Goya’s Graphic Imagination
On ViewMetropolitan Museum Of Art
Goya’s Graphic Imagination
February 12 – May 2, 2021
With a terrific show at the Metropolitan Museum of Goya’s drawings and prints to consider, I’ll put politics aside: we’re all on the side of the Spanish people vs. their successive tyrants; and the curator, Mark McDonald was rightly concerned to highlight expressive technique. The moral mood here is Brechtian: Goya sees deeply into our species, but he’s too creative for cynicism.
It’s a long time since I’ve seen an exhibition that puts current art concerns on the line as Goya’s Graphic Imagination does. Irritated, lately, by too much current narcissistic figure painting, I was surprised at how extraordinary these figurative works prove to be. Goya’s inspired “imaginative” poses here owe their fluency to anatomical understanding.
The more than one hundred works on view consist of prints, including the series “Los Caprichos” (1799) and “The Disasters of War,” (1810–20) and leaves from private albums of drawings (by contrast, The Met's 1989 blockbuster Goya and the Spirit of Enlightenment had only about a quarter of the graphics seen here). I want to emphasize their modern interest. A particular early case: Two Hunters (ca. 1775), a pair of figure drawings from Goya’s day job in the royal tapestry factory, is two sheets joined with one face-front on the left and rear-view on the right. The style is academic, but the linked twin figures “fore and aft” adumbrate a significant photograph: Kate Steinitz’s Cheese Market at Alkmaar, Holland (ca. 1934–35), with parallel uniformed workers, a back to the left and front to right. More typical is Goya’s penchant for setting his figures against a sensitized white ground, on which I defer to Stanley William Hayter (who taught Pollock printmaking), discussing Picasso making a print derived from Guernica (1937): “In a second state … the background was aquatinted a uniform black. He then proceeded, with scraper and burnisher, patiently to remove the whole area which again became white.” As Picasso told Hayter, “the labour of scraping and burnishing the final white background … was not misspent; like the burnished passages in some Goya prints the white of this background was the white of satin while the unworked plates showed the blank white of cotton.”
An early premonition of the Goya to come is the stark terror of Garroted Man (ca. 1775–78), an etching, with wiry, strung-out hatching, of a tortured prisoner with a crucifix between bound hands seated in the dark corner of a stone room lit by one candle. Then come reproduction etchings of Velázquez’s paintings, some of whose stagecraft—a tree trunk in a corner against a mostly clear sky—will continue in his own prints on simpler terms. By the turn of the decade—showcased in a splendidly self-aware ink Self-portrait of 1799 (the wild curled hair an analogue of “point of brush” technique) and the famous Self-portrait with top-hat along with its red-chalk study (ca. 1797–98)—Goya the great printmaker has come into his own.
Compare a red-chalk preparatory drawing (ca. 1812–14) for the unhappily timely Cartloads to the Cemetery, with its graphic issue of the same time (published in 1863). Ignoring the corpse and workers, because they carry over, you see the form of a half-cartwheel, bled off at left in both, semi-corroborated in the drawing by a stooping worker before a screenlike wall. In the print, the background becomes a hefty Brutalist wall of rectilinear forms with a strong quarter-arch opening: in fact, a major abstract cadenza.
Quite important drawings of architecture are hidden in Goya’s albums. In terms of the prints, much of Goya’s architecture concerns the turn to geometric simplicity on the cusp of 1800 which the mid-20th century called Revolutionary architecture. A single incursion of neo-Gothic comes from Album D: Nothing is Known of This (ca. 1819–23). The 1960s, however, would have loved a drawing from Album F: Construction (ca. 1812–20), with its spatial disposition of perpendicular timbers.
As to bodies: the great works are modern dance-like dispositions of the figure in later drawings and prints. I don’t mean, in the “Proverbs,” Poor Folly or Merry Folly (both ca. 1815–19), both literally dancelike. I mean combinations of figures that Balanchine or the later 20th-century moderns could appreciate: stretches, martial-arts duos, tumbles. Thus, way beyond a quasi-aesthetic Three acrobats (ca. 1812–20), we find a raucous pile-up of prostitutes administering a fatal enema of quicklime to an abusive policeman in Revenge on Constable Lampiños (ca. 1812–20).
Because the disposition of figures is the great lesson, I’ll close by paraphrasing Edwin Denby’s 1965 review of George Balanchine’s ballet Don Quixote, substituting the one artist’s name for the other: “The Establishment at all its levels pressuring the imaginative individual into alienation, into failure, that is what you watch. The [works’] images, like those of poetry, are fluid and contradictory. But they are not conciliatory. They are aggressive. The cruel ones get worse. On the other hand, though his ballet is about failure, [Goya] has never made dances more glorious in their novel beauty … nor has he ever invented so many striking mime images, often … without recourse to stylization.”
Art historian Joseph Masheck received the CAA’s Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing on Art in 2018.
Edwin Denby, Dancers, Buildings, and People in The Streets (New York: Horizon, 1965).
Stanley William Hayter, About Prints (London: Oxford University Press, 1962).