In the early 1600s El Greco accepted a commission to do various paintings for a hospital for the poor. One of the works was the Madonna of Charity (1603 – 1605) in which an oversized Madonna opens her cloak to provide shelter for some men wearing ruffs – those fancy, white, frilly, circular collars that indicated wealth and privilege. The artist’s patrons were flummoxed by this and, according to Michael Scholz-Hansel’s book on El Greco, they had to hire a new artist to paint over the ruffs, rendering the men as beggars. El Greco just did not seem to realize that it was more appropriate to paint the Virgin protecting the poor, for a charitable hospital, as he seemed to have little use for those types of folks. El Greco regularly haggled, sued and argued to get the most money he could per project, as he had a luxurious lifestyle to sustain (he sometimes paid musicians to do live performances for him while he dined). His goal seemed to be to establish himself, through art, as a well-heeled member of Spain’s rich, cultured and famous. The commodification of the sacred, as a propagandist for the Counter-Reformation, was his means to this end.

Thus, the name of this show at the Art Institute of Chicago, Ambition and Defiance, seems apt and leads us to examine how and why the ‘El Greco as art hero’ story was established and how the Art Institute and others seem to be gently pushing toward a change of narrative for this artist. Perhaps this change of narrative is due to changes in our own times when it is no longer acceptable to just produce works of genius, but it is also important to produce these works as an ethical or decent person or, at least, as one cognizant of his/her flaws and who wishes to change.

El Greco starts as an icon painter on the island of Crete, a colony of Venice, but finds icons a dead-end and moves to Venice to learn from Tintoretto and Titian. From Tintoretto he seemed to realize the potential of distorting body proportions for greater psychological effect and from Titian he seemed to learn lessons about chroma – the extent to which you can make certain colors much brighter than others to affect the mood or intensity of a painting. From Venice (no patrons) he goes to Rome to be influenced by Michelangelo, yet he makes enemies by denigrating the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel and asks to be allowed to paint over it (suggestion not taken). He struggles with perspective during this time, cannot find patrons in Rome either and travels to Spain, where his work is rejected by King Phillip II, the art czar over there. No matter. Toledo, erstwhile capital of Spain, is the hotspot for Catholic religious art and he sets up shop there, soon ingratiating himself into the company of the high-ranking religious elite, the literati, well-placed academics and anyone else who could help him establish and maintain a reputation.

After his death his work is ignored for 250 years until the European avant-garde rediscovers it. He becomes beloved by Picasso. Folks are amazed by his “expressionism” before the creation of expressionism. They marvel at his religious fervor expressed through visual experimentation. But was this experimentation, in fact, a way to capture a deeper sense of the spiritual? El Greco seemed most preoccupied with establishing that he was an artist and not an artisan. Yet, he was painting works dictated to him by patrons, which made it seem as if he was merely an artisan. The way out that he saw was to establish a distinct style, an extreme artistic style so that he could transcend the label of artisan. His pre-Expressionism Expressionism was his biggest selling point. He was not able to secure patrons in three major cities and was compelled to establish his brand as someone so in tune spiritually that he needed a completely different visual language for his work. It was a bold move. The cultured and educated in Toledo got it and bought it.

He might, therefore, stand as one of the two greatest hucksters in the history of art – with Gauguin – if it were not for the redeeming aspects of his work. Gauguin had to be saved because the myth he created of leaving an industrialized country for something untainted by the West was so fabulous and because he hewed a path away from realism that became so compelling to other artists. What exactly saves El Greco? Well, he does something which seems especially brilliant and engaging.

He often employs counter-intuitive visual responses to our expectations in many of his Gospel narratives. If you look closely at Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple, as Jesus makes his way through the crowd with his whip, there is no look of anger or aggression on his face. It is really difficult, if not impossible, to intuit what Jesus may be feeling. This seems to imply Jesus is not acting from the base or unsanctified motives that might drive us. The reactions of those being beaten and purged are unexpected as well. Instead of defending themselves or fighting back, some seem to be showing regret, some seem to be feeling emotional pain or shame or even struggling through some type of transformation. It is an emotionally non-violent depiction of a violent episode, and this is truly unique. It is as if El Greco is pointing to the allegorical and non-literal nature of the story by divesting it of violence. It is as if the painter, himself, has divested himself, for the cause of Christianity, of violence and is not capable of even painting it.

The other great example of the emotionally counter-intuitive in this show is the painting of Jesus departing from his mother to enter Jerusalem. One sees, perhaps, the slightest hint of sorrow in the expression of Jesus, but none at all in Mary. Other artists had portrayed and would continue to portray Mary in the most lachrymose manner. But, it is as if El Greco invented a whole new emotional lexicon that would be foreign to the experience of most viewers. The figures being depicted are functioning on a higher level of Christian grace, our expectations and experiences fall short so that their higher-level and more humane behavioral responses call us to examine how we live and respond and to be open to higher spiritual levels. In the Assumption of the Virgin, El Greco reinforces this divorce between our common experiences and a higher set by displaying the variety of lower-level human responses to the miraculous or spiritually transformative, as a crowd has gathered under the ascending Virgin unable to fully grasp what is happening on anything but a superficial level.

Yet, when we look at the portraits he completed, we are often back to predictable expressions and emotions. We see now obscure scholars, high-ranking priests, chubby monks, well-established poets nobody reads anymore. Having more freedom than Velasquez he still painted a more restricted range of humanity. He simply did not, like Velasquez, leave his source of income and go wandering to find life and joy and meaning among the people. Furthermore, his depictions of those biblical figures expressing regret and a desire for a new life, like his paintings of Peter and Mary Magdalene, look almost like Japanese anime with their huge, globulus, sentimental eyes and stylized, mawkish poses.

So the big question we are left with in regard to El Greco is the big question we should be asking and are close to asking about all producers of culture these days: whether a person driven by personal advancement and a desire for luxury can give us anything we really need. Can we benefit from the works of a person who does not believe in individual self-examination and self-change? Can we benefit from an artist who is satisfied with what society commonly offers him/her? The history of art, after all, seems to be rife with ordinary, flawed or downright crappy people creating saintly and inspiring works. Yet, El Greco asserted that a truly Christian message was so radical and possibly transformational that it might require a change in realistic form. A classical model could not contain nor express the Christian message (so the Last Judgment by Michelangelo simply had to go). He also challenged the belief that predictable human emotions, everyday emotions, were enough for us to understand the profoundly allegorical stories in the Bible. El Greco frequently pointed to something higher. That he realized the value of the Christian message and the need for the attempt for each of us to rise showed the defiance which effectively counterbalanced the ambition.