The Return of Goya
By Steve Jermanok
Despite the lyrical name, Goya is an artist who’s hard to pin down. There is no recurring motif like Monet’s water lilies or thick brushstroke of van Gogh. If you took that art history course on late 18th, early 19th century European painting, then you probably know of Francisco Goya as the Spanish painter who followed in the footsteps of Velasquez and seemed enamored with war, witchcraft, and lunacy. However, it’s always a wise idea to have a blockbuster exhibition on Goya every quarter-century or so to realize the prolific amount of work the artist produced, more than 1800 pieces across three mediums—paintings, prints, and drawings.
Goya: Order and Disorder, on view at The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston through January 19 (the only venue for the exhibition) shows the full spectrum of Goya’s keen observation. The 170 works on display put the human condition under a microscope, from the sheer joy and innocence of early childhood, as seen in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuñiga (1784–1792) to the ghastly depiction of old age in Time (Old Women) (1810-1812, Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille), where the decaying woman wearing a dress from her youth looks in the mirror, only to be swept away by father time in the background. Portraiture of the Spanish elite might have paid his bills, but Goya refused to sell out, capturing all the suffering of his lifetime, from vivid images of war to a close-up look at insanity to his own battles with illness.
The exhibition is co-curated by one of the rising stars at the MFA, Frederick Ilchman, recently appointed Chair, Art of Europe. Ilchman’s last offering, Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice, on view in 2009, showcased his flair for the dramatic by placing a Tintoretto work on the ceiling as the artist originally intended. He also has an eye for the aesthetic and a feel for sightlines as you’ll see when you stroll from the impressive Grand Portraits gallery under an arch to see a very humanized version of Saint John the Baptist.
Ilchman chose to avoid the often lazy chronological route in favor of placing the works in each gallery under varying themes such as “Play & Prey,” where Goya shows his machismo side with scenes from two of his favorite pastimes, hunting and watching bullfights. Placing the art under themes leads to interesting pairings like a heaping mound of fish in one painting next to a pile of corpses in another.
Ilchman is joined by Stephanie Loeb Stepanek, Curator of Prints and Drawings, who worked closely with Goya scholar and former MFA curator, Eleanor Sayre, on two prior Goya exhibitions at the MFA. It was Sayre’s relationship with Madrid’s Prado that convinced the museum to donate 21 of its works to the show. Also on view are 66 works on paper from the MFA’s collection. These are rarely seen gems, like the group of loving and fighting couples we find in the second gallery, to the brutal Disasters of War etchings that bravely depict rape, torture, and dismemberment.
Goya faced his own struggles, losing six of seven children before they reached adulthood, and becoming deaf at the age of 47 from a mysterious illness. Yet, what shines through in this exhibition is not merely the tragedy and the macabre but Goya’s healthy ego and vulnerability. You can’t help but admire the artist in top hat in a small painting next to the grand group portrait, The Family of Infante Don Luis (1784, Fondazione Magnani Rocca, Parma, Italy), where we see Goya in the lower left-hand corner at work on an easel. One of the final paintings in the show is an ashen 73-year old Goya being held up by the doctor who saved his life in Self-Portrait with Doctor Arrieta (1820, The Minneapolis Institute of Arts). Seeing the artist near-death and defenseless, in the arms of the man who cured him, is riveting.
The masterwork of the show is arguably the Thirteenth Dutchess of Alba (1797, Hispanic Society of America, New York). Standing next to her husband, the Duke, in another large portrait (together for the first time in more than 200 years), the Dutchess points to the ground with a steady look of confidence. There in the sand you can read the words, “Solo Goya.” The artist is paying homage to his prodigious talent. Only Goya could produce such a striking resemblance of this woman, he seems to be saying. And who are we to disagree?
Goya: Order and Disorder is on view at The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston through January 19, 2015.
In his former life when print was king, Steve Jermanok was a columnist on the arts for Boston Magazine, a contributing editor for Art & Antiques, and guest editor of the arts issue for the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine. Now he’s happy to share his passion with the readers of Everett Potter’s Travel Report. Reach Steve at Active Travels.