El Greco ‘Architecto’. A History Lesson from Joaquín Bérchez (english)

Miguel Falomir

All those of us who have written about the photography of Joaquín Bérchez have pointed out that artist and art historian converge in his view of things, and it is this convergence that makes him so powerfully unique. Another time I addressed the aesthetic dimension of his photography. I now write on his photography as art history. I am interested not in how the art historian has mediatized the photographer, but in showing that the exhibition ‘Joaquín Bérchez. El Greco Architeto. Algo más que retablos’ is an excellent example of art history. We have taken art history to be an essentially written discipline, when there probably is no better and more logical way to engage in it than through images.
It seems a platitude to say that the objective of any art historian is to study works from the double angle of synchronics and diachronics. The former tries to recreate the conditions in which the works of art were made; the latter is concerned with how these same works have come down to us. Any commemoration tends to magnify the one being honored, and El Greco’s is no exception. Bérchez’s photographs are an intelligent antidote to this predictable exaltation of the genius to the detriment of the surroundings, perhaps because architecture is by definition the most social and least solitary of artistic disciplines. In the journey from the intelligent use of View of Toledo as prologue to the video, to the insertion of El Greco paintings in his altarpieces, and these in their respective buildings and urban contexts, we can visualize El Greco in the city where he lived and worked for forty years, his relationship with individuals and communities seeking his services and with the artists and artisans he worked with, and we this from T.S. Eliot: no artist is self-explanatory.

Most of what El Greco painted for Toledo is no longer there. Only a few paintings are on display in the buildings they were meant for, and in conditions very different from originally. We owe to Bérchez eloquent testimonies of those transformations. His photographs warn us that our perception of those paintings cannot be the same as the perception of Toledans then: the architectural spaces have changed much, as in the Church of Santo Tomé or the Chapel of San José. The altars where the paintings are have been manipulated, amd sometimes roughly, as in the Ovalle chapel. The lighting is different – and the fact that the photographs were taken with natural light is commendable. And the altarpieces were usually seen through railings.

Bérchez’s photographs satisfy this double synchronic/diachronic demand, but their greatest asset as art history is probably their emphasis on the object. I remember T. J. Clark defining his approach to art history as commented ekphrasis. An ekphrasis is the description of a work of art, and as such, presupposes in-depth and firsthand knowledge about the object being contemplated. One who prepares an ekphrasis does not only contemplate and analyze the work of art thoroughly, but is also capable of interiorizing the experience and, above all, of sharing it with words. The more educated and sensitive the spectator, the more reasoned and complete the ekphrasis.

In upholding reasoned ekphrasis as a way of doing art, Clark advocated going back to making the object the center of our discipline; a discipline more and more uncomfortable making contact with the work of art, and more prone to formulating complex theories that merge it with the so-called social sciences. Bérchez is an art historian who likes art, and his photographs proclaim it. Moreover, if it weren’t for the fact that ekphrasis is a literary genre, I would describe his ekphrases of El Greco as ‘reasoned ekphrasis’. I know it’s an oxymoron, but in them I find a visual equivalent to that reasoned description mentioned by Clark, perceptible in the approach to the altarpieces, from general to specific; in the apathy with which he recreates his textures through materiality, or in the never capricious taste for detail.

Detail, expressed through the frame, deserves a commentary on its own because it is perhaps the most powerful visual strategy in Bérchez’s photography. As Daniel Arasse taught us, detail is the reward of one who knows how to look. It is a source of surprises, of unsuspected discoveries imperceptible to fleeting glances or insensitive eyes. Details escapes the rushed spectator and also the dogmatic one, it requires time and readiness for surprise, and demands that pleasure of the gaze with which Bérchez titled a previous exhibition, not in vain.

De Vitruvio a Palladio
Each image in the exhibition thus hasa purpose, and behind it is the trained eye of its author. Bérchez does not reproduce El Greco’s altarpieces; he teaches us how to look at them, and it in the videos that this reasoned way of describing images reaches its fullness, for the photographs take on a narrative of extraordinary eloquence.
The videos make us enter the churches and chapels, perceive the spatial and formal relationship between the altarpieces and the spaces harboring them, and discover the forms that inhabit them. When finally our eye stops at a detail, we discover, through comparison with images seen in architectural treatises or in buildings by Palladio or
Michelangelo, the why of that frame, because the selected detail encapsulates El Greco’s life and art, conveying it to the viewer more elegantly and persuasively than the best prose.
All these photographs and videos contain the meditated modern lesson on architecture that inhabits the altarpieces and architectural spaces El Greco created, side by side with his paintings, in union with his son Jorge Manuel as well as the Toledo architect Nicolás Vergara the Younger. The photographic strategy gives us the intense poetic of shadows and the vehement destructuring of the classical language, much in line with Michelangelesque experience. They make us aware of the innovative Italian model of large canvases, unknown then in Spain; the inventive use of the Palladian motif of Vicenza’s basilica; the reelaboration of the Ionic capital of angular volutes, the so-caled allamichelangiolesca; the dawn views of Michelangelo’s project for St. Peter’s Basilica; the rare profiles of its frames surpassing capitals and friezes; or the powerful aesthetic of the column shafts welded to one another, shred into flutes. We are reminded of El Greco’s reputation as an artist initiated in architecture; of word from Francisco
Pacheco, Fray Hortensio Félix Paravicino, and his own son about his architectural writings; or the abundant manuscripts left in the margins of Vitruvius’s Ten Books on Architecture (ed. Daniele Barbaro, Venice, 1556), in some of which he showed himself to be a representative of the modern path of architecture’s classical language, not hibernated in the static concept of the “superstitious of Antiquity,” in El Greco’s own words.
The exhibition includes magnificent photographs of enormous technical and aesthetic interest, but also shows a way of engaging in and understanding art history where intelligent evocation replaces gratuitous erudition, and where, against a desired but improbable academic neutrality, the biography of the author is acknowledged. The result is a different Greco from tghe usual, probably because Bérchez neither is an expert in El Greco nor tries to be one, and often it is outsiders, freed of mental prejudices and methodological limitations, who dare to venture on untreaded paths. Bérchez’s photographs of El Greco works exemplify the “teach with enjoyment” that Horace recommended, so lacking nowadays.

[Miguel Falomir, “El Greco ‘Architecto’. A History Lesson from Joaquín Bérchez”, Arquitectura Viva, 165, 2014]