Magazine article The Spectator

Journey into the Unknown

Magazine article The Spectator

Journey into the Unknown

Article excerpt

In 1892, we learn from Hilary Spurling's new biography, Henri Matisse met his father in Lille. It was a difficult encounter; like so many parents, M. Matisse was unhappy about his son's plans to become a painter. But for young Henri there was a positive side to the trip. Previously, he had been in despair at his inability to comprehend or reproduce the artificial, academic style prevalent at the Ecole des BeauxArts. `Then I saw the Goyas at Lille. That was when I understood that painting could be a language; I thought that I could become a painter.' Those two pictures, popularly known as 'Youth' and 'Age', are currently part of a splendid and substantial exhibition, Goya: Un Regard Libre at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Lille.

No longer, however, does the Lille museum correspond to the description in Hilary Spurling's book `cavernous and smokeblackened'. The colossal 19th-century building has been refurbished, extended and brightened-up, a matter of slight regret, perhaps, to those like myself who have a taste for cluttered, dilapidated, provincial French museums. But, on the other hand, part of the enlargement comprises a new gallery for temporary exhibitions, of which this is the first. And this is a gain for the London public, as well as the French and Belgian, since an exhibition in Lille, two hours away on Eurostar, is now as easily visitable as one in Birmingham or Bath.

This Goya show is a splendid start for Lille, despite the very bold decision to paint the walls bright violet (which doesn't kill the pictures, but doesn't help them much either). It is not a huge, monographic exhibition -- something which, for Goya, would have to be very big indeed, since he was a prolific and long-lived artist. It takes various themes in his work, and looks at them in detail. With some 60 paintings, however, this is quite large enough to take hours to digest and to provide insight into little-explored corners of this great artist's work - the unknown Goya, so to speak, or at least, in the case of a fair number of the exhibits, completely unknown to me.

Who has seen - hands up - the altarpieces from the monastery of San Joaquin y Santa Ana in Valladolid, for example? They are strange not very likeable pictures, with a faint look of the devotional oleograph, but they are a reminder that Goya produced a surprisingly large quantity of religious art. (By the way, there is another large religious cycle at the Charterhouse of the Aula Dei outside Saragossa which has just opened its doors for the first time to women; a tunnel has been built under the monastic buildings to allow female entrance without disturbing the unisexual piety of the institution).

Until quite recently Goya's still-lifes were equally obscure. But several were displayed in the Spanish Still Life from Velasquez to Goya exhibtion at the National Gallery a few years ago, and even more are on show here, six out of ten that survive, the largest number ever assembled. They are one of the treats of the exhibition, an unanswerable demonstration that it was Goya who originated the modern still life.

His still lifes, executed during the Napoleonic Wars, around 1808-12, are not more or less sumptuous arrangements of eatables, but disturbing and compelling investigations of dead flesh. The turkeys, both the plucked and the unplucked version, flop, as is often noted, like the corpses in his `Disasters of War'; the sheep's head becomes a momento mori, just as the goats' skulls do in Picasso's still lifes of the Forties (another response by a great Spanish artist to the horrors of conflict); the eyes of his `Golden Bream' glare angrily, as if alive. …

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