The resounding impact of Goya's artistic genius

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.

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.

Now, this deeply moving experience with Goya's works would normally have been quite enough in itself. It so happened, however, that it took place about an hour before I was to attend a press preview of ''El Greco of Toledo,'' the first international exhibition devoted to that artist, and the reason I was in Madrid in the first place.

''El Greco of Toledo'' promised to be quite a show. It had been organized by the Toledo (Ohio) Museum of Art in cooperation with the Prado; the National Gallery of Art in Washington; and the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts. Of the 66 paintings included, 32 had come from Spain, and few of those had ever been seen outside that country. Several of them had come from monasteries and cathedrals, where they had been for centuries.

Itook one last look at the Goyas, promised myself I would return to them as often as possible before leaving Spain, and went upstairs to see the El Grecos.

They were extraordinary! Perhaps not quite as exciting as I had hoped, since some of his greatest paintings were not included (I did manage to see his masterpiece, ''The Burial of the Count Orgaz,'' in Toledo the next day), but stunning and magnificent nevertheless. In addition, since a significant number had come from the United States, I found myself spending almost as much time greeting ''old friends'' among his paintings as making new ones.

During the next few days I managed to see quite a few of El Greco's works not included in this exhibition, and returned to the Prado whenever I could to wander among the El Grecos and Goyas. And I made a short side trip to see Picasso's ''Guernica,'' which has a new and heavily guarded home a few yards from the Prado proper.

Without doubt, my deepest and most moving experiences came from Goya. His marvelous solemnity played beautifully against El Greco's more linear lyricism--much as a ''dark'' cello plays against a flute--and produced a kind of ''music'' that was one of the highlights of my life.But most of all, Goya--and to a lesser degree, El Greco--reminded me of the value of artistic greatness, of what art is really all about, and of how trivial and self-serving so much of the art of our day has become.

I say this with full awareness of our creative and spiritual dilemmas, our gropings for meaning, identity, and purpose. The trouble is that we tend too often to throw up our arms in frustration long before any truly significant encounter, and to concoct neat little islands of rationalization and evasion in which futility and triviality predominate, and assume the stature and legitimacy of philosophy or religion.

Because of this we have often diminished our goals and trivialized our sensibilities to the point where a ''creative'' lifetime can be spent perfecting the relationship of three squares to a circle--or mimicking with precise photographic accuracy the way hair sprouts, fingernails look when torn, or skin appears after a shave.

We have also learned to substitute verbal rationalization for pictorial effectiveness, have made a fetish out of sensation and gods out of craft and material, and have forgotten that what matters most deeply in art is not what the artist feels but what he can project and communicate.

And finally, we have decided that art can exist without reference to human drives, needs, ideals, and purpose. That it is a separate entity created entirely to entertain and amuse us--but never to genuinely move or heal us.

To all this, Goya and El Greco would have responded with withering contempt--as indeed would Picasso and Matisse, or any other true artist. They would have pointed out that we have moved too far from the great and simple goals of art, and that most of what we are producing in its name today bears as much resemblance to it as a rock does to a mountain. They would also have pointed out that we have allowed our initial frustrations at being unable to transcend or dissolve our ''modern'' problems to harden into attitudes of futility and despair; that we pay undue attention to the trite and the trivial; and that we have spent the last 30 or so years in art going around in circles or twiddling our thumbs.

But most of all they would have insisted that greatness was more a matter of character than of talent--and that we have spent altogether too much time blaming our lack of genius for our lack of creative character.

For those art lovers who cannot make it to Spain, ''El Greco of Toledo'' will travel to the National Gallery of Art in Washington (July 2 to Sept. 6); the Toledo Museum of Art (Sept. 26 to Nov. 21); and the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts (Dec. 12 to Feb.6).

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