Magazine article The Spectator

Goya's Flights of Fantasy

Magazine article The Spectator

Goya's Flights of Fantasy

Article excerpt

Martin Gaylord on two absorbing exhibitions at the Hayward Gallery

Why draw? There are all manner of reasons. Artists make drawings as preparation for paintings, to try out ideas, to make quick notes of useful items, as five-finger exercises to sharpen their skills, and as finished works of art for sale. But those in the exhibition Goya: Drawings From His Private Albums, part of an excellent double bill at the Hayward Gallery with photographs by Brassai (until 13 May), do not really fit into any of those categories.

Juliet Wilson-Barreau, the curator of the exhibition, quotes another important Goya scholar, Eleanor Sayre, as suggesting that the best description of Goya's albums of drawings is 'journals'. That is, they are records of his thoughts, his feelings, his attitudes and his fantasies. As such, they can be elusive, and hard to interpret - witness the problem that crops up with the very first album, known to scholarship as 'A' and almost certainly drawn at Sanlucar de Barrameda in 1796.

Goya was staying there on the estate of the Duchess of Alba, a great noblewoman whose husband had recently died and a beauty noted for her big hair. At least one, and probably more of the drawings in this and the next album, show the Duchess in a surprisingly intimate, apparently teasing context.

One shows her in a fit of pique, and is captioned `She orders them to put the carriage away, ruffles up her hair, and stamps. All because Father Flopwilly told her to her face she looked pale.' These images suggest that he was on relaxed terms with the Duchess. Since the mid-19th century it has often been stated that they were lovers (even that she posed for the 'Mafia desnuda', who is plainly a different woman).

This kind of story, understandably, has little credence in the austere world of modem art history. Janis Tomlinson notes in a recent book on Goya that

given the social hierarchy of late eighteenth-- century Spain, it is unlikely that the admiration [Goya felt for the Duchess's beauty] would have led to a passionate affair. . . on an even more basic level, it might be asked what the 34-year-old beauty would have seen in a 50-year-old artist, deaf and somewhat infirm.

It might indeed, although one is prompted to muse that stranger alliances have occurred, even in aristocratic circles, and that the company of a painter of genius even if hard of hearing and 50 might have had some charm. Goya himself, infirm or not, seems to have had matters amorous on his mind since these drawings are interleaved with scenes probably observed in the brothels of nearby Cadiz (Sanlucar is a wonderfully sleepy town at the mouth of the Guadalquivir). If the Duchess ever saw this or the other Madrid album, 'B', containing drawings of her, one would guess that she and the painter were pretty close.

But there's the rub. For whether the Duchess or anyone else saw these drawings is exactly what one can't be sure of. Others of the 550 or so album drawings, not in the main the ones in this show, served as raw material for Goya's celebrated series of prints, that began in the late 1790s with `Los Caprichos' - the caprices - which he originally wanted to entitle `Los Suenos', dreams. The 117 drawings included in this exhibition are extremely diverse. Some look like caprices or dreams, others more like memories, notes to himself, private political cartoons.

Some have all the indignation, and some of the horror, of his `Disasters of War'. …

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