We got off the train and went straight to the El Greco exhibition at the National Gallery. El Greco is one of the greats. Other artists of the counter-Reformation filled their skies with angels and saints, but Greco's are the the only ones who look as if they might really be able to fly. He's a rare case of an artist who seems utterly in tune with his society- in his case the theocracy of fifteenth century Toledo. It must have been a bit like living under the Taliban- with the difference that these guys were crazy for art. Modern commentators find his portrait of the Grand Inquisitor scary, but what I see is a humorous little chap in specs and a frock. El Greco likes him. Perhaps they were even friends. Anyway, it's gorgeous, not at all the work of a man who was trembling in his boots. And why should he have been scared? He and the Inquisitor were enthusiasts for the same world view. I don't like catholic triumphalism, but Greco almost has me convinced. Those figures like flames, those firework bursts of scarlet and lemon and burnt orange, those melting rocks, those skies that look as though they've been carved out of shell. It's a surreal vision- but one driven by conviction not nihilism.
Then we went to Tate Britain. After Greco it was a let down. British artists paint in shades of mud. The apotheosis comes with Auerbach and Kossof- where the shit-coloured paint is so heavily impastoed that it starts to peel off the canvas under its own weight. The only genius Britain has produced is Turner- and even he, at the mercy of the market, produced volumes of hack-work.
The third day we went to Tate Modern. The gallery itself is the real news here- an industrial cathedral with a view from the top-floor restaurant that beats most of the art. 2Oth century painting and sculpture is mainly a tying up of loose ends. The great names are Picasso and Warhol- with Beuys as an el Greco like visionary operating somewhere at the edge of the map. Picasso's Three Dancers is an astonishing piece of work- as classic as Poussin, as savage as Goya- a grand summation of everything that had gone before.