Goya's unparalleled vision

Almost 200 years have passed since he showed his disgust with war, but nobody's done it better

Whose art is at the furthest pole from Henri Matisse's tranquil dream of making paintings "devoid of troubling or depressing subject-matter ... something like a good armchair in which to rest from physical fatigue?"

The answer might well be Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (1746 to 1826). The abyss of discomfort into which this Spanish artist could plunge his work can still make even the most disturbed and nihilistic art strategies of the 20th century look tepid. Goya's darkest art conveys a sense of burning outrage at humanity's capacity for degeneration that can still jar us out of numbness.

In this new biography, Robert Hughes's compelling narrative proves an impressive match for Goya's dark nightmares. By describing specific works in detail, he makes us look at them again, or for the first time, with great attention.

Clearly, he doesn't doubt that these pieces are relevant to us today, but he doesn't force the issue. He lets us notice the parallels in our world to the horrors of war that elicited Goya's obsessive disgust, though in Goya's case these feelings were derived from the Spanish guerrilla resistance against the Napoleonic occupation rather than from Kosovo, Afghanistan, or Iraq.

Why is it that modern art has come no nearer to the effectiveness of the Spanish master's scorching realism about the sufferings of war and terror than documentary photography or film? There may be a partial answer in Hughes's observation that Goya's hatred of the repulsiveness of war had little to do with whose side the artist was on. Though he was intensely patriotic, he was profoundly not a propagandist. And in any case, nobody saw his series of etchings about war's disasters until decades after his death.

Goya remains unique in his daring and his imaginings. In these he was indeed beyond his time. Hughes fleshes him out as far as records - rather than romantic myths - indicate. His book both explores and in some ways explains how exceptional Goya was.

But it also shows how entwined he was with his place and time. There are moments when this book seems less like a biography and more like a history of Bourbon Spain - its nationalism, its reluctance to break free from the cramping dominance of its ecclesiasts and monarchs, its rigid hierarchies, its prominent personalities, its censorship, superstition, and restrictive mores.

But without a grasp of these things, much of Goya's art makes only partial sense. An understanding of his series of etchings - his "Caprichos" and the "Desastres" - is significantly enhanced by knowing more of their context, even if their imagery is often ferociously direct.

One of the myths that Hughes questions is the seeming mystery "that so fiery a spirit, so impetuous and sardonic, so unbridled in his imagination, could ever have adapted ... consistently, for more than 40 years, to the condition of working for the successive Bourbon courts."

However, Hughes's realistic Goya, until his very last years, knew that in order to succeed it was necessary to be constantly aware how tenuous a hold any artist had on patronage, royal or otherwise. So, quite simply, he never "undermined the dignity of the Bourbons." And even his "Caprichos," though undoubtedly subversive, are cannily indirect and unspecific as to the individuals they may, or may not, have satirized.

Goya emerges from this fascinating study as virtually two artists in one. His long career seesawed between a public face and a private one. His designs for the Royal Palace tapestries are charming rococo confections; his portraits do not flatter, but they are nevertheless commissioned art, almost always acceptable to their sitters.

In later stages, he painted his "Black Paintings," which plumb depths of despair and disillusionment, on the walls of his house, entirely for his eyes and no-one else's. These works couldn't have been more private. That they have, at least to a degree, actually survived, to be displayed today on the public walls of the Prado Museum in Madrid, is an extraordinary irony. They were the secret, if large-scale, musings of an artist at last no longer ambitious for court recognition or wealthy patronage.

Here is Goya talking to himself, but Hughes dismisses another myth: that this was a sign of madness. They were not, in fact, his last works. He continued to work to the end of his days, by then exiled to France, and even took up the new printing technique of lithography.

The works from this final period remain completely lucid. They may be the works of an old artist, but Hughes is right to note the "intensity" of the "marks he made" and to describe their "vitality of touch, living in every line." Goya's disturbing themes continue and develop, giving no sign of that soft armchair.

Christopher Andreae writes about the arts for the Monitor from Glasgow, Scotland.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.