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Greek and unique

The North Rhine-Westphalia region of Germany has a cluster of cities that are obscenely well served by public modern art galleries. Bonn has the airy Kunstmuseum Bonn, with its huge collection of expressionism; Cologne has the Museum Ludwig, with one of the most important collections of modern art in Europe; Duisburg the excellent Lehmbruck sculpture museum. 

Düsseldorf, meanwhile, on the eastern banks of the wide, grey Rhine is home to the  Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen. Then there is the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, for temporary exhibitions of contemporary art, and, downriver, the 1920s-era Museum Kunstpalast, half of which now houses a vast exhibition space opened in 2001.
It was here that journalists from across Europe converged on a bright, late-April morning for the press launch of “El Greco and Modernism” (on until 12 August), a wunderbar show that brings the work of the Cretan master (41 paintings) to the city for the first time in 100 years and displays it beside German modernists who had seen the touring show in 1912 and experienced a collective epiphany. You can see why – however much of El Greco’s work you have seen, his intense, mannerist style still provokes a double take. Can it really date from the 1500s? Even close up the paintings look electrifyingly fresh: you can imagine the impact they had on the avant-gardists. 
The Greek’s free style is a fortuitous collision of many traditions: origins as an icon painter in Crete, time spent in Italy and finally his years in Toledo. It’s Titian meets Byzantine; with elongated figures, prog-rock skies and luminescent colour. In The Opening of the Fifth Seal, a baggy-pyjamaed St John supplicates heavenward like a tele-evangelist. The pale limbs of Laocoön and his sons gyrate in an anguished interpretive dance. Black-bearded Spaniards, not Romans, jostle above a serene Jesus in The Disrobing of Christ, the red of his robe reflected symbolically in a soldier’s armour. 
There are some great 20th-century works here – Beckmann, Bloch and Kokoschka are highlights – and quite a few second-rate ones. But it’s the El Grecos you keep coming back to. He still stretches over the centuries to greet us, leaving his disciples way back in imperial Germany.

Thomas Calvocoressi is a sub editor at the New Statesman and writes about visual arts for the magazine.

This article first appeared in the 07 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The Science Issue