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The resounding impact of Goya's artistic genius

By Theodore F. Wolff / April 21, 1982


I simply was not prepared for such greatness. I turned the corner in the Prado Museum here a few days ago, and all doubts I had ever had about Goya the painter flew out the window.

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My problem was that I had always judged Goya's paintings on what I had seen of them in the United States and in reproductions and had, as a result, jumped to the totally erroneous conclusion that he was at his greatest only in his prints.

I had most particularly failed to grasp the profound painterliness of Goya's genius. I'd assumed, on the basis of the relatively few things of his I had seen , that he was one more example--Durer being another--of those artists whose talent found maximum expression in line, tone, and value contrasts, and whose paintings, as a result, lacked the concentrated fire of their great prints.

Even the reproductions I had seen of his late ''Black Paintings,'' that grim and grotesque cycle of 14 pictures he had created in his old age to decorate his home, had failed to impress me as paintings. They had struck me as little more than extended and enlarged versions of his great series of etchings known collectively as the ''Proverbs.''

I couldn't have been more wrong--as I realized in the Prado upon seeing ''The Second of May'' and ''The Third of May,'' his large and brilliant painterly indictments of war and human cruelty, and then, most overwhelmingly, as I turned the corner into the room that contained his ''Black Paintings.''

To say that I was stunned would be an understatement. I was quite literally transfixed, and felt as though a dozen or so of my deepest and most profoundly significant sensibilities were being touched and activated for the first time in years. I knew absolutely that I was in the presence of true greatness, and felt uplifted and altered by it. In fact, as I write this, seven days after the event , I still feel as though a huge wind had swept through my inner being, and had taken with it many of my still-existing confusions, doubts, and inconsistencies about fundamental issues in art.

In over 40 years of total involvement with art, this had only happened to me five or six times before: with Rembrandt when I was 11, Michelangelo when I was a few years older, Cezanne when I was 18, Picasso when I was 20, and Vermeer and El Greco when I was in my 30s. There had been others, of course, who had deeply moved and impressed me--from Giotto and Sesshu all the way to Miro and Pollock--but none of those had so totally overwhelmed me as those listed above.

So there I was, totally transfixed by artistic greatness for the first time in years. What particularly moved me was the feeling that that room represented the last full moment of ''traditional'' Western art: that it and the art of Giotto bracketed all that was great in Western painting up to the early stirrings of what was to become impressionism and postimpressionism--and was then to find full flower in 20th-century modernism.

I also felt, as I looked around the room, that it had been Edvard Munch, 60 or so years later, who had picked up and echoed the cry of human anguish that lay at the heart of these ''Black Paintings,'' but that Munch had done so from a level of cultural despair Goya had never really known--regardless of how much his personal anguish may have paralleled that of Munch.

Goya, for all his personal pain, still saw himself--and man in general--as part of a collective whole, as an integral element of a society, a nation, a religion. True alienation, of the individual from society, and, worse still, of the individual from himself, did not rear its ugly head in art until just before the 20th century. Munch's early figures stand, move about, or cry out terribly and utterly alone, while Goya's, full of pain as they may be, can still find some measure of comfort by huddling together with others of their kind.

Standing before these huge, dark canvases, I realized the extent to which we of this century have alienated ourselves to a point beyond the despair and anguish of even such a great pessimist as Goya, and now find ourselves committed to a groping search for identity and meaning that would have struck him as hopeless and utterly beyond resolution.

Goya's late paintings represent the receding coastline of a cultural ''continent'' we have left behind forever. And yet it remains totally familiar to us. The miracle of Goya, after all, and a significant measure of his greatness, is the degree to which he sensed, with profound and deadly accuracy, the dimensions and implications of the realities that lay ahead.