El Greco (1541–1614)
Rembrandt and Velázquez had both used impasto.
But in Van Gogh’s hands its effects became more pronounced and dramatic.
He didn’t want the paint simply to depict part of the picture, but to be part of the picture.
Where the Impressionists had sought to expose the truth by painting what they saw with rigorous objectivity, Van Gogh wanted to go further and expose deeper truths about the human condition.
So he took a subjective approach, painting not just what he saw, but how he felt about what he saw.
He started to distort his images to convey his emotions, exaggerating for effect like a caricaturing cartoonist.
He would paint a mature olive tree and emphasize its age by remorselessly twisting the trunk and disfiguring the branches until it looked like a gnarled old lady; wise but cruelly misshapen by time.
He would then add those large clumps of oil paint to accentuate the effect, turning a two-dimensional picture into a 3-D epic: a painting into a sculpture.
Van Gogh wrote to Theo, referring to a mutual friend who was questioning his move away from accurate representation: ‘Tell Serret that I should be desperate if my figures were right … tell him that I have a longing to make such incorrectness, such deviations, remodellings, changes in reality, so that they may become, well – lies, if you want – but truer than the literal truth.’
And in so doing he inspired one of the most significant and enduring art movements of the twentieth century: Expressionism.
Of course, nothing comes out of nothing, even from Van Gogh’s hyper-sensitive soul. Keith Christiansen of the Department of European Painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York had this to say: ‘He made elongated, twisting forms, radical foreshortening, and unreal colors the very basis of his art.
The difference was that he made these effects deeply expressive and not merely emblems of virtuosity.’
He’s talking about Van Gogh, right? Nope. He’s talking about El Greco (1541–1614), who was distorting his images to communicate emotion 300 years before Van Gogh was born.
The Spanish-domiciled, Cretan-born (hence El Greco, the Greek) Renaissance artist’s fingerprints can be found throughout the story of modern art.