“Painting,” Gabriel Orozco believed, “assails the mind. It persuades the heart.”
Stretch, a moment, a hide taut between threads and wind the threads around a wooden frame. Stitch this skin, recently nestled over sinew and muscle and organ and bone, over another’s sinew and muscle and organ and bone and you have a coat. This was given to me as a child one brutally cold winter day half a century ago. East Tennessee 1965.
Since childhood I have been visited by night terrors, so mystery and the life of stories that reached out beyond my understanding were natural facts. In fact, they were comforting threads that insisted I follow. The coat became my protective cover as I traveled.
My first encounter with an El Greco painting, “Opening of the Fifth Seal” pulled the ground out from under my feet. It was primal. Swimming with my father as a child in the ocean up to the last moment of an approaching storm – this majesty, this fear, this thrill was comparable. In the same room as “Opening of the Fifth Seal” was El Greco’s portrait of an elderly man, thought to be his father. This painting I could grasp, could even hold in my hands, the head, not the painting. Later, my first encounter with “Laocoon” was shocking, an overpowering feeling of vertigo that made me want to make space between myself and the image and, simultaneously, move closer to enter the rhythmic space and it’s otherworldly light.
In this late painting, Laocoon, (1610-14) El Greco’s inventiveness is over the top. The astonishing light of the sky that equally radiates through rock, through human body, through the distant town of Toledo and through cloud, weaves a rhythmic network across the picture plane. Lightning is about to strike, an arterial system pulses throughout the entire canvas, the skin. Years after this first experience of El Greco’s paintings I began to think that El Greco was probably an animist, knowing all being is interconnected. The fleshy bodies, so immaterial yet with tendons and sinew writhing in physical agony, make you squirm and shudder. The indeterminate contours, the restlessness of boundaries are so alive today across 400 hundred years. Velazquez’s world, where everything profoundly knows it place, I admire, but El Greco moves me.
In the atmosphere of predestination of my childhood I listened for the angels’ footsteps and took my cues. How to crack the dualism?! The limitations and bondage of this and the whole (social and religious) dichotomizing historical package. I left for Spain and her poets, her painters, her music and her cracked earth. In the erotic metaphors of St John of the Cross, expressing the union of spirit and flesh, in the provocations of St Teresa of Avila who described her betrothal to Christ, ironically, in these places, I found something thrilling. St John’s poem “Noche Oscura” (Dark Night of the Soul), in the spirit of the Old Testament “Song of Songs”, is haunting heresy. This wedding of eros and spirituality in Spanish mysticism is rooted in poetry brought to Hispania by the Moors. In the mysticism of 16th C Spain there was room for the uneducated, the poor, even women! Inner light was not completely controlled by the Catholic authorities. At least for a while.
“The Virgin of the Immaculate Conception”, “The Adoration of the Shepherds”, “The Visitation” among other of Greco’s paintings were visual parallels for the pervasive darkness of the poem “Noche Oscura”. Here perspective is diminished or obliterated, a moment is suspended, a spiraling movement ascending upward, an illuminated interior – enter the realm of mystery. The language of exaltation and spaces that are not rational. The Alumbrados, descendants of the Gnostics, lived in this place. Goya painted out of this place. Miro as well – though leaving behind pictorial narrative, he scrubbed the cave walls, touched the walls of his ancient ancestors. And arriving much later in this lineage, the poet Federico Garcia Lorca.
Back to Laocoon and hear the story – in the Aenied Virgil speaks of a priest, Laocoon, who warned the Trojans of the Greek’s gift, the wooden horse. The reprisal – Minerva and Neptune, Apollo and Artemis, variously named, anyway, avenging gods, sent sea serpents to strangle Laocoon and his two sons. In the painting six large looming figures, which comprise the foreground armature of the painting, rise up out of primitively painted rock. They seem themselves to be made of the same substance. They are ropes of flesh twisting and fallen in the midst of a horrific final struggle. The murderous snake, a muscular rope of serpentine flesh, seems itself to drive the movement. The foot of the father, the central figure, kicks out toward us. His two sons flank him, one dead and the other still wrestling a snake. A hole pushed in the middle of the rhythmic surface gives way to the distant city. Almost film like, a horse in the distance, a reference to the origins of this myth, trots, barely audible, toward the terraced city of Toledo, Greco’s hometown and a replacement for Troy. Heaven and Earth hold on tenuously.
Standing before this immense turbulent space, the experience of such beauty and pain binds my body and mind in turmoil. The choreographer Bill T. Jones, declares this is what art should strive for – beauty and pain. AND who are the two figures to the far left of this dynamic zig zag construction – a turned hand loosened unto clouds and a female figure, double headed with one face curling into the other, of indeterminate sex. ??? The ambiguity of El Greco’s figures, the feminizing of the male form and the masculinizing of the female body are undiminished in this scene of suffering. It is a world UNRESOLVED, where the equivocal is sovereign, is exhilarating. Is the mighty serpent possibly an oblique reference to Eve? Or is this painting a warning of the “collateral” damage of war?
The function of the Byzantine icon shaped El Greco’s earliest training as a young artist, a painter of icons. Then, after the lessons of teachers Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese, he increasingly left behind the Venetian Renaissance conventions. The construction of his vast interior vision demanded embodiment in the living presence of the divine. In this, he channeled the most ancient vein of image making, the cave paintings of Spain, whose makers touched the membrane of the cave walls to awaken, to honor, and to acknowledge divinity. We are face to face with a majestic tradition that is raw in its terribleness, that believes in places that language can only reach toward.
I often put on my well-worn coat, it keeps me warm. Epiphanies don’t happen so frequently as they did in my youth; I now look a bit more askance at them. Still, Laocoon capsizes me.
Jenny Lynn McNutt, Why This World I, 2013, Oil on canvas, 32 x 26 inches