painting. I was mesmerized by it, wondering how it could convey the energy that it did, why it held me so.
There is much more to say about the power of El Greco’s work (his palette, his asymmetry, his expressionism and distortion, his brushwork), but I will save that for a future post. It is this tension of tangents, afterall, which is one of the ways that truly make his work so animated and contemporary. It is this mysterious simultaneous oscillating of planes of space, pulsating backward and forward, that is transfixing.