Grecian lightning

    His highly charged paintings changed the shape of Picasso's work. Yet El Greco has been ignored for centuries. Now, a new exhibition in Britain will finally pay homage to the Greek genius. Report by Waldemar Januszczak

    But my own favourite old-master call sign isn’t tricky, cheeky or rude. It’s just strong. It’s an iron bar of a nickname. Blunt. To the point. I like El Greco. Is there not something gladiatorial about it, something of the warrior? All it means, of course, is ‘the Greek’ in Spanish, and it’s what the people of Toledo called him when he arrived there in 1577, because they couldn’t manage his real name, Domenikos Theotokopoulos – a mouthful in any language but particularly hard for lisping, hissing, monosyllabic Spaniards of Castile, who can’t order a cerveza without sounding like a two-tongued Jonathan Ross. ‘El Greco’ was a way, too, of keeping this uppity foreigner in his place, of insisting upon his base origins while coming up with something that, when shouted loudly, flew straight as a stone from a sling through those narrow, twisting, claustrophobic streets of Toledo – possibly the worst-arranged city I’ve ever hobbled through.

    Gangs of Toledan gnomes must rise at night to sharpen the points of the deadly cobbles lining the impossible inclines out of which the city is chiefly constructed. And when El Greco painted the place – it’s one of the earliest pure landscapes we have, and one of my favourite paintings in the Metropolitan in New York – he captured not just the steepness of the city of rock but also some of its devilish atmosphere, its fraughtness.

    Today, as one soldiers on through this flinty maze in search of the many El Greco masterpieces that have never managed to make it out of here, one also asks oneself why so many purveyors of deadly armaments have now settled on this hilltop? I have never seen as much murderous equipment on display as is on sale to tourists at every street corner of contemporary Toledo. Combat knives the size of cricket bats, mafia-strength knuckle-dusters, metal catapults that could pierce a bank vault, razor-tipped crossbows, maces, spears: Toledo offers them all, in bulk. Being the first to note that there is something of the night about the former capital of Spain showed prescience on El Greco’s part.

    Anyway, he’s coming to London. A big El Greco show is on its way to the National Gallery. We have never had one before. Indeed, for 300 or so years after his death in 1614, nobody anywhere had El Greco shows. He was forgotten, ignored and, I suggest, disapproved of. Because El Greco was an exceptionally weird painter. Among the obvious one-offs in art, nobody is perhaps quite as obviously one-off as him. When El Greco drew a man’s body he seemed to be inflicting pain on it by stretching it out like chewing gum. It was biological madness; proportional chaos. This was not how the great art academies said it should be done. You don’t see stretched-out people on the front of the Parthenon, do you? The Apollo Belvedere isn’t stretched out, or the Venus de Milo. Stretching people, torturing them like sinners, racking them up on tall, thin pictures, yanking them to breaking point as if they had fallen into the clutches of the Spanish Inquisition, seemed primitive.

    El Greco’s people looked as if they had escaped from a hallucination. And the age of reason felt discombobulated by them. So El Greco has never been everyone’s glass of retsina, though he has always, pretty much as far back as I can remember, been mine. When I was still in primary school my mother, God treat her soul gently, took out a subscription for me to a magazine called Knowledge, perhaps the single most helpful thing she ever did for me. Knowledge always used to feature a full-page reproduction of a famous painting. It was here that I gained my first proper consciousness of art. I vividly recall the first three such paintings I cut out and pinned to the wall of my den under the stairs. One was a Van Gogh, another was by the grotesquely sentimental Bernard Buffet, and the third was El Greco’s St Martin and the Beggar: a masterpiece of tortuous, horse-bound religiosity. Martin, a Roman soldier, was out riding when he came across a shivering beggar pleading for help. He took off his cloak, cut it in half, and shared it. In those days, this semi-generosity passed for an act of dramatic selflessness, and that night Christ himself came to Martin in a dream wrapped in the same half-cloak. The morning after that, Martin became a Christian.

    I guess what appealed to me about El Greco’s unforgettably pained envisioning of this scene was the length of everyone’s limbs. Have you ever seen a taller horse, a thinner beggar? These were Biafran distortions, deliberately arranged to elicit pity. There was also that charged feeling that El Greco’s art always has. The pictures look as if they are packed with static electricity: if you touched one you’d get a shock. This inner charge is, I believe, what attracted Picasso to El Greco. Certainly, something hugely powerful did. For it has recently become obvious that El Greco was the most significant and transformative of all the early influences on Picasso. Picasso was one kind of artist before he encountered El Greco; he was another after this encounter. El Greco changed and charged Picasso.

    You may well ask why nobody has mentioned this much before, and how, indeed, El Greco’s critical influence, if it were so obvious, ever managed to be overlooked. You may well ask, while you are at it, why he was forgotten in the first place. How did this pulsing genius manage to remain comprehensively ignored for 300 years? These things happen. People only see what they want to see. Picasso didn’t rediscover El Greco, but he moved in the circles that did. Proud, nationalistic Spaniards at the end of the 19th century encountered El Greco again and realised that this spiky, static stuff they had previously dismissed as needless distortion, or painterly barbarism, wasn’t backward at all. It was incredibly progressive. And as the hold that Renaissance thinking had on European art values slowly lessened, as modernism crept over the parapet of civilisation, preparing to charge, El Greco was suddenly revealed as a fantastic alternative.

    I ask you to look at a typical blue-period Picasso – The Blind Man’s Meal, in the Metropolitan, will do – and to compare it to an El Greco. Any El Greco. Notice a similarity? Unless you too are as blind as Picasso’s soup-sipper, you can’t miss it. The stretched arms. The fearful mood. That confrontational frisson – as if the picture were accusing you of something. Picasso’s blue period is nothing more nor less than the spirit of El Greco adapted to the banal conditions of the early 20th century.

    The man who wrote the first modern appreciation of El Greco was a friend of Picasso’s, and it was he who later recommended that Picasso and his mistress at the time, Fernande Olivier, go away together to Gosol in the Spanish Pyrenees in the summer of 1906. They took the little El Greco handbook with them. And not long after Picasso and Olivier got back to Paris, Picasso began posing Olivier with her arms held above her head in witch-like gestures, her nudity made spiky and angular, and exuding a sense of confrontation, as if she were taking you on from her side of the picture. Taunting you, almost.

    Round the corner from where Picasso was living in Montmartre, a feeble Spanish genre painter called Ignacio Zuloaga, later to become Franco’s favourite artist, had recently acquired a huge new El Greco. It was called The Opening of the Fifth Seal of the Apocalypse. Nobody was sure at the time what it represented, and they still aren’t. But it had at its centre a row of disporting, stricken nudes, who claw at the lightning-lit sky with cosmic desperation, as if wishing to conduct through themselves some of that El Greco electricity we’ve already noticed. Since the painting was round the corner from Picasso, he saw it often. And as Picasso’s biographer John Richardson has now pointed out, Picasso undoubtedly had The Opening of the Fifth Seal in mind while he began painting his own static-charged masterpiece: Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. It’s agreed to be the most important painting in modern art. It changed everything. But hang it next to the El Greco that prompted it and the similarities crowd into view. The square format. The disporting nudes. That charged atmosphere. The cubistic fracturing of the sky. And above all, that sense of confrontation. Picasso called the Demoiselles his ‘exorcism painting’. And when he arranged his five nude Oliviers in that famous man-eating gaggle, and had them taunt us with their distortions and their voodoo, he would have known exactly whose thunder he was stealing.

    Domenikos Theotokopoulos also knew about transformations. He was born in Crete in 1541. At the time, Crete was a Venetian colony, a Greek island with Italian overlords, and Theotokopoulos, the icon painter, would have had cultural pressure on him not to work in the stiff, angular, Byzantine manner Cretan artists had spent a thousand years perfecting. About 15 years ago, I was on holiday in Greece when I chanced upon a newspaper item about a newly discovered El Greco. It had been found in a church on one of the Greek islands. It was the earliest known El Greco picture, painted in the Byzantine manner that he later gave up. All I could remember from this newspaper cutting was that the Greek island on which the El Greco had been found had a name that began and ended with S. So I set off to find it. Skiathos. Skyros. Samos. Salamis. Serifos. Sifnos. Sikinos. By the time I reached Syros, where it was, I had achieved a Greek-island education like no other.

    The El Greco was tiny. It showed the Dormition of the Virgin, with her lying on her deathbed while saint-packed swirls of gold connect her to heaven. Being so golden, the little painting glowed fiercely in the dark, and seemed to be its own light source. Where did El Greco get his static? It was his birthright.

    He left Crete sometime in the 1560s, and is said to have trained under Titian in Venice. Certainly he managed to change himself somehow from a Greek icon painter, working in an eastern tradition that had barely altered in a thousand years, into a surrogate Venetian progressive, El Tintoretto as it were, a flashing brush for hire, dealing only in up-to-the-minute strategies and colour schemes. Later he left for Spain, and died there in 1614, underrated, underemployed and unliked. To this day he remains the only great artist ever to transform himself successfully from an eastern master into a western one.

    So if, when the National Gallery’s El Greco exhibition opens next month, you encounter a burly Pole muscling his way to the front of the queue, grunting, ‘I have to see this. Out of my way!’, that will be me.