Goya looks through a glass darkly

The painter may speak to our post-modern times, but is anybody really listening?

May 30, 1999|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

Goya is a painter for the ages, so each era has had to have its own Goya to admire for its own reasons. The Philadelphia Museum of Art's "Goya: Another Look," gives us a Goya for the '90s, which is to say Goya as decorative artist, entrepreneur, relentless social climber, media celebrity and (surprise!) art collector. This is not the whole Goya, of course. But perhaps it is, alas, the Goya we deserve.

Other ages have admired Goya for different (and better) reasons. He has been recruited as a proto-Romantic, proto-Realist, proto-Modernist and -- given the triviality of the present moment -- no doubt will be tagged shortly as a proto-postmodernist, as if gypsies, bullfighting and flamenco ever could be encompassed by so vapid a formula.

All this is to say that Goya (1746-1828), was a protean figure, but not because he has different things to say to different eras. He simply knew that human nature, which is the central subject of his art, does not change, and he accepted that, whereas we do not.

Our age believes in progress and the perfectibility of man, in the gradual amelioration of social ills, in a historically inevitable march toward universal human freedom and political democracy -- all ideas inherited from the Age of Enlightenment into which Goya was born.

Goya lived through that age but was not quite of it, for in Spain the Enlightenment never managed, as it did in other parts of Europe and in America, to overcome what philosopher Ortega y Gassett called the "tragic vision of life."

Goya may have admired his progressive-minded patrons among the nobility who tried (and failed) to introduce Enlightenment reforms into Spain's absolutist state. But fundamentally he remained wedded to an older, darker view of the human condition. As he matured, it accumulated force and became the wellspring of his greatness as an artist.

The Philadelphia show, comprising some three dozen paintings and about 50 works on paper, offers tantalizing glimpses of Goya's tragic vision -- without, however, ever making explicit how radically that vision differs from our own.

Instead, we are presented with a pastiche of genres and vignettes and invited to enjoy them for their decorative effect. Only near the end does Goya's demonic vision take center stage, and by then it is almost anticlimactic. But only almost.

Fine art, little insight

The first of the eight sections that make up the show introduce Goya not as moral visionary but as a designer of pretty tapestries and church decorations. There are selections of sketches and small paintings representing commissions he undertook between 1780 and 1800, and examples of the more than 60 cartoons he executed for the Royal Tapestry Factory between 1775 and 1792.

The religious paintings and sketches are well-wrought things, while the tapestries reveal a lively sense of color and whimsical choice of subjects -- gamboling rustics and sunstruck landscapes. Neither reveals much about the artist's inner life other than the ambition of a precocious talent determined to win aristocratic favor.

Next we meet Goya the portraitist. Here his unique gifts are more evident -- the shrewd appreciation of character, the marvelous play of light and dark he learned from his studies of Rembrandt and Velasquez, and the bold use of color that make his depiction of 3-year-old "Don Manuel Osorio de Zuniga" (1788) one of the most winsome children's portraits in the history of art.

Also here are heartbreakingly tender pictures of "Dona Antonia Zarate" (1805-1806), a celebrated actress in the theater world beloved by Goya, and the "Young Lady Wearing a Mantilla and Basquina," also called "The Bookseller's Wife," painted between 1800 and 1807.

Both are examples of the fine sensual intensity Goya could bring to his paintings of women. But they also remind us that his greatest works of this type -- the twin pictures of his patroness and reputed mistress, the Duchess of Alba, as the "Naked Maja" and "Clothed Maja" -- are absent from the show, as is his most famous portrait, "The Family of Charles IV."

The central gallery is devoted to paintings and household furnishings the artist kept with him in his studio until his wife's death in 1812. There are important things here, but the museum's decision to put the exhibit in the permanent gallery rather than in a separate space means these Goyas adjoin unrelated period rooms whose distractions one could do without.

The furnishings -- tables, chairs, etc. -- are supposed to illustrate how Goya was not the isolated ascetic of legend but lived well among beautiful things. It is a point worth making, but not dwelling on.

A glimpse of demons

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