The least studied aspect of a closet liberal: Jonathan Brown on Goya
Source:The Art Newspaper Author:Jonathan Brown Date: 2015-11-25 Size:
Every season, it seems, brings another Goya exhibition; the number is topped only by Picasso. Most consist of one of Goya’s four print series……

Goya was a great artist, but an awkward draughtsman. In his portrait The Marchioness of Santa Cruz (1805), the lower part of the subject’s body is disproportionately long and not firmly planted above the sofa; the hand grasping the lyre looks like the hea

Every season, it seems, brings another Goya exhibition; the number is topped only by Picasso. Most consist of one of Goya’s four print series, which can fill a small gallery at modest cost. This year’s harvest is a notable exception. Within the past 12 months, we have been offered three memorable Goya shows: the monographic exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, rather awkwardly titled “Goya: Order and Disorder”. Following on was the reconstruction of one of Goya’s Album Drawings, “Goya: the Witches and Old Women”, held at the Courtauld Institute Galleries. These exhibitions are completed by “Goya: the Portraits” now on view at the National Gallery in London (until 10 January 2016).

How to explain this inexhaustible interest in Goya and his works? Goya is often called the “first modern painter”, which is neither inaccurate nor very helpful. He witnessed a turbulent period in Spanish history, which he interpreted with uncanny insight. He lived when the very foundations of the old order were beginning to collapse. He could see how times were changing as the ideas of the Enlightenment filtered into Spain, if only to be rejected.

Yet his inherent caution and ambition to gain fame and fortune required him to keep his social and political convictions mostly hidden fr om view. He was at once a liberal (the term was first used as a political label in Goya’s Spain) and an obedient monarchist. He was a relentless critic of the practices of the Catholic Church—especially its monastic orders—but seems never to have lost his faith. When his liberal friends fled Madrid before the invasion of Napoleon’s armies, Goya stayed put and worked for the French. All the while, he husbanded his financial resources and continued to collect his royal pension until the day he died. In short, Goya was a closet liberal. This is not to condemn his choices; until fairly recently, few artists have been willing to pay the price of martyrdom for challenging the established order.

Goya’s portraits are the least studied works of his prodigious output. Portraiture has inherent limitations imposed by its primary function, which is to produce an identifiable image of the sitter. The painter can resort to symbolism or allegory to enliven the composition, or place the subject in an evocative setting. By comparison with Goya’s satirical works, the portraits seem rather tame. The exhibition at the National Gallery will forever alter our perception of this aspect of Goya’s career.

Goya produced approximately 160 portraits, of which 70 are included in the exhibition. The most conspicuous absence is the monumental Assembly of the Royal Company of the Philippines (1815) in the rarely visited Musée Goya, Castres. Despite the negative opinion of Lucien Freud quoted in the catalogue, this large painting is perhaps the boldest response to Velázquez’s Las Meninas ever made.

The format of the exhibition catalogue, Goya: the Portraits, is unusual. Generally speaking, such catalogues comprise essays by different authors, followed by entries on the works on show. This one consists of a narrative of 200 pages, which is in effect a monograph by Xavier Bray, the chief curator of the Dulwich Picture Gallery. And a splendid monograph it is! Bray is lively writer and has contextualised the portraits by inserting them within a running account of the artist’s life and times.

An appendix provides short biographies of the sitters, which is indispensable for interpreting Goya’s keen characterisations of friends and patrons. Discussions of specific problems are amplified in the notes.

Bray comments only briefly on a peculiar aspect of Goya’s portraiture. He was not a particularly good draughtsman. The faces of sitters are carefully rendered, but sometimes the figures are disturbingly flat, the hands notionally rendered, the bodies compressed into shallow spaces. The point is most efficiently illustrated if we compare Goya’s Marchioness of Santa Cruz (1805) with that epitome of Neo-Classicism, Jacques-Louis David’s Mme Récamier (1800). Bray alludes to this on page 78, wh ere he offers the pregnant comment: “Goya was essentially a self-taught artist.”

A few lines later, he quotes Goya’s son Javier on the subject of his father’s teachers—“He looked with veneration at Velázquez and Rembrandt, but above all he looked at Nature, whom he called his mistress.”

To us, this observation does not seem especially revealing. However, Velázquez and Rembrandt were not then as esteemed as they were soon to become. Thanks to the inauguration of the Prado in 1819, Velázquez was just beginning to be recognised as one of the greatest of painters. Although

Rembrandt makes more sense as a source of Goya’s graphic art, many of his prints are inventive portraits of Amsterdam’s elite. More important, these two artists questioned the canon of Classicism established in the Italian Renaissance, and it is here that they pitched their tents. This assertion may be arguable.

What cannot be doubted is that the National Gallery’s exhibition, the first dedicated to the subject, is a major contribution to our knowledge and understanding of this great artist. Goya’s portraits have been somewhat overlooked. The catalogue shines the light on a variegated cast of characters, and its relaxed style of writing welcomes specialists and aficionados alike to Goya’s world.

• Jonathan Brown is the Carroll and Milton Petrie Professor of Fine Arts at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. He is the co-author, with Luisa Elena Alcalá, of Painting in Latin America, 1550-1820 (Yale University Press)

[Editor] 张艳