El Greco and Modernism, Kunstpalast, Düsseldorf
Urs Fischer: Madame Fisscher, Palazzo Grassi, Venice

Careful curators let us see how a rebel Byzantine painter cast a spell over Picasso et al

At the start of the Düsseldorf Kunstpalast's magisterial show, El Greco and Modernism, is a small panel, egg tempera on wood, of St Luke Painting an Icon of the Virgin and Child. Its battered state apart, there is something wrong with the picture. St Luke is making a proper, Byzantine icon, painted without perspective; but the image in which he does so is painted perspectivally. The work is a manifesto against the Greek status quo, and was painted by a Greek. Spaniards, reasonably, dubbed him el greco.

Domenikos Theotokopoulos was born in Crete in 1541 and trained as an icon painter. Early in his career, he found the pictorial constraints of his craft irksome: the rebellious St Luke panel may have been painted when he was just 19. He was 25 or so when he left for Crete's ruling city, Venice, and a decade older when, via Rome, he arrived in Spain. For the purposes of the Kunstpalast's show, however, the year to keep in mind is 1912, when a collector called Marczell von Nemes showed his Grecos in Düsseldorf.

It is hard to imagine the disfavour into which the Cretan had fallen in Establishment circles. In 1881, the Prado's director moaned about having to store El Greco's "ridiculous caricatures", many of which were sold off. Sixteen years before, though, Edouard Manet had visited the gallery and been struck by the unfashionable artist. In Paris, he mentioned him to Cézanne, and ...

... and what, exactly? The Kunstpalast's curators are far too sensible to say anything so vulgar, but the answer, sort of, is: ... and Modernism. Cézanne may never have seen an El Greco in the flesh, but he saw plenty in reproduction. It is difficult not to sense the spatial organisation of works such as his great Laocoö* in Cézanne's Bathers at Rest of 1876-77. From there we fast forward to 1899 and a drawing by Picasso inscribed Yo, El Greco ("I, El Greco"). All of which suggests that Cubism may owe its preoccupation with flatness to a Byzantine painter who never quite rid himself of it.

This show is less concerned with what the French and Spanish made of El Greco than with his effect on German art. When, 100 years ago, Nemes's Grecos appeared in Düsseldorf, they were shown alongside contemporary works. The pairing was significant. If Cézanne was too dangerous for Germans to claim as an ancestor, El Greco – a genuine Old Master – fitted the bill. Painters were swept away by his odd perspective, avant la lettre Expressionism, and acid, Venetian palette. The Kunstpalast's show is full of works by Karl Hofer, Max Beckmann and Oskar Kokoschka which show signs of that moment, a century ago, when El Greco entered the German avant-garde imagination. In its quiet, reasonable way, the Kunstpalast rewrites the history of a strand of modern art.

It would be pretty well unthinkable for a contemporary artist to respond to Venice as El Greco did. Art, now, is about the ego, and nowhere more so than in the work of Urs Fischer, a 30-something Swiss-German who has what is known as a diverse practice, which means that he makes different kinds of work out of different kinds of things: candlewax, bronze, polystyrene, naked ladies, prayer, swinging lightbulbs, et cetera. His latest show is at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice, although it might be anywhere big enough to house it. Its centrepiece, the exact recreation of a London studio Fischer once had, gives the show its name. It is called, for reasons unexplained, Madame Fisscher.

Upstairs is a suite of works called Holes. Suspended by fishing twine, these include a polystyrene anus, mouth, ear, penis and nose. "Did ya notice there's no vagina?" hissed an angry American lady: I hadn't, actually. Perhaps this was meant to be provided by the naked female model who lay about the adjoining room.

Beyond that was a space full of brightly painted, floor-to-ceiling squiggles, like a Brice Marden in 3D. It may have been called Spinoza Rhapsody or A Thing Called Gearbox: the signage wasn't clear. Beyond that again was a life-size wax man in a tweed coat and slacks – Fischer has an itch for Madame Tussauds – which may or may not have been a candle. What to make of all this I do not know, although I feel on safe ground in saying that Urs Fischer's practice is very diverse indeed.

'El Greco and Modernism' (0049 211 8990200) to 12 Aug. Urs Fisher (00 39 041 2719039) to 15 Jul

Next week

Charles Darwent takes a shot at the Ashmolean's English Prize

Critic’s choice

The Bauhaus exhibition at London's Barbican goes for a wide-angled view on the art school, taking in colour charts, theatre costumes, party snaps, cool typefaces, teapots and modernist architecture on the way (to 12 Aug). An Edvard Munch pastel may have just sold for £74m, but you can enjoy his graphic works for a lot less at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (to 23 Sep).

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...