Women and the fate of the world

Goya's dark but exquisitely rendered view of the human condition actually has very little to do with gender.


April 07, 2002|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

The Spanish painter Francisco Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828) refuses to be put into any neat intellectual box because his art transcends any single idea. Whether his nominal subject is women or bullfighting or the horror of war, his art always speaks to the whole of the human condition and that is why it moves us.

So I may as well say at the outset that my initial reaction to Goya: Images of Women, the beautiful exhibition at Washington's National Gallery of Art, was tempered by skepticism at what at first seemed to be another attempt to make the art of the past more accessible by tying it to contemporary fashion -- in this case the great interest in feminist re-examinations of art history.

Museums rightly try to justify their exhibitions by presenting some new, unexamined aspect of an artist's work. The truth is, Goya resists such efforts, no matter how clever. His vision was too expansive and too tragic.

The show, which includes more than 120 tapestry cartoons, paintings, drawings and prints, gives us an overview of how the artist depicted women throughout his career. In her introduction to the exhibition catalog, the editor, Janis A. Tomlinson of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, writes that the exhibit breaks ground by demonstrating how "Goya's representations of women both chronicle and evolve in concert with the changing society of Spain." True enough, yet if that were all there were to it, pretty exhibitions of "Impressionist Women" or "Renaissance Ladies" might suit just as well. But they don't.

Instead, what this survey demonstrates is not merely the evolution of Goya's depictions of women but, more importantly, the gradual unfolding of his intensely tragic vision -- a view of life shaped as much by the artist's own profoundly pessimistic nature as by the tumultuous events of his age. Because Tomlinson has chosen simply to let that vision unfold chronologically, we are allowed to experience the full force of Goya's genius.

The true subject

As Goya's art matured, his observations of women certainly became more perceptive and encompassed a greater variety of social classes and types -- greater, perhaps, than any other artist before him. But his true subject was always larger: it was the vast and irremediable human condition, eternal in its suffering, hypocrisy, greed, cruelty and absurdity. Goya managed to look it full in the face and, miraculously, still find a weird measure of beauty there.

You can see it in his earliest tapestry cartoons, the full-size patterns that Goya created early in his career for the royal weavers who turned them into wall hangings for the homes of the aristocracy. They are executed in the decorative rococo style that arrived at the Spanish court with the Italian master Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770) and was championed by the German painter Anton Raphael Menages (1728-1779), Goya's first mentor in Madrid.

In The Straw Mannikin (1791-92), for example, Goya presents a seemingly carefree genre scene of four laughing country girls tossing the straw figure of a man into the air on a blanket. The custom had its origins in the pre-Lenten carnival festival, Tomlinson writes, but Goya stripped it of its religious associations so that it becomes a wry comment on women's power over men. The hapless male doll cuts a pathetic figure, but the women take obvious delight in this fanciful reversal of roles. Behind their smiling faces we sense a sweet revenge as well as what the Germans call Schadenfreude, the perverse delight taken in the misery of others.

Goya's position at the court of Charles III (and his successor Charles IV) afforded him many opportunities to observe the aristocratic women who later would become important patrons of his art. The earliest portraits are painted in a rococo style borrowed from English and French models, but as his vision evolved, Goya's portraits of women became increasingly realistic, probing studies of his sitters' characters. His portrait of Maria Antonia Gonzaga, Marchioness of Villafranca (1795), for example, the mother-in-law of the notorious Duchess of Alba (with whom Goya was alleged to have had a passionate affair and also to have been the model for his famous Nude Maja and Clothed Maja, two highlights of this show) is amazingly convincing in its portrayal of the elegant matron as a coolly competent, highly intelligent woman of noble bearing.

After 1792, when Goya suffered a devastating illness that left him deaf for the remainder of his life, the artist executed several commissioned portraits of middle-class women, including two heartbreakingly tender portraits of the actress Antonia Zarate. The earlier of these, painted in 1805 and 1806, shows a young woman of surpassing beauty whose gaze is clouded by melancholy. Goya presents her with great empathy and delicacy as an exemplar of feminine grace.

Groundbreaking prints

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