One hundred and twenty seven

Mary Magdalene

c.1577 by El Greco
Szepmuveszeti Muzeum, Budapest

The paintings of El Greco, ‘the Greek’, are fascinating to examine alongside his contemporaries. His angular shapes, muted but expressive colour, and experimental style trick us into thinking we are looking at a painting from much later. His paintings have a drama of theatrical lighting and pale skin that is premeditative of Gainsborough. Turning to the side, as Gainsborough has so many of his sitters do, Mary’s skin pallor is as ghostly as Gainsborough’s high society. Yet El Greco’s figures have none of Gainsborough’s simpering delicacy, his Mary has a strong full face that absorbs us as we attach it to her narrative; it provides a personality. El Greco’s Mary is beautiful because she is real, with wide and honest eyes that seem to express and tell of both her woes and absolution. The way El Greco builds his figures is different too — Mary’s neck, shoulders and hands are broad and smooth; El Greco does not try and embellish her skin with fleshy tones, but leaves us to enjoy these limbs for their strength and simplicity. Taken further perhaps El Greco would have begun to break his depictions down even more, becoming Picasso-like in his figurative painting; indeed, his background seems to echo that of the Cubists. The colours used also likens El Greco to this unlikely group of painters. Such muted and rich blues paired with white and brown summon comparisons with the like of Picasso’s Dryad (postcard 67), where paint builds and merges in a similar way, the brown serving to ground in the earth and reality. There is the freedom of later compositional traits in El Greco’s work, where paint and subject seem to flow and move about the canvas; he paints under no restraint. Yet, like a Cubist, El Greco tightens his detail when he feels he needs to — in the shadows that define the significant elegance of Mary’s hands and the deathly symbol of the skull. The small trail of plant that crawls up the side of the canvas too is crispy executed, defining these unexplained dark leaves that juxtapose the painterly cascades behind them. There is a spontaneity to El Greco’s paintings that leaves his contemporaries behind; both subject and style seem to leap with a passion that pushes and contracts against the molds of his time.

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