how El Greco became Picasso’s “first love”

Was El Greco the first cubist? Was Picasso the last Old Master? These are the questions that hover over a new mix-and-match approach by the two artists which opens this month at the Kunstmuseum Basel, where the exhibition Picasso-El Greco traces the impact of the Greek painter based in Spain on his Spanish admirer based in France.

Doménikos Theotokópoulos (1541-1614), as El Greco often signed his paintings, was trained as an icon painter in his native Crete, then a center of Byzantine art in exile and a colony of the Venetian Republic. After a stopover in Venice proper and a thwarted start to his career in papal Rome, he traveled to Spain, settling in the city of Toledo after failing to impress Spain’s King Philip II with his extravagant approach to the religious painting.

Successful in his lifetime as an artist for hire, El Greco was forgotten soon after his death, and it seems that a coterie of 19th-century French artists and writers, notably Édouard Manet and Paul Cézanne, rediscovers and promotes him as a harbinger of all things modern. It was this French idealization of El Greco that returned to the Spain of the young Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), whose blue period incorporated the elongated figures and darkly glowing palette of the old master.

El Greco Adoration of the Name of Jesus (1577-79) and Pablo Picasso Evocation (The Burial of Casagemas) (1901) National heritage. Real Collections. El Escorial / © Picasso Estate; Paris Museum of Modern Art

The upcoming exhibition will consist of around thirty strategic pairs of works by the two artists, largely retracing the chronology of Picasso’s artistic development. The Blue Period section will combine Adoration of the Name of Jesus (circa 1577-79) with Picasso Evocation (The Burial of Casagemas)a 1901 oil painting of the suicide of his friend, Catalan artist Carlos Casagemas.

The ideal match for Evocation would be the work that directly inspired him, the monumental painting of the 1580s by El Greco Burial of the Count of Orgaz, which is permanently housed in the Iglesia de Santo Tomé in Toledo. But El Greco’s two works delight in stylistic excess, and each is compositionally opposed, as Picasso does in Evocationa draft up with a tug down.

Picasso’s early debt to El Greco has long been recognised, but it has also been speculated that his interest in the Old Master gave way to other influences, notably preclassical Iberian art, which helped him transition from blue and rose periods to his Cubist Revolution, and completely vanished in Picasso’s last decades. Carmen Giménez, the show’s senior curator, says El Greco was not just a childhood crush, but a lifelong commitment. “El Greco was Picasso’s first love,” says Giménez. “And a first love always has a freshness.”

El Greco St.Paul (circa 1585) and Picasso The Aficionado (1912) Private collection / Kunstmuseum Basel Martin P. Bühler

The centerpiece of the exhibition will be associations of expressive depictions of saints by El Greco with high-level Cubist works, including St.Paul (circa 1585), on loan from a private collection, associated with that of Basel The hobbyist (1912), a key work of Analytical Cubism.

The very unconventional portraits of El Greco came to have a particular appeal for early modernists, and the final section of the exhibition will combine the portraits of El Greco Portrait of a Man from the House of Leiva (circa 1580-85), whose direct gaze is still a little shocked, with Picasso’s 1967 cartoon homage to his favorite Old Masters, The Musketeerbearing the subtitle Domenico Theotocopulos van Rijn da Silva, in honor of El Greco, Rembrandt and Velázquez. Cubism may have been a disruption of centuries of Western art, but the Basel exhibition argues that Picasso’s break with tradition was actually a continuation in other ways.

Meanwhile, in London, a small exhibition at the National Gallery focuses on the influence of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Picasso spent the latter part of his career obsessively revisiting a few works by Eugène Delacroix and Velázquez, but one of his most successful encounters with an earlier masterpiece came in 1932, with woman with a bookamazed portrait of his young mistress, Marie-Thérèse Walter, directly inspired by the Second Empire portrait of Ingres from 1856, the sumptuous Ms Moitessier.

Picasso had seen Ingres’ painting, now a National Gallery landmark work, at an exhibition in the early 1920s, and his obsession paid off a decade later in Walter’s portrait, now at the Norton Simon Pasadena Museum. The London exhibition – which will later travel to Norton Simon – brings together the works for the first time and joins Basel in championing Picasso as the great torchbearer of art history rather than a flamethrower eternal of modernism.

Picasso-El GrecoKunstmuseum Basel, June 11-September 25

Picasso Ingres: Face to FaceNational Gallery, London, June 3-October 9

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