Goya at the Frick

By Wilkin, Karen | New Criterion, April 2006 | Go to article overview

Goya at the Frick


Wilkin, Karen, New Criterion


Why is Francisco de Goya so difficult to write about? Is it because his oeuvre encompasses everything from official portraiture and altarpieces to private nightmare fantasies and etchings? Or is it because over the course of his long career he addressed-with equally impressive results--such wide-ranging subjects as aristocratic children and the most progressive thinkers in Spain, young women and ancient crones, the horrors of war and piles of produce destined for the kitchen? Or does discussing Goya pose problems because he transformed himself from a rather provincial maker of tight, stylish Rococo pleasantries into one of the most ferocious and "painterly" painters in the history of art? Is it because of the apparent artlessness of his paintings and drawings--the deceptive straightforwardness of touch and composition, and the equally deceptive suppression of chromatic color? Or is it just because he's so good?

"Goya's Last Works" the tightly focused, elegantly selected exhibition at the Frick Collection until mid-May, makes it plain that none of these explanations, however true, is wholly adequate. (1) If all that accounted for the challenge of writing about this elusive master were the breadth of Goya's subject matter and the dramatic evolution of his approach, then it would be relatively easy to do justice to this small, wonderful survey. It concentrates on limited themes--portraits, self-portraits, exploratory drawings, and bullfights--and on a single period, mainly the years of the painter's self-imposed exile from Spain, between 1824 and his death in 1828, aged eighty-two. Goya being Goya, of course, the show includes not only canvases but also works on paper, prints, and miniatures on ivory. (Surprisingly, this is the first exhibition in the U.S. to examine this phase of Goya's long and varied career.)

Yet this narrowly defined, carefully chosen show presents just as many difficulties for anyone trying to evoke its excellences as did all the others devoted to Goya over the last fifteen years or so--which turns out to be a surprising number, beginning with "Goya and the Spirit of the Enlightenment" seen at the Metropolitan Museum and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in I989. Since then, there have been "Goya: Truth and Fantasy: The Small Paintings" at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1994-, followed a year later by a small show at the Metropolitan, which used its impressive holdings of Goya's work to frame the confrontation of an indisputably authentic Maja on a Balcony (1808--1812) with its own problematic version. Most recently, the Philadelphia Museum of Art mounted a mini-retrospective, "Goya: A Second Look" in 1999. I struggled in the pages of this magazine to do justice to the complexity and subtler, of the works on view in all of these exhibitions. Trying to come to terms with the current show at the Frick has been just as strenuous. Goya's work has such conviction and authority that the most appropriate response for the long-suffering art critic is to shut up and point. When I recently suggested this to a colleague, however, he immediately replied, "Don't tell anyone or we'll all be out of a job" so I suppose that, however arduous I find the task, in the interest of professional solidarity, I must try to recreate nay experience of the superb exhibition now occupying the Frick's two modest downstairs spaces for special exhibitions and the even more modest "cabinet gallery" upstairs.

"Goya's Last Works" was apparently conceived to create a context for the Frick's masterpiece of the period, Portrait of a Lady (Maria Martinez de Puga?), painted in 1824. (The identification, while generally accepted, is apparently not certain.) The portrait is a ravishing precursor of Manet's seductive images of Berthe Morisot, black curls, black dress, dazzlingly scribbled ruffles, fan, and all. The curve of the gold watch chain pinned to the fashionably high waistband is like a crackle of lightning against the gorgeous brushy blacks, grays, and browns of this wonderful picture. …

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