Much has, of course, been written on the iconic Spanish artist Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes: that he was one of the first truly modern artists, that his approach was akin to the later journalistic art of reportage, that his often bitingly satirical images were the very embodiment of enlightenment thinking. For the late, great critic and writer John Berger, however, Goya’s genius also lay in his robustly theatrical approach to image-making.
To be called theatrical as an artist is not necessarily a compliment, but Berger certainly meant it as such. For him, Goya was “constantly concerned with the way action might be used to epitomize a character or a situation”, by which he meant that each of the artist’s meticulously constructed scenes played out as if on a stage, the depicted figures actors caught in moments that link into complex narrative structures. To encounter the many diminutive and stunning etchings and preparatory drawings on display at the NGV (until October 3) is to peer into entire worlds; the cumulative effect recalls the experience of squinting through film stock, each still not only part of a bigger story but also imbued with the granular detail of the real world. As Berger put it: “One doesn’t analyse the processes of vision that lie behind an etching by Goya; one submits to its climax.”
This is part of where the claim regarding Goya’s modernity comes from. Even today, the quality grants his work a strikingly fluid historicity: sure, they depict specific things – the horrors of the Peninsular War, for instance, or the mediaeval theatres of Spanish inquisition trials – but they depict our world too. For the shadows that play across the exhibition will be recognised by all but the most unimaginative of viewers, as shadows of a particularly contemporary order: images of the January 6 insurrection at Washington’s Capitol buildings rise unavoidably (the so-called QAnon Shaman who featured prominently in the attack is, with his painted body and horned headdress, exactly the kind of clownish ghoul that populates Goya’s more nightmarish visions), as do even more recent images of Taliban forces executing surrendered Afghan fighters, or of boats overladen with refugees being turned back by Greek coast guards.
It’s surely a cliché to ask what Goya would turn his razor-sharp mind to today, but the question is unavoidable. Seen in light of other winter blockbusters that the NGV has staged over the years – or even just in light of the concurrent French Impressionism from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston – one understands Goya’s enduring power. Many viewers will be drawn by his storied name and perhaps expect an afternoon of pleasant diversion, but Goya is a hard exhibition: not to understand (his images are nothing if not direct), but in its uncompromising nature. As any exhibition of his work should be, the experience of looking at his images in volume is draining. And yet it also carries an invigorating charge of intense clarity. A perfect world would see Goya’s images relegated to history, but such a thing is impossible. As long as humans have the capacity for atrocity, as long as they create and participate in systems of horror and political malfeasance – as long as humans are humans – his dark and magnetic visions will remain essential viewing.
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