All the El Grecos

El Greco, View of Toledo, 1598

El Greco, View of Toledo, 1598

View of Toledo, a rare landscape in El Greco’s oeuvre, is often remembered as a favorite from high school art class, maybe rivaling a canvas by the equally expressive Van Gogh. But perhaps this is unfair. Between visiting the Met and the Frick, you can now see all the El Grecos in New York City, an impressive 18 works, and consider for yourself whether there is more to be said.

El Greco, Cardinal Fernando Niño de Guevara, 1600

El Greco, Cardinal Fernando Niño de Guevara, 1600

Certainly both in View of Toledo and his portrait of Cardinal Guevara I was struck by how of our own time they both seemed. Consider how strange they must have seemed to contemporaries and even poorly made, considering how expressiveness is cherished over proper execution and draftsmanship. A modern taste appreciates being able to psychologize these works and read into them a visionary persona in a way that the Renaissance patron typically would not.

El Greco, Christ Carrying the Cross, 1577

El Greco, Christ Carrying the Cross, 1577

Those two examples aside, El Greco primarily painted religious scenes. Proper figuration is subsumed by flowing shapes in the overall composition, which seem simplified for more direct and iconic appeal. Although these are the more typical of his works, I don’t find them as appealing as the first examples. However, the liquid eyes of the Christ above are touching. Although I’m not sure how I feel about El Greco, I appreciate the current opportunity to reconsider the artist and see his body of work more holistically.

El Greco, St Jerome, 1600

El Greco, St. Jerome, 1600

Re-experiencing Bruce Nauman’s Live-Taped Video Corridor (1970)

Across the room, you see a long and tall plywood wall. This plywood wall that confronts you becomes the exterior as soon as you peer around its corner and learn that two such facing, parallel walls delimit a narrow interior space, a 30-foot white hallway. The structure appears as plain and self-evident as the plywood and plaster material the walls were made of, but at the end of the hallway you can see two boxy television monitors. They suggest that this space is something to be entered, that there is something to see at the end. And so, without instructions but at a loss for what else to do, you enter.

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Immediately, the space feels closer to your body than you would have imagined. Your peripheral vision is full of blank wall space stretching around and up above you. Moreover your hand inadvertently stretches out and brushes the dry plaster. So too could your hips and shoulder if you wanted them to, but instead you withdraw, sidle, protectively. You feel your feet fall, one after the other, and you can track your movement against the passing surface of the close walls. Your shoulder brushes the wall, and then your hip. It’s inevitable, and you continue forward, the only possible direction.

The physical sensation of passing through does not last long, no more than ten seconds, and even during it you are preoccupied by the glow of the two screens stacked on the floor at the far end. You quickly discover that the cold, bluish light illuminates a scenario uncannily similar to your own current situation. Long tunnel-like spaces are visible on both. But it is hard to understand what you see there, so much so that even though you have been staring at them on this walk down the corridor, when you get to the end you have to bend down to view them better.

Initially you wish to discard the bottom image by your feet; it’s merely an empty hallway, just like the one you saw before you walked down the corridor. But the top image by your knees doesn’t align with anything you saw; it contains a figure. It contains you—your clothed back and hairstyle. You turn; there is a camera on high at the far end of the corridor where you started. You look back at the monitor; there is the back of your head, your crouching form. You turn your head slightly; your head turns. If you turn further, you imagine your face would appear in the monitor, but you could no longer see it if your own gaze looks back down the hallway. How stupid, you think, as your stare at your back. That is indeed all there is to see. Not nearly as rewarding as your image from the front would seem, and strangely disorienting as you see yourself as if you were separate, other. Which of course you are not, as you were reminded by your physical journey down the corridor bumping into yourself at every step. Maybe even worse, as you look down again, you see a video of the empty corridor even as the presence of your feet in the same glance testify to your presence within it.

Bruce Nauman Live-Taped Video Corridor
This strange doubling (tripling?) of space, of a space with which you are so intimately familiar, runs counter to your physical experience of it, echoed by your thighs now urging you to stand up. The bottom because your lived experience of the corridor is of an inhabited one, and the top because your view was one of immersion and movement down the corridor. You thought you were penetrating the space rather than receding in it. There is some trickery afoot. While you now understand how the camera positioned at the beginning must logically film you from behind, there is no sense of discovery, as the illuminated screens promised, but rather a rebuff. The split-perception of the space suggested by the monitors deny the centrality on your viewpoint by not matching your own visual of the space. The upper monitor models a split sense of self, that is, a view of you from the outside in contrast to your own, formerly unselfconscious gaze as you walked down. The lower monitor eliminates you entirely. Instead of you, you see the long perspectival lines of the tunnel converging at the monitors. You recall what you saw when you stood at the entrance. Somehow your viewpoint has become a vanishing point, as what was once empty and distant but now inhabited and present still presents a mirage of emptiness. Despite the elision of these two oppositional points, the perspectival space still stands. Rather than reifying your gaze, this experience of Nauman’s corridor has obliviated it, and with it, something of your own personhood, so central is a viewpoint to one’s conception of self. Naturally, in such a situation, you choose self-preservation, and you begin to exit the disquieting environment.

When you turn your back to the monitors, you know you are turning your face to the camera directed at it, so that an image of your face is now staring at your back. But it is futile to try to turn and see yourself, for you will only disappear. So again, you walk down this narrow path, hemmed in by wall. You try to ignore, not be annoyed with, this live recording camera by reminding yourself that just as you can’t see it, nobody else can, since the corridor only allows for one and, for those who await their turn, your body blocks the view. Its utter futility makes you wonder why a live feed was set up in the first place. Clearly your presence was required to activate the space, and the perverse gazes of it, and there was no other way to experience it. Yet this surveillance is unwatchable by you, the only available watcher. Rather than having become enlightened by exploring the space, you have merely followed a proscribed path. But to what end, as an unhappy game? Or, did you merely became the figurative subject in someone else’s picture?

You step out; the space expands. You have achieved the exterior, normal world. You command the space with your vision, a vision that allows you to take in the other art objects in the room. Those long receding lines of the corridor again present the easy conquest of enterable space and the centrality of your view, as indeed you thought artworks traditionally did. And yet that disorienting experience suggests you were wrong to think you had so clearly apprehended the corridor at a glance. The suggestion of illumination on those glowing blue screens did not materialize. Other factors, of the body and of surveillance, came into play, but in ways that denied knowledge. You look back. Hauntingly, you know that the bottom screen still shows—now correctly—an empty hallway, even though you cannot see it perfectly from this distance. You reason that the other screen must now similarly and correctly display your erasure. A minor gain from the experience is that you have visualized your disappearance, a view that is, in fact, knowable without camera-aided vision or bodily perception, a view that you now possess again as you look back down the corridor. Somehow these technologies, which replicate and increase man’s visual capacities, have shown you not just the limitations of the knowledge they can create. They also show their ability to manufacture and extend blind spots, making you question whether the world as such does not play similar tricks.

 

Learn more about Live-Taped Video Corridor on the Guggenheim’s website.


 

Ancient Greeks as Colorists

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Colored replica, Vinzenz Brinkmann & Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, 2003

The Ancient Greeks painted their sculptures and temples, preferring a decorated surface to the pristine marble.  “If only I could shed my beauty and assume an uglier aspect / The way you would wipe color off a statue”  is a quote by Helen of Troy in lines written by Euripides in 412 B.C., as cited in this Smithsonian article on new color replicas of Ancient Greek statues. It highlights how colors were seen as beautifying agents. One of these new replicas, pictured, is of Artemis, the Goddess of Hunt (the so-called Peplos Kore) from the Athenian Acropolis. Somehow the paint brings the stature very much into life, rendering it more naturalistic and less stiff. Traces of red, blue, yellow, and green pigments have survived in the hair, eyes, belt, and garment of the original figure. Recent examinations in extreme side light have revealed further painted decoration. Thus a new and spectacular interpretation has been made possible through the examination of the pigments. 

 

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The color reconstruction of the original Greek marble statue, executed ca. 520 B.C., allows one to imagine how different the Acropolis itself would look if painted. The white pillars, cornices, and roof–not to mention all the sculptural reliefs–would have stood out all the more to the viewer’s eyes below. Today, this bright and bold mix of colors might seem garish to modern taste. Since the Renaissance, the tradition of bare marble was respected in statuary because it was a presumably classical tradition. Although evidence exited to the contrary, of the first art historians Winkleman wrote influentially about whiteness as being the most beautiful. There were people who took exception based on historical evidence, but they were largely overruled until recent scholarship. Although incontrovertibly accepted today that much of the surfaces of temples and statuary would have been decorated, it still requires a mental adjustment to imagine colorful Classical structures.

Parthenon_Reconstruction_Painted

However, even with accurate reconstruction based on analysis of pigment traces, I wonder if the Ancient Greeks saw the colors the same way as we do today. Radiolab did a wonderful podcast on colors, and the last section focused on Homer, the author of the Illiad and the Odyssey who presumably lived 200 or 300 years prior to the Peplos Kore and other Acropolis buildings. Those two epic poems display strange conceptions of colors, such as a wine-dark sea and wine-colored oxen, and violet sheep and iron. The poems never refer to trees or leaves as green, but call honey and faces pale with fear green. It suggests to some scholars, who did further analysis, that ancient Greeks saw fewer colors. That is, they literally distinguished fewer colors of the rainbow even though their eyes received the same information that ours do today. Complementary linguistic evidence suggests that worldwide people first only saw black and white, followed by red, and then yellow and green. Blue was always last.  Homer lived in a time where he presumably only saw black, white, red, some green and yellows, but no blue. The blue that later appeared on the painted marbles of the Acropolis is called Egyptian blue today, because the expensive pigment was imported from Egypt. But what would it have looked like to Homer?

 

Would the colorfully painted Acropolis and other painted Greek marble perhaps been seen as less colorful by the original viewers despite the careful research to duplicate the original colors? Perhaps the painted decoration would have seemed much more muted, or otherwise different, than recreations seem to us. It’s impossible to know, but the idea that the ancient Greeks might have seen color differently certainly ought to affect how we consider art objects from the past.