A good story sticks with you, no matter how long ago you first heard it, or how long ago it happened. Look out for Laocoön (c. 1610/1614) at the NGA by El Greco (1541 – 1614): it’s an ancient story so harrowing that it has resounded through the ages. Want proof? This was the only classical subject the artist ever painted. Born on Crete, El Greco started his career as an icon painter before moving to Venice c. 1568, where he absorbed influences from artists, and achieved modest success. In 1576 (he was in his mid 30s), he moved to Spain and settled in Toledo, where he became a leading painter and spent the rest of his life. Known as El Greco, the Greek (his real name was Domenikos Theotokopoulos), he’s now regarded as the first great personality of Spanish painting.
Both Homer’s Iliad and Virgil’s Aeneid tell the story of Laocoön (pronounced Lao-koh-on), a character in Greek and Roman mythology who played a pivotal part in the Trojan Wars. When the Trojans came across a large wooden horse standing on their shores in the midst of their bloody war with the Greeks, they thought it to be peace offering or a sign of retreat left by the enemy. Only the Trojan priest Laocoön refused to believe it. Virgil gives him the famous lines Equo ne credite, Teucri/ Quidquid id est, timeo Danaos et dona ferentes (“Do not trust the Horse, Trojans / Whatever it is, I fear the Greeks even bearing gifts.”) The Trojans wouldn’t take his word, so a frustrated Laocoön flung a spear into the side of the horse, to show it was hollow. This so infuriated those gods who’d sided with the Greeks, that they sent sea-serpents to strangle Laocoön and his two sons.
This picture is poisoned with an unremitting sense of doom. El Greco shows twin serpents snaking fatally around Laocoön and one son (the other boy lies dead at his father’s side). The figures standing on the right might be the gods supervising their vengeance. El Greco is labeled a Mannerist painter but in fact works in a highly personalized style that’s unlike anyone else. Here his poses are pushed to extremes: from the drama of the foreshortened dead boy and the left-to-right straddle of Laocoön, to the upright elegance of the figures standing left and right. There’s a figure-of-eight snaking through the collective bodies, which coils a compress-and-release energy into the composition. The anatomies are rooted in real understanding of what a body looks like, but El Greco stretches out his limbs and nips in his waists, plying his figures into elongated other-wordly beings. Their sinuous outlines and anti-natural flesh tones give them an odd, anti-corporeal, almost specter-like appearance, emphasized by the glaring, eerie light.
It’s possible this apocalyptic painting had meaningful contemporary resonance. In the distance is a view of Toledo, the artist’s adopted home. Covered by sinister storm-clouds, it’s an idiosyncratic take on the city that enhances the sense of foreboding. El Greco may have intended to relate Laocoön’s story of conflict and retribution to the Inquisition, which was raging in Toledo at this time. Virgil’s words in describing Laocoön’s demise have stuck with me for almost twenty years:
At the same time as, with his hands, he tries to tear away the coils round his waist,
the coils round his head; soaked with slaver and black poison,
he also raises horrifying shrieks to the stars…”
But El Greco proves here that a good painting can stay with you even longer.