Sunday, July 1, 2012
El Greco by Robert Byron
That the function of art is to translate the philosophical emotions evoked in the artist by the inner significance of material objects into visible and ultimately intelligible form, and that emotions are best expressed in the unfamiliar transformation of familiar objects, is an axiom that has not always been recognized, though a clear affinity exists in this respect between art and architecture of ancient Byzantium and that of the early twentieth century.
Against the ponderous complacence of classicism, the stationed symmetry, the reasoned representation; against the whole implied negation of the beyond and the before, there arises in the two parallel ages a quest for movement and emotional expression which bursts the confinement of capital and cornice, and spurns the suave contours of rotund boys and bolstered urns. This vigor derives in the one case from Christianity, in the other from science, each the new force of its time, carrying Reason to the service of the irrational. Form and technique, moreover, both the Byzantine and the modern have sought, not locally, but universally, not from set canons of proportion and preconceived ideas of grace, but from a whole multitude of methods of artistic expression with which the scope of their influence has brought them in contact.
The surviving examples of late Byzantine painting have been divided into two categories, the Macedonian and the Cretan schools. The distinction is at first obscure. The mosaics of the Kahrie stand outside both: not only as mosaics, rare in an era of material decline, but in the felicity, almost facility, of their compositions, and the pervading peace and simplicity of their figures. Next in order of time, as far as dates can be surmised, come the paintings of the Brontocheion and the Peribleptos at Mistra; in these churches the true Byzantine method of coloration by contrast, with which the Cretan school was later to be particularly identified, appears to combine with the quiescent dignity of Macedonian forms. Only the frescoes of the Pantanassa, painted immediately before the fall of Constantinople in the first half of the fifteenth century, does the Cretan character predominate, in the unique beauty of the coloring.
On Mount Athos, the difference between the two schools becomes easily perceptible; there, the Macedonian, arriving at the beginning of the fourteenth century, preceded the Cretan by two centuries, employing a separate iconography and a more Westerly technique of color. Its frescoes exhale an atmosphere of piety and quietude, and a sobriety of light, which , if tending sometimes to weakness, bespeak the dignity of spiritual repose, of unshakeable faith in a hidden world amid the mounting catastrophes of this.
From these 'Macedonian' ideals, the fully flowered Cretan method of expression was far removed. There are strange qualities about this Antarctic of the Greek world. We have cause to recall the seven hundred years of perpetual revolt that comprised the island's latter history. And such, indeed, is the text of its art. A warring of forces, of souls in cataclysm, is born into the conflict of its lines and colors. All that distinguishes Byzantine art from that of the West is riven from its hieratic quiet to form a staccato world of acrid shadow and livid prominence, agog with angry, inner light or swathed in silken tulle of ethereal brilliance.
Something possessed these artists, some spirit wrestling with their figures, that we have not. And of their line was born, eighty-eight years after the fall of Constantinople, Domenicos Theotocoulos, commonly known as El Greco. Cretan in birth and personality, he has furnished the apotheosis, the full flowering, the epilogue and climax to Byzantine culture.
When, in the last half of the sixteenth century, El Greco came to Italy, the Renaissance, that exquisite short song of Gothic spirit in the voice of humanism, had died away. Only the band played on, a ponderous empty symphony in which the heralds of baroque were piping unsubstantial notes. Of its form the Greek borrowed such measure of naturalism as was necessary to conquer naturalism. With this attained, he loosed from its iconographic prison the achievement of a millennium. Settling, at Toledo, amid barren rippling hills like Crete’s, and a semi-oriental culture reminiscent of his own, he gave to the art of his ancestors not a naturalism conventional as their own formality, but freedom, absolute, and vindicated by a consummate ability.
Alone he did it, and alone he lived, vouchsafing no explanations, but speaking sometimes, to such as understood his native tongue, of the infallibility of his race. He was the greatest Greek; perhaps, for those who have seen the St. Maurice, the greatest artist in all the world. Yet Greeks today, puffed of their earthly speculators, scarcely know him. Meanwhile European art pursued another road; and when he died, only his color remained for Velasquez to dilute.
A dubious posterity has thought to discern an astigmatism in his eye. Let it grieve, also, for that same astigmatism, which, for thirty generations, afflicted the artists of Byzantium: the astigmatism of fixation on Reality. Are not we, too, after four centuries, again infected? Perhaps all art and science seeks ultimately what cannot be attained. If El Greco, the Byzantine, has reached further than his fellows, let the present age congratulate itself that, in contrast to its predecessors, it does at least hold that goal in sight.
The Byzantine Achievement; An Historical Perspective CE 330-1453 by Robert Byron, 1929.