El Greco’s Laocoön

A really happy story about why you don’t mess the Gods. 

El Greco is actually a nickname meaning “The Greek.” Which is pretty broad nickname but with a real name like Doménikos Theotokópoulos I suppose we’ll take what we can get.

Check out Laocoon done by El Greco in 1610. The brushstroke, the color, the composition does not follow any of the Renaissance guidelines for good art. Instead, it practically gives them the finger.

According to legend, Laocoon was a nice fellow with two dashing young sons. He lived during the Era of Heroes in the midst of little conflict known as the Trojan War. One lovely day, he caught wind of some business with the Greeks and a Horse and some plans for them Trojans. Laocooön being a considerate man, thought that maybe he ought to give the Trojans a heads up about this gift horse. The Gods didn’t like this idea. After getting really bored of watching this long war, they wanted it over — with a side of raping and pillaging. So Poseidon, God of the Sea, sent some sea serpent to murder Laocoön and his (so far as we known, completely innocent) sons. Below we see El Greco’s cheery depiction of the family’s grisly death.

Laocoon by El Greco
Laocoon by El Greco

Laocoön is the sort of greek myth readily depicted in the Renaissance’s classical style. A Hellenistic sculpture of Laocoon provides ample contrast between what would have been the expected depiction and El Greco’s version.

Laocoon_and_His_Sons Hellenistic

Laocoön is actually unusual in his works. In Spain,he produced mainly religious commissions. The most famous of which is the Funeral of Count of Orgaz. While Laocoön and Orgaz differ radically in subject matter, El Greco’s intense colors, dynamic lines and elongated bodies help underscore a sense of the supernatural in both.

The Burial of Count Orgaz by El Greco (1586)

Given his radical departure from traditional Renaissance ideas about perspective, line and color, El Greco was generally dismissed by the art establishment. At least until the late 1800s when critics rebranded him the precursor to European Romanticism. Manet and Cezanne drew heavily from El Greco’s style. The composition of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’Avignon was likely inspired by another El Greco work. So while the artists of the baroque period might have looked down their noses, El Greco wins in the end.

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