Sunday, January 18, 2015

How the MFA got this giant wrong

Seated Giant, 1818
If you haven't had a chance to check out the MFA's Goya show, this is your last chance, as it closes tomorrow - and you owe it to yourself to try to catch it.

But I only say this because it's an unusually broad survey; alas, the curation itself (by Stephanie Loeb and Frederick Ilchman) proves curiously unfocused - a problem which can bedevil many a large exhibit, it's true. More telling, perhaps, is the fact that what amounts to the central thesis of the show - that Goya's multiple identities as court painter, war correspondent, and connoisseur of human horror, existed in some sort of conscious balance - is ultimately unpersuasive. Indeed, the concept feels willfully pasted over the facts of the matter, or at least the far more likely conclusion that the court portraiture filling much of the MFA was merely the result of Goya's social ambition; it feels at best like a lace wrapper around the dark power of his meditations on cruelty, madness, and nightmare. 

Indeed, much of this portraiture plays unfortunately to the artist's relative lack of skill as a human anatomist. His nobles and lovers can sometimes look like dolls - with button eyes, flat faces, and puppet limbs - an effect which has often been read as satiric, but which also hints at underlying technical gaps. It's true that many great artists - even Rembrandt and Velázquez! - were sometimes clumsy portraitists, but crudeness seems a constant in Goya, and unfortunately only a handful of his best court paintings (like the glowing The Parasol, a charming Fragonard knock-off, detail below) have found their way into the MFA.

The best of Goya's court painting: detail from The Parasol, 1777

On the other hand, Goya's awkward anatomies are often set (oddly enough) in muscular graphic designs, especially in the samples of his "dark side" included here, which often smolder with his signature mix of bitter rage and fascinated horror. And no wonder the artist was horrified, as he not only endured premature deafness, but saw his native country repeatedly invaded and raped by the French (whose own culture was the source of many of his courtly tropes!) 

Old Man on a Swing, 1824-1828
These deprivations and depredations led to the blooming of a temperament both attracted and repelled by brutality - while the ironies of the quintessentially Spanish culture clash between reason and superstition conjured a fascination with secret lunacy. And strangely enough, it seems that in the process the artist found his true voice. For it's the later Goya, who both reflected the crack-up of the Enlightenment and prefigured the savage "reforms" of modernism, that the world has come to love.

And who can blame us? The portraits may count as satire, but they still look insipid - while even Goya's minor, tossed-off drawings, like Old Man on a Swing (at left) conceal a cleverly sardonic sting. Other paintings and prints push straight on into nightmare with the potency of a horror movie: bats and birds of prey attack a helpless victim in The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, while witches decorate the horns of Satan (in Witches' Sabbath) much as one of Fragonard's damsels might crown her lover. And the blind terror extends into the waking world: a blunt, almost toneless bewilderment likewise underpins Goya's paintings of war atrocities and mindless sadism.

So it's hard to honestly argue that there's some sort of "balance" between order and disorder here - because all the passion, all the artistic weight, lies on one side of the scale.  Occasionally, it's true, Goya steps back to contemplate the unknowability of man's true nature, as in the spooky Seated Giant (at top). And sometimes he even gestures toward the consolations of compassion and wisdom; he painted the doctor who ministered to him with sympathy, for instance, in Self-Portrait with Doctor Arrieta. But the picture is still suffused with foreboding; from the patient's expression we know at once that he is doomed. And so, quite probably, is humanity.

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