Plague catches up with artist in Chicago

El Greco escaped the plague in Venice; at The Art Institute of Chicago, his work wasn’t so lucky.

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The El Greco painting “Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple.”

El Greco painted mostly religious themes, but he still lived in the art world, and was not beyond tucking a quartet of his heroes — Titian, Michelangelo, Giulio Clovio and Raphael — in the lower right corner of his “Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple.”

Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

Doménikos Theotokópoulos was lucky when it came to plague.

The painter passed through Venice in 1575, the year the Black Death killed a third of the residents of that crowded maritime port. He was on his way from Rome, where he had studied under the great painter Titian — who himself would soon after die of plague — to Spain, where he would establish his own enduring fame as El Greco, “The Greek.”

But his luck with plagues ran out recently, as a major show of his work, “El Greco: Ambition and Defiance,” opened at The Art Institute of Chicago March 7, only to go dark six days later when the museum closed to slow the spread of COVID-19.

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I was fortunate to see the show during the brief span it was open, admiring how it reunited scattered works that had not been in the same room for centuries.

I couldn’t help but feel sympathy for the show’s curators, and wonder: what is it like to dedicate years of your life to such a project only to have it displayed to empty galleries? 

“I worked on it a long time,” said Rebecca Long, who curated the show for The Art Institute. “There were a lot of negotiations. Some paintings we weren’t able to get. All in all, solidly worked for four years. ” 

Rebecca Long, the Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan associate curator in the department of medieval to modern European painting and sculpture. She spent four years preparing the El Greco show that was open for less than a week at The Art Institute due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rebecca Long spent four years preparing the El Greco show that was open for less than a week at The Art Institute due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She’s the museum’s Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan associate curator in the department of medieval to modern European painting and sculpture.

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The idea presented itself as soon as she arrived from the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

“The show came about really naturally,” said Long. “I came to the Art Institute five years ago and immediately started thinking about what exhibitions were worthwhile.”

El Greco stood out for a reason that delightfully combines the ethereal and the mundane. The Art Institute owns an enormous El Greco masterpiece, “The Assumption of the Virgin.” Acquired in 1906, it had over a century’s worth of Chicagoans’ hot breath congealed upon it. 

“It occurred to me that the painting needed a cleaning, a conservation treatment,” said Long. “It hadn’t been touched since 1913.”

You don’t just spritz an artwork like that with Simply Green and start scrubbing. She consulted with conservation experts from the Prado Museum in Madrid.

“They came to Chicago for a week,” she said, explaining the Assumption became a natural focal point. “It was easy to build a show around it. We originated the idea in Chicago, then started looking for partners, preferably international partners.”

These were limited because the Assumption is so big, not every museum has a gallery to fit it. But one well-known museum did. 

“The Louvre was very keen to partner,” she said. “We co-sponsored with the Louvre, and the show ended up at the Grand Palais.”

That opened in Paris in October, and Long has solace knowing that the show had its full run there. But even there the exhibit had difficulties due to a general transportation strike.

“The subways shut down,” she said. “It was not an easy time to be a visitor in Paris. But given the strike situation, they had a great turnout.” 

A shuttered art exhibit is not on par with the human toll of this pandemic. But the El Greco show is a real loss nevertheless, just one of countless exhibits, performances, concerts, either cut short or never to occur at all. Long wisely measures her loss against the greater global calamity. 

“Obviously super disappointing,” she said. “Given the larger issue of what’s going on, the tragedy that’s unfolding, it’s small beans in comparison.”

The show might yet reopen or even be extended past its scheduled closing date of June 21. In the meantime, you can take a video and audio tour here: https://www.artic.edu/visit-us-virtually/el-greco-online

The Art Institute, by my calculation, is losing $100,000 a day when shut down. That has to hurt; if you are able, consider joining. I’ve been a member for years; it’s a bargain, even if you only go a few times a year.

The parting thought should be of El Greco. I asked Long to describe, for those unfamiliar, what they are missing.

“No one else paints like El Greco,” she said. “His style is his and his alone; so singular and energetic, distorted in a very modern way. There is an energy to his paintings. He carves out a space for himself. If you know nothing about the artist, nothing about Spain, his skill as an artist, his personal style, it grabs you.”

A former payroll manager for the Art Institute of Chicago was indicted on federal charges of stealing more than $2 million in museum funds over a decade.

The Art Institute of Chicago’s exhibit on the painter El Greco took years to assemble, then closed after less than a week due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Sun-Times file

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