TOLEDO, Spain: For centuries, Renaissance painter El Greco was a nonentity. No one studied his startling, unconventional work hanging high in obscure convents, Spanish museums and a Gothic cathedral.
It wasn’t until the 19th century that painters rediscovered the artist – born in Crete as Domenicos Theotocopoulos, then living and painting in Toledo from 1577 until his 1614 death. They found inspiration in his bold colors and brush strokes.
Now the city of Toledo is marking the 400th anniversary of the death of its most famous resident with a series of exhibitions, conferences and concerts in the walled, medieval city, as well as in Madrid.
The centerpiece of the commemorations is the biggest-ever gathering of El Greco paintings. More than 100 canvases – many of them painted in the city centuries ago – will be on display in the Santa Cruz Museum and in other famous Toledo buildings such as the cathedral, drawing an expected million visitors.
“Almost all of these paintings left Toledo at the beginning of the 20th century,” said Gregorio Maranon, president of the El Greco 2014 foundation, which has spent four years preparing anniversary events. “We are gathering them all from the El Greco diaspora.”
Bringing the paintings from major world museums and private collections has been an expensive project. Maranon would not say how expensive but said it has been mostly privately financed as Spain’s government had cut spending on arts, seeking to close an enormous hole in its budget and ending an acute fiscal crisis.
Trained in the great painting schools of Rome and Venice, El Greco traveled to Spain to seek the patronage of Felipe II at the Spanish court at El Escorial Palace, in the hills outside of Madrid.
The monarch didn’t give him a court position, but El Greco settled and found work in nearby Toledo, an ancient Spanish capital and religious center 70 km south of Madrid.
Among the El Greco paintings traveling home to Toledo are “The Adoration of the Name of Jesus,” on loan from the National Gallery of London; “Christ on the Cross With Two Donors,” from the Louvre; and “View of Toledo,” a favorite of writer Ernest Hemingway, from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Other famous El Grecos, such as “The Nobleman with his Hand on his Chest” and the “Burial of Count Orgaz,” have stayed at home in Toledo. They will hang in their original places in convents and churches around the city.
The biggest masterpiece of the master’s early years, “The Disrobing of Christ” has hung in the chilly sacristy of Toledo’s cathedral since it was placed there centuries ago.
The 3-meter-high painting left the cathedral last year to be restored in Madrid’s national museum, the Prado. For restorer Rafael Alonso, who has restored some 90 El Grecos, it was a deeply emotional task.
“This was the crowning moment of my career,” Alonso said of his work to revive the original, bright colors of “The Disrobing.”
“I can’t imagine Christ’s face in any other way except how El Greco painted it in ‘The Disrobing,’” he said after attending a ceremony where it was rehung in its original place at the end of the long, narrow annex to Toledo’s enormous cathedral.
Commissioned by church officials soon after El Greco arrived in Toledo, “The Disrobing” shows Jesus in a brilliant red robe, with an elongated neck, and long, slender fingers in a crowd of similarly stretched-out figures that are the painter’s signature.
The informal poses of the people in the painting, the dramatic colors and the loose proportions made the composition innovative for its day though it also reflected influences from different painting schools.
El Greco absorbed the teachings of the masters of his era of Michelangelo, Titian, Tintoretto and Paolo Veronese but then reinterpreted them and struck out on his own path, leaving their Renaissance perspective behind.
“He is possibly the most modern of all the great painters of the 16th and 17th centuries,” Maranon said.
The artists who immediately followed El Greco were not such risk-takers, and his style remained unique, instead of part of a particular movement.
“He was a forgotten painter,” said Javier Baron, head of the Prado’s 19th-century painters department, “an ‘outsider’ if you will, who was rediscovered.”
At the beginning of the 19th century, painters made pilgrimages to the Prado to learn from the masterpieces of court painter Velazquez. Later, the El Greco paintings that also hung in Spain’s national museum became a powerful influence on the impressionists, expressionists and the schools that followed – from cubist to abstract.
“This occurred with Manet,” Baron noted, “later with Cezanne, and later with Picasso.”
In another anniversary exhibition, one curated by Baron at the Prado, works of Picasso and other modern greats will be hung with El Greco paintings to show the huge influence he had on modernist art.
“El Greco’s bold style still gives rise to all sorts of wacky questions and theories,” said Leticia Ruiz, head of the Prado’s pre-1700 Spanish painting department.
“Did he have stigmatism, or vision problems? Was he crazy? People are still asking that today,” Ruiz said. “He’s a painter’s painter. He’s not an easy painter. People are either fascinated with him or repelled by him.”
“The Greek from Toledo” is up at Toledo’s Santa Cruz Museum until June 14.