Awesome Originality. An international show, now on view in New York, brings together 125 paintings, drawings, and prints in order to explore the relationship between the Spanish Enlightenment and the first painter who can truly be called modern. GOYA EXHIBITION
NEW YORK — FEW would deny that Francisco Goya (1746-1828) was one of the world's greatest artists. He was bold, innovative, and awesomely original, the first painter who could truly be called modern, and one of the three or four greatest printmakers of all time.
All that, of course, barely scratches the surface of his extraordinary accomplishments.
He was also a highly successful tapestry designer, a superb portraitist, a remarkably effective draftsman, and a social-satirist of genius.
From our vantage point, Goya towers over his contemporaries and appears, toward the end of his life at least, to be almost entirely alienated from them.
We see him as the disillusioned loner, a bitter, near-tragic figure living in self-imposed exile after years of notoriety and fame, wanting only to spend the rest of his life giving form and expression to the demons and nightmares that haunted his imagination.
Entranced by that romantic (although not inaccurate) perception of Goya, we tend to forget that he didn't develop in isolation, that he was very much the product of his age. His attitude toward art and society resulted as much from an ongoing dialogue between himself and the ideas and assumptions of his time and place as from his own thoughts and experiences.
To bring Goya's formative influences into clearer focus, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Museo del Prado in Madrid, and the Metropolitan Museum here decided in 1984 to assemble a major international exhibition that would explore the relationship between Goya's art and the ideas of the Spanish Enlightenment.
Eleanor Sayre of Boston and Alfonso P'erez S'anchez of Madrid were chosen to organize the show and to select what would be included.
``Goya and the Spirit of Enlightenment'' was seen first in Madrid, then in Boston, and is now on view at New York's Metropolitan Museum.
The exhibition's more than 125 paintings, drawings, and prints were borrowed from public and private collections around the world.
They range from fairly ordinary but incisive portraits of his early patrons to the highly personal and often perplexing drawings made during the artist's last years in Bordeaux.
They span a 50-year period coinciding with the reigns of the liberal King Carlos III and the inept Carlos IV, the French invasion and the reigns of Napoleon's brother, Joseph Bonaparte, and Fernando VII.
It's a large and impressive exhibition, but not an easy one to assimilate.
A visitor to the show would be well advised to at least skim through some of the text of the exhibition catalog, which can be purchased at the museum or studied in a small reading room supplied with several copies next to the exhibition.
The reason for this is simple: While Goya's images were usually passionately expressed, the ideas and concepts that helped shape them were often subtle and complex.
Another complication: Only a small handful of Goya's greatest and most revealing paintings are included here.
Since most of those belong to the Prado, this exhibition obviously was most effective when it was in Madrid.
WHILE the omissions shouldn't lessen the show's importance for those familiar with Goya's overall production, they will undoubtedly weaken its impact for less knowledgeable viewers who might not respond as sympathetically to small, black-and-white graphic images and rapidly executed sketches (no matter how effective they may be), as they would to large, powerfully painted canvases.
This is, in short, a ``theme'' exhibition, not a full-bodied survey of Goya's achievements. As such, it makes its point clearly and well.
As Mr. S'anchez states in the catalog's introduction: ``A large selection of the master's work is studied with regard to the historical circumstances that accompanied and so often conditioned it, especially the desire for change the enlightened in Spain aspired to instill in their fellow Spaniards so that the country would be transformed and modernized, thereby recovering its traditional vigor....
``This movement was based ... on the promotion of reason, scientific experimentation, knowledge of nature ... and a profound confidence in the noblest attributes of humanity, freed from superstition, willful ignorance, or deliberate deception....
``The metaphor of light pushing back darkness and dispersing nocturnal terrors became a leitmotif in the work of the outstanding personages of the time. ... And together with the search for truth, of course, was the search for freedom.''
Seen in this light, many of Goya's most original and powerful works - the sharply critical print cycles ``Caprichos'' and ``Disparates,'' for instance, or ``The Disasters of War'' - exist as much as carefully crafted embodiments of Spanish Enlightenment ideas and attitudes as the cynical or bitter expressions of a highly idiosyncratic creative temperament.
Even Goya's titles serve the cause; consider ``The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters'' and ``Funeral Procession for Constitutional Spain.''
If those aren't clear enough, we need only examine his many prints and drawings attacking everything from the Inquisition to human follies to get the gist of his social and philosophical commitments.
The exhibition isn't all ``theme'' and instruction, however. Anyone on the lookout for demonstration of Goya's skill as a painter will enjoy such masterworks as ``Mariana de Pontejos,'' ``Sebastian Martinez,'' ``The Witches' Sabbath,'' ``Water Carrier,'' ``The Collosus,'' and ``The Bordeaux Milkmaid.'' And, of course, those who love drawings and prints will have a field day with the superb examples on display.
At the Metropolitan Museum through July 16.