Miriam Cosic con­sid­ers the Goya enigma

Goya’s chal­leng­ing draw­ings and prints should be seen in the con­text of his place and time, writes Miriam Cosic

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

SPAIN is an enigma. It was Span­ish ex­plor­ers who opened up the New World, in­vent­ing glob­al­i­sa­tion and fast-for­ward­ing Europe’s segue into moder­nity, yet it was also in Spain that the Catholic Church’s ve­hi­cle for the­o­log­i­cal cen­sor­ship, the In­qui­si­tion, op­er­ated at its most atavis­tic and vi­cious.

It was Spain that made a star­tling 180-de­gree turn in the 1970s, ditch­ing the Franco dic­ta­tor­ship — which in­ex­pli­ca­bly en­dured for 30 years af­ter fel­low-trav­el­ling fas­cists were de­feated in Ger­many and Italy — and be­com­ing, in an in­stant, one of the most so­cially pro­gres­sive coun­tries in the world. The new Spain be­came strong on gay rights and re­pro­duc­tive rights and ev­ery other kind of right, though some say the lack of hard reck­on­ing, such as Ger­many had with its Nazi past, has left the spec­tres of mur­dered mul­ti­tudes haunting the land.

Fran­cisco de Goya is an avatar for the Span­ish enigma. He lived on com­mis­sions from the church and the no­bil­ity, but was an En­light­en­ment fig­ure who sym­pa­thised deeply with the mis­eries of the poor and marginalised. His draw­ings, par­tic­u­larly his The Dis­as­ters of War se­ries, can be seen as a kind of univer­sal Span­ish reck­on­ing three cen­turies af­ter Spain’s geno­ci­dal con­quest of the Amer­i­cas and a cen­tury be­fore its par­tic­u­lar vari­ant of fas­cism. His brush draw­ing Be­cause They are Jewish was a cri­tique of the In­qui­si­tion but its in­ten­sity was ratch­eted up in the 20th cen­tury. His draw­ings are also a hu­man­ist’s reck­on­ing with ev­ery hu­man cru­elty and mis­ery — war, tor­ture, rape, mu­ti­la­tion, po­lit­i­cal and re­li­gious per­se­cu­tion, you name it — and proved a last­ing in­spi­ra­tion to other artists’ work.

A dozen works on pa­per by Goya, each as un­set­tling and thought-pro­vok­ing as the next, are at the heart of an ex­hi­bi­tion of Span­ish draw­ings from the Bri­tish Mu­seum now on show at the Art Gallery of NSW in Syd­ney af­ter out­ings in Lon­don and Madrid.

Ear­lier gen­er­a­tions of art his­to­ri­ans have pre­sumed that draw­ing wasn’t im­por­tant to the Span­ish. Few ex­am­ples are lionised in the way draw­ings by Leonardo or Michelangelo are, and fa­mous draw­ings by Span­ish masters such as Diego Ve­lasquez or Fran­cisco de Zur­baran or El Greco (who was, in fact, Greek) are cu­ri­ously ab­sent from mu­se­ums. Early com­men­ta­tors, in­clud­ing Spa­niards, ex­plained this in es­sen­tial­ist terms, by con­trast­ing cool Ital­ian feel­ing for form with the emo­tion­ally and spir­i­tu­ally in­tense Span­ish pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with theme: Spain is ‘‘ given more to the magic of colour than to the dis­ci­pline of draw­ing’’, as one com­men­ta­tor had it.

It wasn’t un­til the 1950s that a Span­ish scholar, re­ly­ing on ma­te­rial ev­i­dence rather than national stereo­types, wrote an es­say ti­tled, ‘‘ On the sup­posed non-ex­is­tence of Span­ish Old Masters Draw­ings’’. That brief ar­gu­ment ‘‘ im­me­di­ately trans­formed the de­bate’’, Mark McDon­ald, cu­ra­tor of the Syd­ney ex­hi­bi­tion, writes in his im­pres­sive cat­a­logue.

McDon­ald, the Bri­tish Mu­seum’s Aus­tralian-born as­sis­tant keeper of Old Mas­ter prints, gives two very prac­ti­cal rea­sons why lithog­ra­phy, for ex­am­ple, was slow to take off in Spain. The first comes straight out of economics 101: busi­nesses in Paris, Rome and An­twerp, ex­pert in pro­duc­tion and mar­ket­ing, quickly ex­ploited the tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tion and flooded the Span­ish mar­ket be­fore lo­cal work­shops geared up. The sec­ond was pe­cu­liarly lo­cal. Cen­sor­ship in Spain was as­sid­u­ous and ubiq­ui­tous: artists faced the In­qui­si­tion if it dis­liked the way they por­trayed the face of a saint in a church, which made them cau­tious.

This ex­hi­bi­tion, Re­nais­sance to Goya: Prints and Draw­ings from Spain, span­ning three cen­turies and sev­eral ur­ban cen­tres of Span­ish art, shows Goya’s ex­pert works on pa­per didn’t spring from nowhere. It wasn’t that Spa­niards didn’t draw, or that draw­ing wasn’t a crit­i­cal part of an artist’s ed­u­ca­tion, says McDon­ald. Rather, the Span­ish didn’t value draw­ing as a medium in its own right un­til late in the 18th cen­tury. Be­fore that, prepara­tory draw­ings were con­sid­ered dis­pos­able work sketches.

‘‘ I’ve seen so many sheets torn, stained. There wasn’t the same im­pe­tus to keep things in a good state,’’ McDon­ald says by tele­phone from his desk in Lon­don. ‘‘ So much seems to have been chucked out. I’ve seen many archival ref­er­ences to sketches, but none of those sketches seems to have sur­vived.’’

By Goya’s time, works on pa­per had be­come more in­ter­est­ing to col­lec­tors in Spain, and his draw­ings, lith­o­graphs and aquat­ints, some of them pages of his pri­vate jour­nals, some care­fully pre­pared for sale, have not only sur­vived but con­tinue to en­thral us. Each has a pow­er­ful in­ti­macy; cu­mu­la­tively, they as­sem­ble even more pow­er­fully into the meta­nar­ra­tive of Goya’s world view.

‘‘ He keeps on say­ing to us, ‘ Stop!’ and ‘ Pay at­ten­tion!’,’’ McDon­ald says. ‘‘ He con­stantly chal­lenges us, even now. And I’m con­stantly shocked by him.’’

Fran­cisco Jose de Goya y Lu­cientes was born in 1746 in Fuen­deto­dos in the prov­ince of Aragon, but his fam­ily soon moved to Zaragoza. He stud­ied art pri­vately from the age of 14 and twice failed in com­pe­ti­tions for a place at the Royal Acad­emy in Madrid. Frus­trated, he trav­elled to Italy and stayed there for two years, ab­sorb­ing ev­ery­thing it had to of­fer. On his re­turn to Zaragoza, he joined the re­cently es­tab­lished work­shop of Fran­cisco and Ra­mon Bayeau. He even­tu­ally mar­ried their sis­ter, Josefa.

It wasn’t long be­fore Goya scored a job in the royal tapestry work­shop un­der Fran­cisco Bayeu. His rise was steady. By 1785, he was named deputy di­rec­tor of paint­ing at the Royal Acad­emy, the very place that had re­buffed his early ap­pli­ca­tions to study. In 1786, he was ap­pointed painter to Charles III, with an ap­pro­pri­ately com­fort­able salary, and was pro­moted to court painter un­der Charles’s suc­ces­sor, Charles IV. Life was look­ing good, but two catas­tro­phes in­ter­vened. First, in 1792, Goya suf­fered a ter­ri­ble ill­ness that oblit­er­ated his hear­ing. Some art his­to­ri­ans say this made him with­draw into him­self, inex­orably shift­ing his work into dark places, though they may un­der­es­ti­mate the ef­fect of los­ing one child af­ter an­other in in­fancy.

In 1799 he pub­lished a set of 80 aquat­ints that he had made in the pre­vi­ous two years called Los Capri­chos, or caprices, though the light­ness of the term is mis­lead­ing. In this se­ries Goya probed ev­ery hu­man folly: stu­pid­ity, greed, van­ity and su­per­sti­tion among them. No 43, The Sleep of Rea­son Pro­duces Mon­sters, is the best known and was in­tended for the fron­tispiece, be­fore Goya ex­changed it for a more con­ven­tional self-por­trait.

‘‘ In the Capri­chos,’’ McDon­ald writes, ‘‘ gob­lins, witches, priests, pros­ti­tutes and no­bil­ity oc­cupy the same world.’’ So far from draw­ing down the wrath of church and state, the work was a suc­cess and lib­eral-minded aris­to­crats in Spain and abroad rushed to buy copies. Goya might have been sink­ing into pes­simism, but he had the mea­sure of his times and seemed unas­sail­able.

Goya’s sec­ond catas­tro­phe was po­lit­i­cal. The Bour­bon king Charles III, an en­light­ened and re­form­ing monarch, had ruled Spain since Goya was a teenager. That was clearly for­ma­tive and planted Goya’s po­lit­i­cal out­look deep. When Charles IV as­cended the throne 30 years later, he main­tained his fa­ther’s poli­cies. In 1807, how­ever, France in­vaded Spain, part of Napoleon’s sweep across Europe, and the Bour­bons were de­posed. Goya’s child­hood home, Zaragoza, was al­most de­stroyed in a siege, but Napoleon later claimed the Span­ish war had been the be­gin­ning of the end for him. The war left two in­trigu­ing lega­cies: Span­ish civil­ians put up a stiff re­sis­tance to the French, and the term guerilla, a diminu­tive of the Span­ish word for war, guerra, was coined for them; and it in­spired Goya’s en­dur­ing paci­fist man­i­festo, The Dis­as­ters of War.

Af­ter Napoleon was thrown out, Fer­di­nand VII took the throne in 1814. An­other Bour­bon but no friend of the En­light­en­ment, he re­voked the con­sti­tu­tion, de­clared ab­so­lute rule and re­in­stated the In­qui­si­tion. Goya’s pa­tri­o­tism was un­ques­tion­able. One of his most fa­mous paint­ings, Third of May 1808, shows de­fend­ers of Spain be­ing mown down by French fir­ing squads. The Dis­as­ters of War is a homage to Span­ish re­sis­tance to French oc­cu­pa­tion. And yet his En­light­en­ment views made him sus­pect in the regime’s eyes and royal com­mis­sions stopped. Fed up with the mood in Spain, in 1824 he went to Bordeaux in France and spent his re­main­ing years be­tween there and Paris.

Goya kept work­ing right up un­til his death four years later. ‘‘ He was al­ways mak­ing al­bums and draw­ings, paint­ings, small stud­ies. There was no sense of an older man slow­ing down,’’ McDon­ald says. Goya was shaped through and by so­cial forces, he adds, and he ex­plored them un­til the end.

Re­nais­sance to Goya: Prints and

Draw­ings from Spain, at the Art Gallery of NSW, Syd­ney, un­til Novem­ber 24.

For Be­ing of Jewish An­ces­try (1808-14), left;

and Soldiers Flee­ing a Phan­tom (1816-24) by Fran­cisco de Goya

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.