Clues to Goya's Enigmatic Art

FRANCISCO GOYA Y LUCIENTES: 1746-1828 By Janis Tomlinson Phaidon Press Limited 320 pp., $60.

GOYA'S paintings, etchings, and drawings seem no less ambiguous today than they presumably did in his own time. Exhibitions, catalogs, and new books on this Spanish artist (1746-1828) continue to appear, but his enigmatic and many-sided art is as elusive as ever. Even his more ``conventional'' paintings - his allegorical tapestry cartoons for royal palaces, such as ``Spring,'' or his portraits, such as ``Family of Carlos IV'' - have been subject to contradictory interpretations.

Are his tapestry paintings, in the first part of his career, simply the works of an artist building a reputation and prepared therefore to accede to the particular dictates of patrons?

He was asked for ``paintings of pleasant, light-hearted subjects.'' We cannot, however, help looking at these apparently cheerful and decorous works without trying to see how they could be the products of the same mind that etched the disasters of war; the satires of human folly; and the scenes of inquisition, cruelty, imprisonment, torture, diabolism, and nightmare, which are the hallmark of Goya's haunted and phantasmagoric vision.

In ``Spring'' (1786), Goya seems to have succeeded in keeping his darker side out of sight. Yet even in this delightful and idealized image - planned to decorate a dining room - there is a mischievous and slightly disturbing element in the form of the peasant-type, behind the three main figures, holding up a rabbit. The play-acting of the elegantly costumed and fresh-faced aristocrats in the foreground is about to be disrupted by this grinning rustic: The central girl is sure to jump out of her skin at any moment. The intention is humor, surely, not satire, but it is as if Goya could not resist this note of dissension from total prettiness.The version of ``Spring'' illustrated here, from a current exhibition of Goya's ``Small Paintings'' at The Royal Academy of Arts, London, is the sketch he presented to his patrons for approval before he went on to paint the actual cartoon that would, in turn, be used as the model for the final tapestry.

The exhibition catalog's commentary points out that Goya made changes in the cartoon and that the rabbit becomes unmistakably the main focus of the painting. It is as if the artist had intended this emphasis on the disruptive element of his picture from the start, but until the royal assent had been given for his sketch, he had not felt at liberty to follow his own idea. One suspects, however, that he may still have felt terribly constrained by the idealism expected of him.

American art historian Janis Tomlinson has written a new - and large - book about Goya, ``Francisco Goya y Lucientes: 1746-1828.'' In it, she introduces Goya as an artist who cannot be divided up into categories, and whose different facets - particularly his public and private sides - should not necessarily be seen as at odds, or solely confined to the earlier and later passages of his life. Instead she aims to ``define Goya's `continuity' insofar as we can know it.''

But ``knowing'' Goya is precisely the problem, and she is up against the same comparative paucity of record and documentary information as previous writers. There is even very little known about the reactions of the artist's own contemporaries to his work, let alone anything much in the way of explanation by Goya himself regarding his intentions and ideas.

Even those statements he did make have the whiff of advertisement or at least of making sure, in the face of ecclesiastical or roy-al suppression, that his tracks were covered. His strength came from the potency of a vision that refused to be suppressed, but at the same time was canny enough to cloak itself in ambiguity. The central paradox of Goya is that few artists have so evidently arrived at their images through an intense desire to communicate and yet have produced images that seem so full of meanings as to allow many different interpretations.

In his introduction to the current exhibition's catalog, Manuela B. Mana Marques, deputy director of the Prado Museum, Madrid, compares Goya to Beethoven, and says his work is like that composer's music in having its own compelling inner language, immense with feeling yet with the potential for almost as many shades of understanding as there are ears to hear.

For a painter to be afflicted with deafness, as Goya was for half his life, is not as much of a handicap as for a musician, but it could be argued that something of the similar force and inwardness of both men's work might have been wrought out of their common disability.

With Goya's horrific images, for instance, there is no escaping the explicit repulsiveness of their horror, but at the same time we simply do not know their maker's real motive in dreaming them up. Was he the archetypal Romantic, as much excited by horror as horrified by it? Was he a political artist? Was he (as some words in a letter he wrote to a friend suggest) using his art to confront his own nightmares, to display his lack of fear of the monstrous and the diabolical?

Author Tomlinson is up against Goya himself, who was not only extraordinarily prolific but also extraordinarily various. She does, however, manage to show that an overly-simple view of this complex artist is not really tenable.

She herself admits his capacity, for royal commissions, to ``retreat into the conventional.'' She makes it clear that even while he was working at his satirical ``caprichos'' - the images in which he gave free rein to dream, fantasy, and horror as well as biting criticism of human vanities - he could still make portraits that more than met the requirements of his position as court painter. While she finds interconnections between different sides of Goya that may have been overlooked before, she does not agree, for instance, with those who have suggested that Goya went so far as to satirize the Spanish royal family in his well-known ``Family of Carlos IV'' of 1800-01. This must be right. He would scarcely have bitten the hand that fed him.

The truth must be that by the time he painted this picture, he could judge just how far he could go in portraying his royal patrons with realism without offending them. Tomlinson believes this ``sumptuous'' painting - vying with the work of Velazquez, the 17th-century Spanish painter Goya greatly admired - actually ``confirmed the well-being of a shaken monarchy.'' On the other hand, she writes that ``we are captivated by these faces, but are also forced to read them one by one. Their unglamorous naturalism is at odds with the ostentation of their formal court dress.''

If she does not find satire in this mature work (by which time Goya's satirical vein had long been in full flood in other works), Tomlinson does show how touches of satire appeared in his early work, and how irony and disillusionment began to surface in the last of his tapestry cartoons in 1791-92. And when she discusses his ``caprichos'' - done as he said ``to occupy my imagination'' - Tomlinson seems to hit the correct note when she observes that Goya appears to have been controlled by his ``night-time world'' rather than being in control of it. ``One image engendered another, as Goya's caricatures seemed to procreate of their own free will...''

If that is the case, it might be true to say that Goya's most imaginative work is not deliberately ambiguous in its meanings so much as instinctively irrational. Perhaps this artist was reacting against the age of reason and came up with images that even he could not explain.

* ``Goya: Truth and Fantasy, The Small Paintings'' is currently on exhibit at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, through June 12; and at the Art Institute of Chicago from July 16 through October 16.

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