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Keri Miller

Art 117

20 Febuary 2000

El Greco's Laocoön

Loacoön is a later painting by the famous Cretan painter El Greco. It portrays the murder of Laocoön, a priest of Neptune, and his sons by two sea serpents sent by Minerva. In order to understand this painting completely one must examine the myth, the artist, its predecessor, the painting itself, and how it reflects both the classical and modern era. The myth portrayed by Laocoön is that of the Trojan War recorded in The Aeneid : Book Two by Virgil and described in Bulfinch’s Mythology (Classics Archive). During the Trojan War the Greeks built a wooden horse in which they hid soldiers and left it outside the gates of Troy. They then pretended to leave their siege of Troy and sailed some of their ships away to a nearby island. Sinon, a supposedly ousted Greek soldier, tells the Trojans the horse is a gift for Minerva, which was built big so that the Trojans would not steal it and win her favor. However, Laocoön, a priest of Neptune, thinks the horse is a danger and throws a spear at it to prove himself. This act enrages Minerva who thus sends her serpents to punish him and his sons (Bulfinch’s Mythology). The Aeneid describes this act in detail. It illustrates the attack quite vividly in Allen Mandelbaum's translation as it states:


"They strike a straight line toward Laocoön. At first each snake entwines the tiny bodies of his two sons in an embrace, then feasts its fangs on their defenseless limbs. The pair next seizes upon Laocoön himself, who nears to help his sons, carrying weapons. They wind around his waist and twice around his throat. They throttle him with scaly backs; their heads and steep necks tower over him. He struggles with his hands to rip their knots, his headbands soaked in filth and in dark venom, while he lifts high his hideous cries to heaven, just like the bellows of a wounded bull when it has fled the altar, shaking off an unsure ax " (Aeneid’s description of Loacoön and his sons).

Yet, the myth is not the only background needed to understand Loacoön as a painting. One must know the creator and his history as well. Grove Art recorded El Greco as being, "a Greek painter, designer and engraver, active in Italy and Spain." His original name was Domenikos Theotokopoulos and was born on Crete c. 1541 and died in Toledo in 1614. Greco often signed his paintings " the Cretan " which showed pride in himself and land (Cossio, El Greco). Most noted is his gradual change starting from a Byzantine style and evolving into " another, wholly Western manner " (Grove Art). Though his elongated style still embodies the earlier qualities of the Mannerist distortion where " the figures …frequently have graceful but queerly elongated limbs, small heads, and stylized facial features, while their poses seem difficult or contrived " (Britannica Online, Mannerism) One of the suspected reasons for his unusual style of painting was astigmatism as stated in The Philosophical Quarterly. It is believed that astigmatism causes people see objects in different proportion. This would explain the strange " elongated figures " seen with such paintings as Laocoön (Hopkins, El Greco's eyesight: interpreting pictures and the psychology of vision). However, before El Greco was an unconventional painter, he lived with his family of merchants and officials in his youth. He then moved to Italy to begin his artistic training which was unavailable in Crete. There he learnt "not only a new form but also a modern conception of artistic activity with its corresponding intellectual and social position " (Grove Art). Thereafter he lived a luxurious life and traveled to Spain seeking " royal commissions " (Grove Art).

Before one can discuss Greco's Laocoön one must discuss its predecessor-- for the painting not only hearkens back to an ancient myth, but an ancient sculpture as well. This sculpture is Laocoön and His Sons, unearthed during the Italian Renaissance in 1506 in the Roman ruins of Titus' palace (Vatican Museums-Hellenistic Sculpture, Laocoön and His Sons). It was carved from separate blocks of marble and suspected to have been carved by Hagesandros, Polydoros and Athenodoros, three Greek sculptures (Grove Art,Laokoon). This sculpture was very influential on Baroque artists and was consequently called Baroque itself. Two of the most famous influences on this Baroque labeling were Caravaggio and Bernini who mimicked the " furrowed brow and open-mouthed pain " expressions of the sculpture (Vatican Museums –Hellenistic Sculpture). Most influential was the energy of the expressions upon the figures' faces. For as stated, " the theatricality and emphasis on emotional intensity is typically Hellenistic Greek--often called " Baroque " as well. Note the writhing serpents, one of whom bites Laocoön's left leg, and pained expressions." Interestingly, rather than Baroque expressionistic called classical, the classical is called baroque.

After examining the background of Laocoön one may finally move onto the studying of the painting itself and how its elements relate to classical and modern works of art. Therein, the painting may be broken up into the aspects of subject matter and content, composition, form, color, technique, and mood.

Though the general subject matter of the ancient myth has already been touched upon the exact content of the painting has not. Thus, within Laocoon there are the three struggling figures but also, three unknown figures who stand close by, a horse, a city background, and natural setting of the horizon and rocky landscape. The struggling figures are already familiar but the city background, horse, and three unknown figures are not. El greco takes the famous event and places it in the familiar landscape of Toledo, Spain ( Gudiol, Domenikos Theolokopoulas). He ,however,still hints at the ancient Trojan setting and classical myth by installing a tiny horse in the background. The three figures are are mystery to many and there are abundant conjectures as to who they might be. Bronstein believes these figures are gods, which would fit into a classical painting (Bronstein, El Greco). However, who would these gods be? The fates might be one possibility because of Loacoöns failed attempt at changing destiny. However, the fates are classically portrayed as female. In any case, Together the qualities and spacing of these elements create a specific composition. There are different opinions on the exact effect created by El Greco's arrangement. Bronstein, for instance, discusses the coexistence of separation and overriding unity brought on by named elements. Though Bronstein first claims these elements of "elliptic planes and contours" and " interlocking curves and angles " of the painting creates " centrifuge and separation or detachment " within the painting, he goes on to say:

"denncoh erfuellt tiefe Einheit das Gemaelde: dank der beiden Götter, die Himmel und Erde verbinden und, zusammen mit dem zur anderen Seite stehenden Soh des Loakoön, seitliche Stuetzpfeiler bilden; auch dank des Zusammenklangs der braunen, grauen, und gruenlichen Farbtöne " (El Greco, Bronstein).

[(My rough translation) " Nevertheless deep unity fills the painting: owing to both of the gods, that connect the sky and earth, and together with the standing son of Loacoön on the other side, form side buttresses; and also owing to the harmony of the brown, gray, and green shades."] Thus, Loacoön is a painting comprised of distinct elements of separation which are arranged together in a specific harmonious manner to create an overall sense of unity. Vallentin, however, has a different opinion of Loacoon's composition. He contrasts El Greco's "anti-plastic " creation with the " pyramid " formation of the Hellenistic sculpture. This vast contrast to classical sculpture is even illustrated by Britannica Online as it cites that, " he displayed little regard for classical tradition in painting the highly expressive but great, sprawling body of the priest " which is extremely contradictory to the proud yet struggling stance of the Hellenistic work (Britannica Online, El Greco).Vallentin claims El Greco took the marble mass confusion of men and serpents and drew it out into " several distinct elements " (Vallentin, El Greco). For example, the element of attacked men are represented in Loacoön as " protagonists in a common drama [which] are as isolated as possible " (Vallentin). The image is no longer a giant conglomeration of angst and vivid terror, but instead separated into unique individual struggles against the serpents and impending lethal fate. Looking at the figures individually one can see specific differences. Laocoön as stated, is layed out flat in an unnoble manner, while he fights heroically to the end in the sculpture. El Greco also mixes up the poses. The left son, for instance, is being bitten in the side where Loacoön himself was bitten in the sculpture. Also, the left son's legs are free in El Greco's rendition as he stuggles with the much noted smaller snake and looks upward. The right son, however, is long dead and shown facing up and away from the spectator instead of alive and standing. El Greco’s placements draw the attention away from the sething mass of bodies and distribute it more equaly through out the painting. Moreover, by categorizing and seperating elements of the marble sculpture El Greco creates order out of confusion.

Form, color, and technique are all interdependent within Loacoön, as each relies upon the other. The form or general outline of the figures is uniquely El Greco. Namely, excessive curves and gauntness saturate the men's bodies. Bronstein goes so far as to call certain figures " weiblich " or feminine (Bronstein, El Greco). These curves are even further emphasized by the repeating nonlinear twisting nature of the background, snakes, and rocks. The technique and coloring used on El Greco is similar to that of Assumption of the Virgin where " the technique remains Venetian in the laying on of the paint and in the liberal use of white highlights; yet the intensity of the colours and the manipulation of contrasts, verging on dissonance, is distinctly El Greco "(Britannica Online, El Greco). Therefore, El Greco tends to use strong colors, contrast, white highlights which Loacoön is an ideal example of. Technique-wise, the painting also utilizes a loose paintbrush stroke which draws even further attention to the figure's fluid, " serpentine, flame-like quality " recurrent in El Greco's work (Gudiol, Domenikos Theolokopoulas).

Because of all of Loacoön's aforementioned elements of technique, composition, and such a very distinct mood is created. There is energy, movement, and emotion invoked by the type of lines and patterns used. Vallentin claims, within Laocoön there is a " jerky rhythm " created by " the broken curves " which saturate the painting " with movement leading in sharp zigzags from one apparently isolated body to another." The movement is maintained with the landscape and the " turbulent sky " whose "colouring adds to this movement, to give the picture its strange unity " ( Vallentin, El Greco). The eyes are forced to move continuously from one figure and sight to the next led by non-stagnant angles and curves. The rhythm and movement create interest and mood of excitement and energy within the scene.

Yet the painting not only hearkens back to the classical sculpture of antiquity but also foreshadows the expressionistic movement with its vigor, fluid forms, and emotion. More specifically, Laocoön is quite similar in form and mood to The Scream by Munch. The appearance of both paintings is vastly similar from the aforementioned "flame like qualities ", to loose brush technique, unique fluid forms, vigor, and strong mood. In both paintings there are no straight lines and everything has a twisting pattern within the painting. Even, the mood of Laocoön is similar to the expressionistic painting. They have an vivid otherworldly sense created by the twisted forms of the figures and background. Emotion seems to hang suspended within the twisting vibrant skies of both paintings. The light, almost metallic highlights, of the figures project a ghostly image. They convey a sort of dream state, a separation from reality. Source
New Bibliography

Additional Info

National Gallery of Art- El Greco's Laocoön
Images of Trojan War Myth
Images with info
Web Museum