Clues to Goya's Enigmatic Art

By Andreae, Christopher | The Christian Science Monitor, June 8, 1994 | Go to article overview

Clues to Goya's Enigmatic Art


Andreae, Christopher, The Christian Science Monitor


FRANCISCO GOYA Y LUCIENTES: 1746-1828 By Janis Tomlinson Phaidon Press Limited 320 pp., $60.

GOYA'S paintings, etchings, and drawings seem no less ambiguous today than they presumably did in his own time. Exhibitions, catalogs, and new books on this Spanish artist (1746-1828) continue to appear, but his enigmatic and many-sided art is as elusive as ever. Even his more "conventional" paintings - his allegorical tapestry cartoons for royal palaces, such as "Spring," or his portraits, such as "Family of Carlos IV" - have been subject to contradictory interpretations.

Are his tapestry paintings, in the first part of his career, simply the works of an artist building a reputation and prepared therefore to accede to the particular dictates of patrons?

He was asked for "paintings of pleasant, light-hearted subjects." We cannot, however, help looking at these apparently cheerful and decorous works without trying to see how they could be the products of the same mind that etched the disasters of war; the satires of human folly; and the scenes of inquisition, cruelty, imprisonment, torture, diabolism, and nightmare, which are the hallmark of Goya's haunted and phantasmagoric vision.

In "Spring" (1786), Goya seems to have succeeded in keeping his darker side out of sight. Yet even in this delightful and idealized image - planned to decorate a dining room - there is a mischievous and slightly disturbing element in the form of the peasant-type, behind the three main figures, holding up a rabbit. The play-acting of the elegantly costumed and fresh-faced aristocrats in the foreground is about to be disrupted by this grinning rustic: The central girl is sure to jump out of her skin at any moment. The intention is humor, surely, not satire, but it is as if Goya could not resist this note of dissension from total prettiness.The version of "Spring" illustrated here, from a current exhibition of Goya's "Small Paintings" at The Royal Academy of Arts, London, is the sketch he presented to his patrons for approval before he went on to paint the actual cartoon that would, in turn, be used as the model for the final tapestry.

The exhibition catalog's commentary points out that Goya made changes in the cartoon and that the rabbit becomes unmistakably the main focus of the painting. It is as if the artist had intended this emphasis on the disruptive element of his picture from the start, but until the royal assent had been given for his sketch, he had not felt at liberty to follow his own idea. One suspects, however, that he may still have felt terribly constrained by the idealism expected of him.

American art historian Janis Tomlinson has written a new - and large - book about Goya, "Francisco Goya y Lucientes: 1746-1828." In it, she introduces Goya as an artist who cannot be divided up into categories, and whose different facets - particularly his public and private sides - should not necessarily be seen as at odds, or solely confined to the earlier and later passages of his life. Instead she aims to "define Goya's `continuity' insofar as we can know it."

But "knowing" Goya is precisely the problem, and she is up against the same comparative paucity of record and documentary information as previous writers. There is even very little known about the reactions of the artist's own contemporaries to his work, let alone anything much in the way of explanation by Goya himself regarding his intentions and ideas.

Even those statements he did make have the whiff of advertisement or at least of making sure, in the face of ecclesiastical or roy-al suppression, that his tracks were covered. His strength came from the potency of a vision that refused to be suppressed, but at the same time was canny enough to cloak itself in ambiguity. The central paradox of Goya is that few artists have so evidently arrived at their images through an intense desire to communicate and yet have produced images that seem so full of meanings as to allow many different interpretations. …

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