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Goya, Light and Dark

ISSUE:  Summer 1995

Goya: Truth and Fantasy. The Small Paintings. By Juliet Wilson-Bareau and Manuela B. Mena Marques. Yale. $55.00.

Two recent—and startling—discoveries have given the art world the rare opportunity to reassess the work of one of its greatest painters, Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828). The first discovery was what has become known as the “Italian Notebook,” a sketchbook dating from 1770-1785 which contains a rich collection of Goya’s scribbles, doodles, sketches, written notes, lists of artist supplies, personal details, lists of places visited, and, more significantly, astonishingly beautiful figure studies for larger works. (A facsimile edition of the original, kept in the Museo del Prado in Madrid, was published in 1994.) The second was the appearance of the “Hannibal” painting, a picture completed for a competition announced by the Academy of Fine Arts in Parma in 1771, and lost from public view for 220 years.

Goya: Truth and Fantasy. The Small Paintings is the catalogue of an exhibition seen in Madrid, London, and Chicago. It brings together works from 12 countries, 41 institutions and private collectors, and contains 118 superb color reproductions of Goya’s works along with an additional 225 black-and-white and color illustrations of things by him and other artists. Divided into two unequal parts, the book first offers three thought-provoking essays by Manuela B. Mena Marques (“Must It Be So? It Must Be So!”), Werner Hofmann (“Unending Shipwreck”), and Juliet Wilson-Bareau (“ ‘Don Francisco Goya y Lucientes, Pinto’ ”) on various aspects of Goya’s life and art. Following these, Wilson-Bareau provides a long, succinct, and thoroughly illuminating discussion of Goya’s “small paintings.” The book’s value is enhanced by a 118-item Catalogue of Works (pp. 342-375), a thorough, up-to-date Bibliography (pp. 377-380), a list of Exhibitions of Goya’s work (pp. 381-382), and a Concordance keyed to the two standard reference catalogues of Goya’s paintings (P. Gassier and Juliet Wilson’s 1970 catalogue and J. Gudiol’s 1970/1984 catalogue, p. 383). As Mena observes in her essay, Goya’s drawings combine exquisite technique and refined eighteenth-century forms with a darker, more dramatic amalgam originating in the mind of the painter, which would subsequently be interpreted as the quintessence of the Romantic Spirit and, in the present century, as evidence of the hidden realms of the unconscious and as an anticipation of Surrealism.

Goya’s championing of the value of the freedom of artistic expression is amply demonstrated and defended in Mena’s essay. She quotes Goya’s assertion to the Royal Academy of San Fernando that “There are no rules in painting,” and demonstrates how he carried out this dictum in his broad and varied work. Goya possessed a profound awareness of how structure informs form and composition, and he used his rigorous training and disciplined technique to break the barriers of academic painting in his century. His dazzling control of form and his frequently innovative application of color (he had learned a great deal by studying the work of his master, Velazquez) served his audiences and patrons well, even when they were the targets of his caustic wit. “Goya’s interest in and knowledge of mankind made him one of the great portrait painters in the history of art” and those portraits included not only the kings and queens and dukes and duchesses of the closed and super-snobby Spanish aristocracy, but also the majos, bullfighters, drug sellers, soldiers, prisoners, and asylum inmates rarely considered before to be apt subjects for formal portraiture. Mena’s fascinating comparison of Jacques-Louis David’s painting of Napoleon crossing the Alps with Goya’s now-infamous “The Family of Carlos IV” reveals a constant tension between heroism in the former and decadence in the latter, between flamboyance and squalor, dynamism and moral degradation. “He was not, like David, a painter of a specific period but the precursor of a whole new epoch, in political and social terms and also in terms of the expression of humanity, which twentieth-century psychology has only begun to discover… . Goya’s approach was almost unthinkable in his own age.”

Werner Hofmann likewise sees Goya as a revolutionary who broke with tradition. He values the small paintings and sketches more than the large canvases because only in these can “the artist deploy his talents in ‘total freedom’ ”; he concludes that “Goya’s work stands within several art-historical frames of reference: this artist who cast his eye on the grandeur and the misery of the marginal figures in society—the poor, the sick, the workers—was a court painter, employed, in turn, not only by three Spanish kings but by the nobility and the bourgeoisie. To put it rather too neatly: Goya stood between the victims and the victimizers.” Juliet Wilson-Bareau provides a chronological overview of moments in Goya’s life as a painter in Saragossa, Madrid, and other places, and focuses on his use of light to highlight, emphasize or absorb his subject. She sets up the main section of the book by asserting that Goya’s style and technique were “in constant evolution, developing with each new series of works that reflect his changing relationship with the world around him. To follow this evolution is to gain some understanding of a man who was able to express all his ideas through his art.”

The bulk of this book—the discussion of Goya’s sketches and small paintings, grouped loosely by chronology and theme—contains much new and interesting information. There are a number of relatively unfamiliar pieces here, and even the best-known works are seen in a fresh light. The “Italian Notebook” serves as an essential point of reference for analyses of his early work in Spain and Italy— commissions for churches in Saragossa and Madrid, for aristocratic drawing rooms and dining rooms in Madrid, and for tapestry cartoons at the Royal Tapestry Factory of Santa

Barbara (“entertainments and dress of the present time” as Antonio Ponz called these cartoons). Bareau-Wilson provides individual descriptions and analyses of dozens of works throughout Goya’s long career, integrating each with reference to related paintings, artists, schools, or details. He prepped for all major paintings by drawing sketches, figure studies, or composition experiments, and often we can see dramatic, frequently daring, changes from preliminary studies to the finished painting. A masterful case in point is Bareau-Wilson’s commentary on the three paintings executed for the Royal Convent of Santa Ana in Valladolid in 1787. Her lucid prose and accurate eye force us to see things in a new light:

In Goya’s finished painting, clouds and cherubs have disappeared, and the composition has been reversed and restructured. Christ now stands in profile, facing the light, like the angel of the Annunciation, while St. Joseph lies still and quiet, his eyes apparently open, suggesting that this is the very moment of death, rather than its fearful anticipation. The Virgin, now at the centre of the composition, as befits an altarpiece for nuns, gazes at her Son while indicating her dying husband, here illuminated by a great shaft of light from on high. There is no longer any physical contact between the figures, but a powerful spiritual unity, symbolized by the pattern of their hands… . The emotional intensity of Goya’s sketch for the painting in Valladolid is a vivid example of the extent to which his art sprang from his own feelings and experiences, however much he later elaborated and refined their expression. The large altarpieces for the convent church in Valladolid have sometimes been judged cold and devoid of religious feeling. Looking at the paintings in their original setting, and in the light of this sketch, reveals that the very opposite is true.

By the 1780’s Goya had developed his talents on many fronts—as a successful religious painter, as a much sought-after portraitist, as a clever commentator of daily life in Spain—yet he was difficult to type; that is, his work held constant mystery and surprise. In 1786 he was named Painter to the King, but he refused to settle for a routine of anodyne commissions and flatteries. “These new patrons and new commissions, his success at Court, even the jealousy of his rivals, gave Goya’s work a new impetus and a new spirit of modernity and innovation in the second half of the 1780s.” The brilliance of his mythical allegory “Hercules and Omphale” (1784)—a painting I had never seen before— makes it easy to see why Goya was the most sought-after and envied painter in Spain. His confidence and control would easily unnerve any mediocre competitor. Bareau-Wilson is equally masterful in her reconstruction of the cartoons painted to decorate the dining room of the Prince and Princess of Asturias for their Prado Palace in 1786-87. She provides a fine layout of the original placement of the pictures (among Goya’s best-known cartoon paintings) and suggests ways in which the painter conceptualized space and theme for these gracious, achingly beautiful paintings.

Goya’s near-fatal illness in 1792 left him profoundly deaf and hastened his turn inward; that is, his desire to plumb the depths of his own psychology in order to comprehend—and represent—the world around him. Goya complained of a “noise in the head” and his painting marks a shift from the brightly-lit 18th-century world of his youth to a darker, scarier universe. We see the arrival of the cataclysmic occurrences of the first quarter of 19th-century Spain through his eyes. Even the seemingly-traditional bullfight paintings of 1793 are brutal, dynamic, and shocking. Such “dark visions and caprichos [would] predominate in his work from the turn of the century through to the end of his life.” In a letter to his friend Martin Zapater, Goya proclaimed, “I’m not afraid of witches, hobgobblins, apparitions, boastful giants […] nor indeed any kind of beings except human beings… .”, a proclamation which he turned from verbal to visual in his caprichos and the unforgettable “Disasters of War” series. He never gave up portraits or religious paintings, of course, but his work took on an intensity in the last years of the 18th century and the first part of the 19th century that seem to characterize his paintings for us today.

The tension in Goya shines through in this book. We remember the bright and sunny costumbrista paintings like “The Quitasol” or “Blind Man’s Bbuff” or the charmingly illuminated portraits of “The Duke and Duchess of Osuna and their Family” and the seductive “The Naked Maja.” Yet we cannot keep from our minds Goya’s darker moments, the War paintings, the cruel and frequently hallucinatory nature of works like “The Shipwreck,” “The Witches Sabbath,” “ ‘Auto de fe’ of the Inquisition,” “The Madhouse,” “Saturn Devouring one of His Sons,” and the endlessly horrifying Caprichos. Truth and fantasy (or is it fantasy and truth?), light and dark: Goya is the master of dramatic tension.


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