At the end of the 1800s artists and art historians alike start to rediscover the Greek painter Domenikos Theotokopoulos (1541-1614), known as El Greco, and his characteristic rapturous and expressive style of painting, which they see as relating directly to modern art of the period.
What is described as his ‘pathologically’ distorted style inspires modern artists in their quest for new expressive forms. The works of artists such as Pablo Picasso and the Der Blaue Reiter group can be seen to reveal a keen interest in the formal aspects of El Greco’s distorted perspectives, exaggerated effects, deformed anatomy, phosphorescent luminosity, and conscious use of dissonant colours. The powerful emotions and gestures in El Greco’s work are also studied and reinterpreted by artists.
From around 1910 El Greco starts to be seriously ‘hyped’ as a prophet of modern art, and his paintings are juxtaposed with contemporary works in exhibitions and art journals. This positioning of El Greco as a prophet and cult figure is based on the study of his art, but also on the story of his life, including 300 years of rejection and obscurity that make him an outsider idol for young artists. From this perspective, El Greco represents a personal and idiosyncratic link to the past that bypasses the academic norm.
In a Nordic context the rediscovery El Greco begins as early as the late 1880s. In 1888 the artist Johan Rohde is the first in Denmark to write about works by the artist he had seen at Museo del Prado in Madrid, and it is through Rohde that J. F. Willumsen learns of El Greco. Willumsen goes to Madrid and Toledo to hunt down works by the artist, after which he describes his relationship to El Greco as “an obsession”. When Edvard Munch makes contact with Johan Rohde – in 1888 at the latest – he too must have been exposed to the early euphoria surrounding El Greco.
J. F. Willumsen’s passion for El Greco is well documented and leads, for example, to his purchase of numerous paintings he wrongly attributes to El Greco as well as one painting that today is acknowledged as a correct attribution (in the collection of Willumsen’s Museum). Willumsen also writes a two-volume work in French on El Greco’s youth that is published. The book is full of inaccuracies, yet pioneering in its use of ethnographical material, investigation into El Greco’s early life, and examination of El Greco’s technique and method. Willumsen charts the development of the artist’s hybrid style by allowing forms of artistic expression and art traditions to migrate geographically. It is in particular this cross-cultural pollination and the hybrid, maladjusted style of El Greco that is the subject of renewed interest today.
EL GRECO AND NORDIC ARTISTS
Willumsen is, however, far from the only Nordic artist to be fascinated by El Greco and rewrite art history with a focus on his importance and originality. Other artists also seek out paintings by El Greco in Madrid and Toledo, see them in exhibitions in Germany, or study reproductions of his works. There are direct and indirect connections between El Greco and Nordic artists such as Johannes Bjerg, Franciska Clausen, Nils Dardel, Paul Gadegaard, Harald Giersing, Frøydis Haavardsholm, Olivia Holm-Møller, Georg Jacobsen, Jens Adolf Jerichau, Gerda Knudsen, Per Krohg, Karl Larsen, Vilhelm Lundstrøm, Hugo Lous Mohr, Edvard Munch, Kai Nielsen, Vera Nilsson, Olof Sager-Nelson, Helene Schjerfbeck, Niels Larsen Stevns, Henrik Sørensen, and Anne Marie Telmányi. Precisely how these artists use and incorporate the inspiration offered by El Greco is an intended focus of the project’s archival research and image analysis.
The exhibition will be accompanied by a book published by Hatje Cantz in Danish and English March 2023.