If you’ve only read, or watched, one art critic, there’s a good chance it’s Robert Hughes. Hughes is hugely entertaining. His Shock of the New, a grand sweeping historical commentary about modern art, was a best seller and became a PBS mini-series. He wrote similarly grand histories of Australia (The Fatal Shore) and Barcelona (Barcelona). With Goya Hughes focuses his wide ranging vision on a single artist, Jose de Goya y Lucientes, a regular guy we come to love and admire as we read, but whom we also come to recognize as a titan of western art.
Goya was a working artist in a hard scrabble Spain of the late 1700s and early 1800s. His father was a gilder, who applied gold leaf, and as such Goya had some connection to professional artists. He apprenticed himself to a painter and worked his way up, taking commissions from the church and the wealthy just to get himself known, starting as a regular guy. What is striking is that his painting technique and style emerge fully mature in his earliest works. There were no museums and all the good art was out of sight in the palaces of the wealthy. Right away his glorious ceiling paintings in churches and his paintings of elaborately dressed youths frolicking in the woods go toe to toe with the work of Tiepolo and Watteau. And, as a worthy working artist of his time and place, he ultimately comes under the employ of the King, and designs tapestries and paints portraits of the wealthy and the powerful. And then, he becomes ill and goes deaf and his art becomes dark.
As Goya recovered from illness he created his dark Caprichos, a series of prints exploring human depravity and madness. Out Hunting for Teeth, depicts a woman struggling to pull the teeth out of a corpse hanging from a noose. How They Pluck Her shows priests despoiling, nearly consuming, a maiden. And thus, arguably, modern art was born. Whereas nearly all art at had explored the themes of human beauty and wisdom, Goya, isolated in his deafness, began to depict the horrors at hand in a place where the inquisition remained frightening and powerful, and where the average life expectancy was just thirty years.
The scenes of horror become much worse during the resistance to Napoleon’s occupation of Spain. His Nothing (he will say) depicts a rotting corpse and his Let the Rope Break depicts a vain priest performing on a tightrope above a ravenous crowd. A glowing resistance fighter in white, arms flung wide, like a Christ, welcomes the bullets of a firing squad in The Third of May. Tragically the horrors continue after the restoration of Spanish rule and Goya cannot turn his eyes away. As an old man, he exiles himself from his country and dies in France. Hughes asks, where are the artists today who create art of such power in opposition to our own horrors?
Goya is enjoyable because of Hughes’ enjoyment and wonder at Goya’s art. He finds myriad telling details and connects the art to the personalities of the age. We can enjoy Hughes’ wonder in a different medium as well. His video documentary Goya, Crazy Like a Genius is also available at the Birmingham Public Library. The library has other books on Goya’s work which contain more and larger reproductions of his work, including The World of Goya by D. B. Wyndham Lewis.