The Joy of Sketch

Laocoon (1610s)
Laocoon
Sketching seems like the only way to fully understand great works of art. You couldn't touch works on display in the National Gallery, London, even if you could elbow the crowds aside as you pass through the latest 'big show', El Greco. With pencil in hand you begin to see how the overall relates to the detail. El Greco's works are strong and powerful and can compete with the overwhelming imagery of the modern world but are threatened by the lone sketcher.

The National Gallery has used the power of El Greco to great effect in its advertising campaign on the London Underground. The colours and forms are more than a match for the brash images on curved subterranean walls and dynamics of moving stairs and tube trains. El Greco's power of paint remains even four centuries after the death of Domenikos Theotokopoulos the Icon Painter from Crete.

Saint Luke painting the Virgin and Child (before 1567)
Saint Luke painting the Virgin and Child
Great art is more than powerful images; it relates the meaning of the object to the viewer. The Icon in the Greek Orthodox tradition allows the devout a door or window into the spiritual world beyond. You can imagine the fervent kisses wearing away the tempera and gold from Saint Luke painting the Virgin and Child (before 1567), though the use of perspective that shows the Saint's paintbrush reach to the easel. This is a clear breakaway from the Orthodox, and reflects the influence of the Venetian overlords of Crete. It shows an emerging mastery of technique.

View of Toledo (1597 - 9)
View of Toledo
His View of Toledo (1597 - 9) (the town in Spain that made El Greco's fortune and fame) with its dark landscape with sinister and glowing sky with above the black river that beautifully divides the luminous stone of Toledo from the rolling hills. The touch of blue sky in the furthest corner and green foliage at the base of the picture provide a counterpoint to the black sky and adjacent slopes that frame the city.

Sketch pad in hand I pondered the slightness of humanity conveyed by people scratched into the blackest part of the river. Are those people with spears fishing? Those others in shallower waters are they washing clothes? Does this detailed analysis undermine that divine beauty this exhibition is trying to convey? Is this why sketching is banned at this exhibition? This prohibition seems the opposite of what should be encouraged - an active engagement with great art.

The Opening of the Fifth Seal (1608 - 1614)
The Opening of the Fifth Seal
Laocoon (1610s) with those pained and stretched bodies writhing on the floor before the distant city seems modern. You can feel the pain of the snake fangs drilling into the taut flesh. The Opening of the Fifth Seal (1608 - 1614) is chaos mixed with hope and despair. The use of planes of colour, action and movement that replaces realism with emotion and symbolism seems modern because it has greatly influenced contemporary art.

El Greco was a popular artist and remained in demand during his lifetime. However, after his death in 1614 and his son's death (Jorge Manuel) in 1631, El Greco's art fell into disrepute and neglect. It wasn't until the 19th Century that El Greco's paintings were rediscovered by painters such as Cezanne and later Picasso and Jackson Pollock. His use of colour and shape and especially distortion of the human body can be particularly seen in Cezanne's and Picasso's figurative works. Knowledge gained by means of a sketch book?

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the National Gallery, London

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Copyright ╘ 2004 by Melvyn Dresner
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