icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 2-4 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."

 

UNSLEEPING REASON: GOYA GRAPHICS AT THE MET

Goya (Francisco de Goya y Lucientes) (Spanish, 1746–1828). Plate 42 from Los Caprichos: Thou who canst not (Tu que no puedes.), 1799. Etching, burnished aquatint, Sheet 11 5/8 × 8 1/4 in. (29.5 × 21 cm); plate 8 1/2 × 5 7/8 in. (21.5 × 15 cm).The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of M.
Knoedler & Co., 1918 (18.64[42])

 

 

"There's no question in my mind but that Goya's "Third of May" is better than anything Pollock could paint," Clement Greenberg told a Bennington seminar in 1971. It's unlikely New York will get to see a full-dress retrospective of Francisco Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828) any time soon, with or without "The Third of May.".  But we do have another way of celebrating that Spanish master, with "Goya's Graphic Imagination,"  a wickedly handsome show of about 50 prints and about 50 drawings, on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (through May 2). True, most of these works on paper are from the Met's own extensive collection, but the show also includes some memorable loans. Even more importantly, it highlights an aspect of the master that is often overlooked.

 

MY ARGUMENT  

 

I should say at the outset that I don't equate Goya's graphic works with his paintings. On the contrary, I would say that the graphic work lacks the mellowness and civility that the oil paint and above all, the color, lend to Goya's paintings. 

 

By contrast, the graphic work – almost all of which is in shades of gray and black (or brown) on what is or was originally white paper -- is sharper, maybe wittier, and (as nearly as I can tell) more topical and/or intellectual than the paintings.

 

What was the great debate in 17th century France, between line – as most notably practiced by Poussin -- and color – as most notably practiced by Rubens? And was this debate not renewed in early 19th century France, with the new protagonists Ingres, the brilliant Neo-classicist and Delacroix, the great Romantic? 

 

Was it not common in both eras to equate line and drawing with logical or rational thinking, and color with feeling and emotion? 

 

And was not Spain throughout both eras fascinated by foreign cultural and intellectual developments, taking its cues initially from Rome and later turning its eyes increasingly to Paris?

 

How does Goya fit into this picture, stylistically and intellectually?  The usual way is to classify him as beginning in the rococo, with his 63 lighthearted tapestry cartoons (1775-1791).  Then he is said to evolve within the next decade into the  dour, deaf Romantic, with the agonizingly perceptive portrait of King Charles IV and his family (1800-1801), the outrage at Napoleon's invasion of Spain in "The Third of May, 1808" (ca.1814) and the bitterness of old age in "Saturn Devouring his Son"(c. 1819 -1823)..  

 

What's missing in this progression is the tie that binds Goya's rococo to his Romanticism.  I suggest that what's needed here is more attention to the fact that he also seems to have been involved with the neo-classic/ classic and/or rational and logical tradition. 

 

Nowhere is this involvement more clearly demonstrated than in his graphic work—which, after all, is all about line and almost completely devoid of color.

 

I would argue that it is the most rigorously literary or intellectual aspect of Goya's oeuvre, especially since in many and maybe most cases, the images are accompanied by writing – what in the 21st century we might call "captions" – describing in the artist's admirably terse (but often mystifying)  literary style exactly what is going on in the image itself.

 

One thing that saves all this from being unbearably pedantic is the artist's extraordinary imagination. This gives us a whole little world peopled with an incredibly long series of kinds of little people, rendered in a seemingly infinite series of actions and situations that appear both real and fantastic, at one and the same time.

 

The other thing that saves them all is Goya's incredible artistic facility, his masterful skill at employing only as many lines and spaces as he needs to get across his ideas, and to create a whole new race of sweet little humans who are both individual and universal.

 

Goya's little people remind me of those of Rembrandt and Bruegel -- the same innocence, the same gentleness, the same universality in the service of something mightier than themselves.

 

But – lest we forget what era we're in, and what is to counterbalance all this wildly Romantic fantasy – we have to remind us Goya's caption to that memorable image in "Los Caprichos," the artist's first suite of etchings with aquatint.

 

The image shows a sleeping man bowed over a desk and pursued by a howling mass of bird-like monsters behind him.   The print is from the Met's own collection, but on loan from the Prado is also a preliminary drawing which makes clear that the man in the print was originally a self-portrait. 

 

The caption reads as follows:  "The sleep of reason produces monsters." Is there a better way to bid farewell to the 18th century's Age of Reason, and -- at the same time -- to suggest that the artist will continue to honor "reason" in his work? 

 

THE SHOW ITSELF

 

The current show is laid out very carefully in the three smallish galleries that the Met uses for its prints and drawings exhibitions (and I might add that in addition to being required to reserve a designated entry hour at the museum's website, one is well advised to reserve an earlier rather than a later hour.  When I saw this show – around 1 pm – there was already a line of people waiting to get in.  True, the line wasn't too long, and it moved quickly, but I wouldn't recommend trying to get there at 3 or 4 pm).

 

The first gallery is early work, beginning with etched copies from the 1770s of famous paintings by  Velázquez. This was the period when Goya was still busy making cartoons for tapestries, distinguished by exuberant images on the whole more beautiful than bizarre.  Nor were the copies of Velázquez merely training exercises – there was a booming market for them in 18th century Madrid.

 

In the center of this gallery are two rows of images in freestanding cases, so displayed apparently because some of the sheets have images on both sides.   Combined here are drawings from two albums, Album A and Album B, together most of the 15 images from "Los Caprichos" that are in this show. Everything here seems to have been created in the mid-to-late 1790s (even though the 80 etchings in "Los Caprichos" were not actually published until 1799).

 

It was around 1795 that Goya lost his hearing due to an unknown illness.   Although the show includes a couple of angry etchings from the 1770s, many of the earlier drawings in Albums A and B are still simple figure studies of women (and men) at work or play—dancing together, doing the laundry and so forth. These images are more distinguished by their gentleness, matter-of-factness—and skillful draftsmanship ---than by the savagery that characterizes so much of the later work.

 

However, in the later drawings of Album B and in the related "Caprichos" the artist rapidly gets into the satirical and bizarre approach that characterizes his most celebrated images. This critical approach toward the world around him seems to explain why he soon pulled "Los Caprichos"' off the market – for fear of the Inquisition, it has been said. 

 

Among his targets (If one reads – and believes – not only Goya's captions but also the Met's learned labels) are the corruption of the clergy, the greed of the upper classes, and the follies of ordinary people.

 

 "Thou who canst not," for example, shows two men staggering under the weight of two donkeys – and has been interpreted as a commentary on how the working classes are forced to bear the financial excesses of the upper classes.

 

"It is time" portrays four grotesques with their mouths wide open. This is said to be an attack on the clergy. "Out hunting for teeth," depicting a single woman, comments on the superstitious belief among the lower classes that the corpses of criminals contained magical or healing properties.

 

And so it goes. If one is an art lover – as opposed to a social critic – maybe one is best advised to ignore the labels (even those by Goya).  The drawings, especially the more complex ones, are strong enough to stand by themselves.

 

The second and the third galleries of the show I found of lesser interest, though they contain many much-admired works from Goya's later years.  The third and last gallery takes the artist clear up to his sunset years in self-imposed exile in the French city of Bordeaux, and his bold attempts to experiment with lithography – then still a relatively new and radical form of print-making.  But it is the second --- and largest – gallery which is clearly supposed to be the centerpiece of the show.

 

Here one may find trenchant bull-fighting scenes, including eight plates from the 33-plate "Tauromaquia" suite that Goya published in 1816.   Here are also ten prints from the artist's most famous suite, "The Disasters of War." which consists in its entirety of 82 prints and was made between 1810 and 1815 but not published until 1863, more than thirty years after the artist's death.

 

The Met's wall text/labels on the bullfight scenes diplomatically skirt the issue of whether Goya was a typical 19th century aficionado of bull-fighting, or a 21st century animal-rights activist before his time.

 

There is no question that Goya was passionately opposed to war, but again there may be a bit of a question as to which side he most sympathized with initially in the Peninsular War, which between 1808 and 1814 pitted Napoleonic France against Spain, Portugal and Great Britain.

 

Certainly, Goya was eventually sickened by all the violence, bloodshed, starvation and betrayal, and this is what animates "The Disasters of War."  In graphic terms, many of the evils of that war are spelled out in the Met's ten prints from the suite: destructive explosions, hangings, displaced persons, cartloads of corpses being trundled to the cemeteries in the wake of great famine in Madrid of 1811-1812. And so on.

 

But there is some evidence that his anger was fueled in part by the betrayal of the side he might have initially have most sympathized with.   Before Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Spain, and placed his brother Joseph Bonaparte upon its throne, there was a lot of sympathy among Spanish intellectuals for France, and its proud boast of liberté, égalité et fraternité. France was considered more modern, more up-to-date, having (more largely) dispensed with the power of its aristocracy and its Church.

 

On the other hand, it was primarily the working-class Spaniards who most sympathized with the deposed Spanish kings Charles IV and his son, Ferdinand VII . And these working-class Spaniards are the heroes of "The Third of May," commemorating the initial response to Napoleon's invasion in 1808, an uprising of the masses in Madrid.

 

How does one reconcile this painting with the fact that – according to Wikipedia – Goya, as royal court portraitist, also painted the portrait of Joseph Bonaparte as king?  One can, of course, argue that he had to do it, for the money--but maybe the best way to say it is that, to an artist, art is one thing and politics is another. However closely allied the two may appear to be, one needs to keep one's aesthetics in command of one's politics. (How many contemporary artists can we name who may make this claim?)

 

Moreover, this keeping of politics in its place – as inspiration, not direction – pays tribute to the ultimate rationality of Goya's graphic work – and to the rationality of all his work, however much it may appear to be governed by emotion alone....just as the color schemes of Ingres and Poussin are not to be sneezed at, while the drawings of Delacroix and Rubens  are not without their charms.

 

HOW DO WE EXPLAIN THIS RATONALISTIC LINK?

 

It only remains to speculate on where this essential & consummately rational quality of Goya came from, not only in terms of his genes but also in terms of his training.   He was born in the town of Fuendetodos in Aragon. The family was lower middle-class, but with a tradition of artistic craftsmanship: his father José made his living as a gilder, specializing in decorative and religious ornamentation.

 

When Francisco was still very small, his family moved to the larger city of Zaragoza. There, in 1759, when he was about thirteen, he was apprenticed to José Luzán, a local (and not very distinguished) artist who ran an unofficial academy of drawing.  There the boy learned the importance of prints and the value of drawing.

 

He moved on to Madrid to study with Anton Raphael Mengs (1728-1779), a German painter popular with Spanish royalty.  Mengs wasn't a great painter, either, but he was one of the first neo-classicists and extremely popular in his day.  Before he'd come to Spain, he'd spent time in Rome and become friendly there with Johann Joachim Winckelmann, a fellow German and a scholar sometimes called the first art historian. Winckelmann was deeply committed to reviving the ideals of classical antiquity.

 

True, Goya doesn't seem to have gotten along well with Mengs, but I can't help feeling that he acquired some & maybe a lot of neo-classic ideology somehow or somewhere. Having failed examinations in Madrid that might have won him a subsidized trip to Italy, he went at his own expense.   Nobody knows quite what he did there, beyond winning second prize in an art competition organized by the city of Parma, but apparently he painted at least two pictures with Graeco-Roman subjects, a "Sacrifice to Vesta" and a "Sacrifice to Pan," both dated 1771.

 

So – there you have it – a historical basis of sorts for the firm reliance on rational, logical thought that underlies all the magnificent fantasy of Goya's graphic work.  I only hope that my pointing out  the existence and origins of all this logic doesn't delude readers into thinking that all there is to see can be discussed and explained by the torrents of prose – not only mine but also that of Goya and that of the Met – which surround  this excellent show.  As with all fine art, what is most enjoyable about it can only be taken in by the sight of the work itself.   

Be the first to comment