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El Greco Walked the Streets of New York

ART TIMES December, 2003

O, for a life of sensations, rather than of thoughts
—John Keats

The 7th of October, the Metropolitan Museum of New York opened the exhibition of El Greco. We know that El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos) lived in Venice, Rome, Madrid and Toledo during the 16th and 17th centuries.

We also know the influences from Byzantium, Titian, Tintoretto and Michelangelo, his elongated figures, his portraits full of genius, his pictures’ mystical atmosphere, his surreal colours that make his style.

Critics describe El Greco as the first modern artist. According to Michael Kimmelman (The New York Times, Friday, October 3, 2003), El Greco is "a proto-modernist anachronism who miraculously anticipated Romanticism, Symbolism, Expressionism and the whole ethos of the wild and crazy, go-it-alone artist".

El Greco is alive in any time and any place. In truth, El Greco walked the streets of New York… New York exhales poetry!

The celestial height of New York’s skyscrapers seems to change the space of the city’s rectilinear streets into spirit. But a feeling of horror vacui asphyxiates the vacuum. The sky disappears, and a multitude of skyscrapers bursts into its immensity. Vertical skyscrapers challenge the limpid blue.

One walks the streets of New York and one constantly looks upwards. The skyscrapers attract our attention and emphasise our insignificance. The distance between us and the skyscrapers’ tops reduces our figures.

In New York, the sky seems higher than in other cities. One tries to look at the sky, and one sees only an infinite succession of straight lines — made of glass and cement — that push the sky above. The skyscrapers veil the sky; and the light darkens as if thousands of large storm clouds had raped the sky (one feels chained by the space). We seek the pure blue, the vacuum or the sky, but the skyscrapers’ endless straightness fills it.

If we are reduced we are also, paradoxically, elongated by an anxious and supplicant look toward the sky in search of light and an answer. We never lose hope, though we feel restless, and question life’s meaning. We reflect the religious, the spiritual and the mystical atmosphere of El Greco’s work.

In analyzing El Greco’s paintings, we realize they evoke the feeling of walking the streets of New York. Many of El Greco’s paintings show a lugubrious light: Stormy and ghostly clouds writhe in pain, invade El Greco’s skies, becoming corporeal and put on mourning (They remind me of those beautiful verses by Poe: "And the cloud that took the form / (When the rest of Heaven was blue) / Of a demon in my view"). Such black and deformed clouds blind the limpid vision of the sky

A number of El Greco’s figures rhyme with his paintings’ tenebrous atmosphere. They gaze at a sky we don’t see, though there is a real sky (gloomy and mysterious) in the picture. But they don’t take notice. They just seek an imagined sky we only sense in their supplicant looks. We seek the absolute, which for El Greco is divine knowledge. His figures look for God (the pure sky, the light, the blue) because they live in an abysm of darkness and absurdity (we lose the vision of the divine guidance and sense ourselves mortal). God is Light and Reason. God will liberate us from the leaden and ashen sky (as an abstract painting of human sentiments of fear and anxiety give anguish). This anguish resembles whatGarcía Lorca called "la angustia imperfecta de Nueva York, (the imperfect anguish of New York)". It is deformed and amorphous and darkens the soul as it obscures space.

New York’s skyscrapers reduce our vision of the sky. The light becomes grey. Space becomes a corpus altus (the skyscrapers). Our look starts to fight the skyscrapers’ height. In New York, the sky is higher than in other cities! We try to achieve the same spiritual objective as El Greco’s figures: the absolute, the blue sky, the freedom of our eternal look.

In El Greco’s "Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata" (c1577), Saint Francis seems to gaze at Christ on the cross. But the Saint’s eyes really gaze above Christ’s figure. Saint Francis is seeking peace and light beyond the wounded and suffering sky that symbolizes Christ’s pain.

In New York, we also seek the pure sky above the skyscrapers. They turn space into matter. We miss the sky that liberates us from our material imprisonment. In El Greco’s paintings, reality is a cloudy space that obscures the light, the sky, God. El Greco’s figures seek the sky that liberates them from reality.

El Greco is for any time and any place. Centuries ago, El Greco walked the streets of New York.

(Jésus Villalta Lora, a Visiting Fellow at Harvard University, is a PhD Candidate at Complutense University in Madrid and specializes on the relationships between Arabic and Spanish poetry of the ‘20s.)

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