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El Greco... One of the Greatest Painters

by Spiros Tzelepis

My visit to an important painting exhibition in the National Gallery of Athens

During the last four months two major cultural events were hosted in Athens; two great painting exhibitions which attracted visitors from all over the country as both were unique: one with paintings by El Greco and one with paintings by Picasso. One should have a lot of patience to visit these exhibitions as he or she has to wait a long time in order to enter the exhibitions due to the large number of visitors. This month I invite you to the National Gallery of Athens, and next month to the Museum of Cycladic art.

The exhibition with paintings by El Greco, the famous Greek mannerist painter who lived most of his life in Spain, took place in the National Gallery of Athens from October 1999 to January 2000. This exhibition is considered a major event as the paintings which consist it are borrowed from various museums from all over the world. Without this exhibition one should travel around the world in order to enjoy these magnificent pieces.

I had the opportunity to spend about three hours in the National Gallery admiring the work of this famous painter on the first day of my Christmas vacation.

Myself outside the National Gallery of Athens

Who El Greco is

El Greco, whose real name was Dominicos Theotocopulos, was born in Iraklion, Crete, Greece, in 1541. At that time Crete was a great cultural centre. There is not any information about his teachers there, but it is known that his work was already famous and the prices of his paintings were very high. During this period of his life he probably painted in the late Byzantine style popular in Crete.

Boy Lighting a Candle -Oil on canvas- Collection Virginia Kraft Payson.

St Mary Magdalen in penitence -Oil on canvas- The Nelson Atkins Museum of Art.

He left for Italy around 1560. He first stopped at Venice where he was influenced by the west painting style which was more free. He was employed in the workshop of Titian and was strongly influenced by Tintoretto, both masters of the High Renaissance.

Rome was his second stop in Italy. The sculptural qualities of the work of Michelangelo inspired him. Also a study of Roman architecture reinforced the stability of his compositions.

The Holy Family with St Anne -Oil on canvas- Toledo, Hospital Tavera, Fundacion Casa Ducal de Medinaceli.

St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist-Oil on canvas-Madrid, Museo National del Prado.

He moved to Spain in the late 1570s where he became known with the name El Greco (the Greek). In Spain he worked mainly on religious issues for churches and hospitals. Meanwhile he created magnificent portraits of noblemen. A move towards non normative colours, groupings and figural proportions became more marked in El Greco's art with each successive phase.

El Greco died in Toledo, Spain, in 1614.

El Greco's work is considered very important because of his personal style: Dematerialized figures, elongation of figures, long hands and feet, colours that do not tie into reality and a horror vacui (dread of unfilled spaces. El Greco's intensely personal vision was rooted in his highly cultivated spirituality. Indeed, a mystical atmosphere is present in his canvases.

The annunciation -Oil on canvas- Madrid, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza.

El Greco had impact on many of his contemporaries, but also on others of a later period as Pablo Picasso. It is said that Picasso's great painting "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" had been created under El Greco's impact.

St Peter in Tears -Oil on canvas- The Bowes Museum.

Christ The Saviour -Oil on canvas- Toledo, Museo de El Greco.

The Burial of Count Orgaz -Oil on canvas- Toledo, Museo Del El Greco. This work, still in place, portrays a 14th-century Toled an nobleman laid in his grave(in actuality situated just below the painting) by SS Stephen and Augustine. Above, the count's soul rises to a heaven densely populated with angels, saints and contemporary political figures.

It is estimated that over 500,000 visited this unique exhibition before January 17th, when it closed. This is the highest number than any other European city in which the paintings were exhibited.

Source: The National Gallery of Athens. The photos of the paintings are from National Gallery. The photos of the National Gallery of Athens are by Spiros Tzelepis.

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