Two new exhibitions show how a Renaissance visionary and a misunderstood Norwegian eccentric changed the course of paintingby James Woodall / May 24, 2012 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
El Greco, The Opening of the Fifth Seal (1608-14): the bodies are vibrant, with exaggerated curves defining arms, thighs and calves
El Greco and Modernism
Museum Kunstpalast, Düsseldorf, Germany. Until 12th August
Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye
Tate Modern, 28th June–14th October
This summer, a rare sequence of art events is bringing into focus the origins of European modernist painting. One of them, “The Modern Eye,” an exhibition of works by Edvard Munch opening in late June at Tate Modern, fits into the traditional narrative: the Norwegian is incontrovertibly a harbinger of 20th-century art. Another Munch-connected event has been a high-profile auction of his famous work The Scream in New York.
A third event is more unexpected. In Düsseldorf’s Kunstpalast, situated in an art-deco complex on the east bank of the Rhine, the exhibition “El Greco and Modernism” is an exuberant, densely intelligent attempt by curator Beat Wismer to show how deep the influence of the 16th century master was on a raft of artists in Germany before the first world war—most of whom had already been impressed by Munch’s troubling subject matter and brazen brush work.
“After German painters had copied works by El Greco for the first time in 1907 and 1908,” Beat Wismer says, “young expressionists engaged intensively with him, both with his form and with the ecstatic and visionary impulses of his painting.” Modernism across Europe was lifting off, shattering the centuries-old dominance of realism. In German painting, expressionism, as it came to be known, was a particular manifestation of a desire to redraw the rules of space, structure and colour. The Düsseldorf exhibition presents El Greco alongside works by key Germano-Austrian modernist painters, including Franz Marc, August Macke, Max Beckmann and Oskar Kokoschka. Its aim is to show that the late discovery of El Greco helped them define their entire approach to how paint can be arranged on canvas.