This autumn, the National Gallery in London hosts Goya: the Portraits, a show which preparation spanned a whole decade.
As you start looking at Goya’s portraits, a terrible realisation hits you like a ton of bricks. Goya was not a good painter, in the classical sense.
He was so bad with colour nuances that his seated men look like men whose legs were cut in half. He could rarely separate an object from the background and most of his characters look like cut-outs pasted on a background painted by an amateur theatre decorator. His attempts to add depth by mixing colours of the background and the garment of his sitter are appalling.
Here are a few examples of his failings:
Yet, he was a great artist.
To judge Goya by the standards of classical realism is like…judging Einstein by spelling errors in his thesis on the theory of relativity.
Goya was a prophet. He foresaw the new levels of inhumane cruelty that would blast the world apart a hundred years later. He felt that the time was coming when Man would become a suicidal mass murderer. He drew the WWI and WWII a hundred years before tanks and gas chambers were invented.
I understand there was no space for it, but if I curated the exhibition, I would show at least some of his Disasters of War to remind people of his greatness that exists beyond his career as a court painter.
But even if he never produced his haunting images, he would still be a great painter. His radical inventiveness might have come from his desire to hide his lack of painterly skill, but it doesn’t make his innovativeness any less seminal.
He brough the genre of Reclining Nude to a new high by replacing nudity with nakedness in his Nude Maja. It was not just about the body. It was about transforming women from a passive object of male desire into an active party in negotiating a sexual situation.
He then created the concept of eroticism that is still in use today with this reclining girl:
A note to my male readers. If a woman has never thrown herself at you, you may experience the feeling standing in front of this painting. Beware! She is also so innocent that when you catch her, you’d feel an immediate urge to propose.
Would you care then that the cover on the bed could be painted somewhat better? There were hundreds of classical artists all across Europe at the time, but you wouldn’t want to propose to any of their nudes or semi-dressed girls. In ten minutes, you wouldn’t even remember what they looked like.
Again, his nudes were not his major achievement as a painter. I began with them because I hoped they’d motivate you to read further on.
His most important contribution was the introduction of an artist’s attitude to the sitter as an essential element of portraiture. He was honest with his sitters, showing their faces with all the defects, wrinkles, and after-stroke consequences, and he was honest about his feelings towards them.
This makes his portraits alive and speaking to or even conversing with the modern observer. Not all of them, of course, because we are generally very selective about people we want and like to talk to, but regardless of how picky you are, you can find your perfect mate among the 70 portraits currently on show at the National Gallery.
Goya’s sitters have been dead for two centuries already, but their types live on.
A wise man who wants to make the world a better place and knows the recipe? To whose ideas the world resists (which is normal) and creates in the man a melancholic attitude?
Meet Mr Jovellanos, portrayed in 1798.
We can skip the symbolism of Minerva (she’s a retired goddess anyway) and, having appreciated the melancholic pose of the portrayed (who wouldn’t get stressed out by so much paperwork?), focus on the face:
The guy is talking to us. Goya captured one of his words in mid-air. He may be tired, but he is still interested to know the observer’s (or, rather, the listener’s) thoughts on the subject he is talking about.
Perhaps, he is explaining why he hates wigs, and that the man’s fundamental freedom to wear his hair the way he wants it should be respected by the king? We don’t know. Appropriate this wise guy and make your own story.
Or, if you want to meet a man of action, here’s your hero, Mr Saavedra.
The man’s impatience is conveyed by his pose and the camp table that can be folded and moved any moment now. There are only a few sheets of paper on it. The sitter is not a man of many letters, but of much action.
I have to note that many observers go dizzy about the way the chair, the legs of the table and those of the sitter are arranged, wondering if Mr Saavedra may require assistance to disentangle himself, but, as I said at the beginning, the composition Goya had chosen for this portrait might simply have exceeded his abilities to paint it.
Eight legs are difficult to handle, but it is not an important (albeit funny) part of this painting. It’s the sitter’s eyes, his gaze, which is inexplicably intense and serene at the same time, that makes him into an archetypal action hero.
Or, perhaps, you don’t care for wise or action men, and want someone to share you passion for arts and music?
I have a buddy for you. The Marquis of Villafranca.
This man could become a second (or first) Casanova, but he’d chosen music as his passion. He is wealthy, but modest (his hat is quite ordinary). He is sporty (note the riding boots) but cultured (he leans on a piano). He’s got great legs and tender hands.
And the way he looks back to the observer still sends crowds swooning.
You can imagine how many more friends there are in this show to choose from.
Goya brought his love, respect, adoration, and sometimes hate of the sitter into his paintings.
A modern man may wonder why an artist would want paint a portrait of someone he detests. That’s the downside of being a court painter who is obliged to paint his king.
So, here is my warning to you:
As I was standing yesterday in front of his official portrait of King Ferdinand, the tyrant who came to power after the French were finally kicked out of Spain, I was overwhelmed with a desire to kick first his knee, then his groin, and when he would have bent over with pain, his face. My murderous intent was so strong, I wondered if the National Gallery should place a couple of armed guards in front of this painting. I am afraid there bound to be a visitor who may not have the nerve to hold back.
Ferdinand VII was a bastard, metaphorically and literally. His mother confessed on her deathbed that none of her children were conceived by her husband, the king. Ferdinand was selfish, vengeful, dishonest, and, above all, dumb, which made him exceptionally cruel to his people, friends and enemies, both real and imaginary. He bankrupted his country and left it in the throes of a civil war upon his death. Well worth kicking in the groin, if you ask me.
I can’t recommend to skip, to walk past this portrait because it shows how innovative Goya could be when he had strong feelings towards his subject.
The embroidery on the king’s cape is pure abstract expressionism. In fact, it is so expressive it can be a painting in its own right. The royal symphony of pure reds, golds and silvers is poisoned by streaks of pure black that represent the chaotic and toxic character of the king better than a wikipedia article on him.
So if you decide to go to Goya: the Portraits show at the National Gallery in London, leave all sharp objects at home for you might be tempted to use them on a painting.
Besides, there’s a bag search at the entrance.