August 2006


Interpreting Goya

by Michelle Marder Kamhi

Francisco Goya (1746-1828) is often referred to as the last of the Old Masters and the first of the moderns. Beginning in the mannered tradition of a successful court painter, he went on to create an extraordinary body of work in which critics and art historians have discerned precursors to every major tendency of the past century and a half--from impressionism and gritty realism to the nihilism and chance procedures of late modernism and postmodernism in their most decadent aspects.

Yet to emphasize any "modern" qualities that one may see in Goya is to risk losing sight of the fundamental respect in which he differs from late modernists--and postmodernists. As an observer writing in The Guardian astutely noted: "[Goya] wanted to make images that compel a moral understanding of ordinary and terrible things. In this, he is unlike practically any artist now alive." That moral dimension was fully in evidence in Goya's Last Works, a modest-sized but revelatory exhibition at the Frick Collection earlier this year (and at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts this summer), which focused mainly on the artist's creative output during the four years he spent in voluntary exile in the French city of Bordeaux, where he died in 1828.

The inspiration (and poster image) for the exhibit was the Frick's own Portrait of a Lady (María Martínez de Puga?)--dated 1824, it may have been painted immediately before Goya fled Spain. It is one of the least representative works in the show, however. True, its simplicity and somber palette seem "to anticipate the stark modernist style of Manet" (as noted by one of the exhibition's curators), but style is surely not all, and what seems lacking in this work is the strong sense of character that comes through other Goya portraits. His Don Tiburcio Pérez y Cuervo, the Architect, for example, is a vivacious image of the liberal era's new man: candidly direct, energetic, and self-assuredly informal. His portrait of the Spanish poet-playwright Leandro Fernández de Moratín (1824) suggests both the sensitivity and the ironic wit of an intellectual who, fully aware of his unprepossessing appearance, could write to a friend: "[Goya] wants to do my portrait; from that I infer how pretty I am when such skilled paintbrushes aspire to multiply my copies."

Also compelling are Goya's moving series of self-portraits--from his sketch of a robust, almost pugnacious man in the prime of his life to an intensely inward drawing following an illness that left him stone deaf (recalling Beethoven's similar fate and demeanor) and his Self-Portrait with Dr. Arrieta [more] painted in gratitude for the physician credited with saving him from a near-fatal illness in his seventy-third year.

Tempted though modernists and postmodernists may be to claim Goya as one of their own, the resemblances are only superficial. The methods employed by Goya in an unprecedented series of miniature paintings (in which he created images from shapes formed spontaneously by water droplets on painted ivory), for example, were indeed accidental at the outset but were quite deliberate--albeit impressionistic--in their final nightmarish intention, not unlike other expressions of the dark side of Goya's temperament. Nor does his Comer mucho (To Eat a Lot) [scroll down]--a drawing of a man defecating--have anything essential in common with a postmodernist work of nonart such as Bruce Nauman's video Clown Torture: Clown Taking a Shit (1987) [click on thumbnail]. The former image is an ironic condemnation of gluttony, while the latter is merely a bizarre expression of Nauman's total anomie.

Finally, neither late modernism nor postmodernism could conjure up an image such as Goya's luminous Milkmaid of Bordeaux. Painted in exile in the final year of his life, it demonstrates that Goya, transcending physical infirmity, personal loss, and social and political turmoil and disillusionment, could still find beauty and innocence in humanity.