Goya’s Graphic Imagination
On ViewThe Met Fifth Avenue
February 12 – May 2, 2021
In 1872, John Ruskin burned a set of the 80 etchings in Goya’s 1799 “Los Caprichos” series. He claimed they were obscene, thus carrying out either the final act of Calvinist iconoclasm or the first act in the critic’s reign of terror. Priggish Ruskin would have had a fit of apoplexy if he barged into Goya’s Graphic Imagination at the Metropolitan Museum of Art—organized by Mark McDonald and accompanied by a catalogue published by Yale University Press—or perhaps he would have fled in horror, as he supposedly did when he caught sight of his wife Effie Gray’s nether parts.
But what Ruskin abhorred—and what we adore—is the idea that Goya’s art, especially his drawings and engravings, speaks freely in the language of the liberated visual imagination. We take for granted the idea that art is not merely decorative or anodyne, nor devoid of politics, but we must recall Goya’s careers as a cartoonist for tapestries, court painter, and portraitist, all of which required subordinating his individual expression to the imperatives and decorum of his royal clients.
Born in 1746 and died 1828 at the age of 82, Goya made nearly five decades of drawings and etchings, assembled here, that constitute his artistic alter ego, where self-awareness and intention could yield to emotion. Exiled in Bordeaux in 1824, he continued working in the spirit of Los Caprichos (1799) by covering flat chips of ivory with carbon black, dripping water on them, and then shaping the images that emerged. Even in his old age, Goya’s imagination was committed to evoking the world of majas (young courtesans) and celestinas (go-betweens or pimps).
The process begins with imitation: the engravings he produced during the 1770s and early 1780s of Velázquez paintings in the royal collection. One in particular, Velázquez’s early Bacchus Crowning Drunkards (1628-9) is a 65 by 89-inch painting divided into two halves: an Italianate representation of Bacchus on the left and a depiction of drunken Spanish peasants in the style of Jusepe de Ribera on the right. Goya had to reduce the original to fit the 12 by 17-inch parameters of the etching. He succeeds magnificently, creating an image of his divided self: on the one side the court painter; on the other, delver into the Spanish mind.
Goya completed 11 etchings after Velázquez, then abandoned the project. He was decidedly committed to etching, but would need aquatint, introduced into Spain in the mid-1780s, to fully express his genius and achieve in etching the effects of drawing. Even so, as Jesusa Vega admits in her catalogue essay, “Goya in Context”: “Little is known about Goya’s activity as a printmaker beyond the prints themselves.” Making etchings is a laborious, potentially dangerous process involving acids of varying strengths. Aquatint complicates that process, so it is reasonable to assume Goya recruited assistants to make his prints.
The show offers a unique opportunity to see Goya shifting between drawing and engraving in a famous image. The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (1799), plate 43 from Los Caprichos, appears alongside Goya’s 1797 pen and brown ink study. In the first version, the sleeper (or dreamer, since “sueño” can mean dream) is draped over what looks like a desk for storing drawings, so he would seem to be the artist himself. His nightmares appear within a haze of light brown wash, barely visible.
The aquatint, slightly smaller than the drawing, changes things. The desk is now a surface where the artist inscribes the title of the work, thus reinforcing the etymological relationship between writing and drawing. Contrast between black and white is key here, with the entire image structured on a vertical axis, the owls and bats of the nightmare literally rising out of the dreamer’s head. The man in question is no longer the artist, but anyone living at the end of the Age of Reason, when rationality would soon be overwhelmed by Romantic Sturm und Drang. The etching summarizes historical self-awareness, the realization of Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus: “History is a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake.”
Goya’s relationship with etching was lifelong. The Disasters of War, produced between 1810 and 1820 (but not published until 1863) deploys aquatint to capture the inconceivable cruelty of the Napoleonic wars in Spain. La Tauromaquia (1815–16) uses the same medium to present bullfighting scenes and commemorate famous bullfighters. But it is the Los Disparates or Proverbios (1815–23), translated as “follies” or “proverbs,” where Goya’s personal vision of Spain, and the expressive power of aquatint, reach their peak. Among the prints greeting viewers as they approach Goya’s Graphic Imagination is Bobalicón (often alternatively titled: Giant Playing Castanets) from Los Disparates. Most of the print surface is black, attenuated around the figures so they stand out. The hideous giant, an ominous leer on his face, seems to invite a female figure to join in his macabre dance. Under his arms, demonic faces scream toward the woman. But as we look at her closely, we realize that on her back she carries either an incubus or some other nightmare figure. What is it all about? The restoration of absolutist King Fernando VII in 1813, bringing with it a purge of liberals like Goya? Is it a vision of Spain itself, unable to free itself from its own history? Is the woman a victim, or is she complicit?
There’s no way to know for certain. Many of Goya’s images, both among the etchings and the magnificent drawings assembled here, elude explanation. This is probably their strength, the untamed artistic passion that would so threaten a self-righteous monster like John Ruskin, who would rather destroy them than acknowledge their right to exist.