Pablo Picasso
El Greco (Theotokopoulos, Domenikos)
Pablo Picasso
El Greco (Theotokopoulos, Domenikos)
Pablo Picasso
El Greco (Theotokopoulos, Domenikos)
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The works of two icons of art are juxtaposed in a tantalising exhibition

The artists and historical works that have inspired the career of one of the icons of modern art, Pablo Picasso (1881–1973), have been a topic of analysis and discussion for over a century. As soon as this extraordinary creative talent came to the forefront of art in the early 1900s, critics and collectors sought to know what swayed the mind of Picasso.

In an extensive show, Kunstmuseum Basel provides a dialogue about the enormous influence of the works of the old master, El Greco (1541–1614), on those by Picasso.

Both artists were avant-garde and visionaries — innovators who broke through traditional expectations of visual representation in the use of colour, figures, and forms.

El Greco was ahead of his time, so much so, that after his death, he and his works were largely forgotten for centuries. It was only in the 1800s that his works were “rediscovered” and became hugely influential on other great iconic artists.

El Greco is not the artist’s name. El Greco, “the Greek” in Spanish, is a descriptive name given to the artist who was born Doménikos Theotokópoulos on the Greek island of Crete. He was a very talented artist, sculptor and architect who looked for work and acceptance throughout his life. He started his artistic career in Crete then went to Venice where he studied the works of renaissance masters before going to Rome to look for commissions. He journeyed to Spain, first to Madrid, finally settling in Toledo, where he would live until he died. Toledo is where he created his most significant works and in so doing, the Spaniards claimed him as one of their own. Historically, he is referenced as a “Spanish” painter, and his works regularly hang in galleries alongside other Spanish artists.

El Greco’s early works were religiously themed; they were styled and painted traditionally with dark sombre colours (browns, black and ochre) and realistically proportioned figures. Progressively, and as he moved further away from the centre of Renaissance art in Italy and towards Spain, he moved away from representational colours and forms and painted in a freer and more expressive style that would be far ahead of its time – by centuries.

The colouration of the works produced in Toledo became remarkably different from the heavily blended and soft-edged style of Renaissance paintings. Some paintings were absent of whole palettes of colours, such as reds or yellows. Colours seemed to be applied pure and unadulterated. Forms and figures were expressive, elongated, and sinuous. Observers thought El Greco was talented but also somewhat “mad”, as his images seemed imaginative and bore little resemblance to the highly styled religious-themed paintings he once conceived.

During the decades he worked in Spain, he produced many works such as paintings, sculptures and altarpieces for private clients, churches, and monasteries. He earned a modest living and had a minor reputation. However, he gained little prominence during his lifetime. When he died, his works were largely forgotten.

The transformative nature of El Greco’s work became truly appreciated beginning in the 1800s when his works were presented in the Louvre and seen by a modern-day audience. The expressive, bold, and abstract qualities of his works captivated late nineteenth-century French artists and those who gravitated to Paris in the early twentieth century, including Picasso.

Pablo Picasso was born in Spain, and as a young artist, he was influenced by the works of iconic Spanish painters, including those by El Greco.

At the dawn of the twentieth century, a young Picasso left his home in Spain and travelled to Paris, the centre of modern art at that time.

He arrived in Paris in 1900 while the city was hosting the World’s Fair, an extravaganza attended by fifty million international travellers. The city was filled with pavilions and exhibitions from many countries, with the best technologies and art on display. He was only nineteen.

It was a pivotal move for the young prodigy, who under the tutelage of his father, an art teacher, progressed and advanced his technique and artistic sensibilities early. Immersed in the centre of artistic excellence, Picasso soaked in all the techniques and styles of the great masters of art.

As a young and eager artist, Picasso experimented with the techniques and paintings of many artists. In Paris, he had access to a broad range of artwork in museums and galleries such as the Louvre. In these grand places, fabulous works of art were on display. He was able to see in person the vibrant colours on the paintings by iconic artists such as Van Gogh, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, Cézanne and El Greco — artists he would measure himself against.

Picasso found an affinity with El Greco on many levels. Picasso was a Spanish man working in a foreign country, France, very much like El Greco, a Greek who worked as a foreigner in Spain. Picasso revered this master of art by creating his interpretation of El Greco’s work.

Some of Picasso’s most striking work, particularly his breakthrough painting Buste de femme ou de marin (Etude pour les Demoiselles d’Avignon), created in 1907, was immensely influenced by El Greco, which broke through the traditional application of composition and perspective.

In a purposefully curated display, works by Picasso are paired and juxtaposed with works by El Greco, allowing visitors to see how one great artist inspired another.

Masterworks from the Kunstmuseum’s collection and loans from around the world are on show in this exhibition, which provides a fascinating view of El Greco’s remarkable and innovative painting style that vastly predates those of modern artists.

This show provides a compelling narrative and intriguing coupling of fabulous artworks, offering insights and discussion into two icons of art.