El Greco the precursor of modernity

Saint Veronica, 1580, with the veil with the image of the Christ

The Greek painter, Doménikos Theotokópoulos, alias Greco, is one of the world’s most original renaissance painters and masters. He inspired avant-garde artists and impressionists.

Saint Lucas, 1605

The Grand Palais, in Paris, invites us to an extraordinary exhibition this winter (until 20 February 2020) with 75 masterpieces on display. The queues have circled long to get into the ancient palace to view this wild and unclassifiable genius. However, France has been on strike since nearly two weeks now, with hardly any public transport working, so the affluence to the museums has been rather restricted. It is thus an excellent time to go and see as many exhibitions as possible I discovered, provided one has good walking shoes.

The exhibition’s scenography, with simple white walls, leaves the monopoly on colour to the artist whose palette is explosive! It also gives it a touch of modernity.  

Viewing Greco’s elongated figures, reminded me of Giacometti; his flying persons of Chagall; his sometimes very sketchy portraits of the impressionists. I now understand why Greco is called the modernists’ precursor. Despite his predominantly Christine realistic paintings of the 16th century, his prodigy is such that his art doesn’t age.

The Annunciation, 1576.

During these days of Advent, Greco reminds us of why we celebrate Christmas. “A Saviour was born” and with Him: joy as a promise for humankind. Whatever metaphysical thoughts the visitor might – or might not – have, it’s impossible to stay impassable in front of such works of art. The emotions are palpable. The modern painters understood that very well.

However it was more difficult for Greco during his lifetime to get the recognition he so well deserved. After having tried his luck in the highly competitive Venetian market, he moved on to Rome where he perfected his skill at portraits in a personal style, some of which are exposed at the Grand Palais. But it was in Spain that he found his artistic roots and appreciative public, and where he finally settled down.

The Christ chasing the merchants at the Temple, 1575

Toledo, one of Europe’s leading artistic and cultural centres in those days, became the setting for many of Greco’s compositions, consisting mainly of religious scenes. The spread of private devotion led many families to found their own chapels and oratories on top of the orders he got from the Church. One of his best-known series is the one about Christ driving the traders from the temple.

Greco placed painting above all other arts and his colours are as vivid today as they must have been then. There are few drawings that have survived, as he destroyed most of them.

The Saint Family, 1580-85

This exhibition reminds us that a genius, even if he did fall into oblivion for a while, never really dies. Impressionists and avant-garde artists rediscovered him. Cézanne, Chagall and Picasso have lifted him up to be their prophet. And we’re lucky to be able to admire his works, well exhibited in this grandiose palace. Praying to Greco’s God that the strikers will make a halt during the Christmas season, so as many as possible will be able to view this fabulous exhibition. Merry Christmas!

Anne Edelstam, Paris

Satiric artist shown at the Swedish Institute in Paris

Ewa Kumlin and Peter Johansson

Peter Johansson, a controversial contemporary artist, together with Ewa Kumlin, the Swedish Institute’s director, presented this winter’s exhibition, called ‘National Therapy’, to an amazed French public.

The Swedish Institute (that was saved in extremis, a few years ago, from being closed down due to lack of funds) is situated in the hub of Paris’ art scene, in the Marais. It has become of the most frequented art arenas of this cultural capital. Parisians flock to the ancestral palace, with its exhibitions, café and lush garden.  

The opening was held in a chilly November evening with the artist and the SI director explaining his works in midst of the institute’s garden. A tent had been put up serving beer and sausages. And sausages are definitely a recurrent theme in Peter’s art, as is he himself, dressed or undressed (more often than not).

An enormous stuga, or cottage, painted in the typical red colour of most Swedish country-houses, rotated in mid-air above our heads. The sculpture, named ‘Family Therapy’, invites the audience to raise questions about what the family stands for in our contemporary world. Like the rest of Peter’s works which show no boundary when it comes to mocking and making fun of anything that has to do with nationalism, patriotism, traditions or conventional family life.   

The institute’s ground floor was buzzing with fans blowing air on a sculpture with Swedish flags, next to a homemade canon piercing embroidered paintings of a house and Beatbox, a sound sculpture, shouting out the unofficial national hymn of the Swedish Nazi movement. Next to which was one of the artist’s several auto-portraits, depicting Hitler with bacon as hair and moustache.

An entire wall is dedicated to photographs of Peter naked; painted in the colours of the typical Dalacarian wooden horse; dressed up like the famous 19th century artist, Anders Zorn; or enveloped as a sausage. His imagination shows no limits in depicting and making fun of every typical Swedish mark.

On the upper floor, usually devoted to among others, Alexander Roslin, an ancient royal painter, the walls had been covered by wooden panels, pierced with holes for the audience to catch a glimpse of diverse more or less explicit and fun mockeries of the aristocracy of the time, but not without expressing some self-irony, as well as more or less explicit sexual connotations. I was wondering what he might have experienced in his life, to show such contempt for his own body and sexuality in general?

Sausages were sticking out in most of the works. Making it, at least for me, impossible to go out and eat one afterwards in the kiosk that served them in the garden.

The entire exhibition might be analysed as a derision of the Swedish National Right party or SD (Sverige demokraterna) that seems to be taking the country by storm, but equally as a surrealist sense of humour, making fun at anything conventional. Peter’s humanity transpires by showing our vulnerability and shortcomings as mere humans thrown into the violence of the world.

He doesn’t seem to take the discussion further, into a spiritual or godly possibility; there is no offer of redemption. That’s maybe why the exhibition left me with a sense of unease and hopelessness.

Undoubtedly, the exposition will raise more questions than it will answer. The question is whether it will draw the French public to want to explore Sweden further or on the contrary, to get as far away from it as possible?

However, it isn’t the artist’s job to attract tourists but rather to raise uncomfortable questions. And in that respect we must admit that Peter Johansson has succeeded over expectations!

Anne Edelstam, Paris.  

Institut Suédois

15 November 2019 – 1 March 2020


Kurdish Sisters in Arms.

Her movie “Soeurs d’Armes”, or Sisters in Arms, is a realistic movie about a group of female Kurdish soldiers.

The French journalist, Caroline Forest, who used to work for the French magazine, Charlie Hebdo that was attacked during a Paris terror assault, has taken up filming.

The movie came out in Paris this fall and is coming to USA by the end of October 2019. It’s a thriller based on investigative journalism. The viewer is invited to follow a group of Kurdish female soldiers, who have been joined by some foreign volunteers. That ‘international brigade’ encompasses among others, one American, one German and two young French women, Kenza and Jaël, who arrived there to help their ‘sisters in arms” combat Daesh/Isis warriors.