Hughes on Goya: very grand master

November 09, 2003|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

Goya, by Robert Hughes. Knopf. 448 pages. $28.

The portrait of Francisco Goya y Lucientes that emerges from Robert Hughes' lively biography is that of an ambitious, tormented genius whose hard work and extraordinary longevity (he lived to the, for his time, unusually old age of 82) enabled him to create works that rank among art's supreme expressions of the tragic vision of life.

In Hughes' telling, the Goya of legend is largely an invention of 19th-century biographers who tailored the facts of his career to suit their own agendas.

Goya, for example, did not deliberately ridicule the royal subjects of his portraits. Nor was he a political radical or an intellectual. He certainly was not afflicted by what later writers, hoping to enlist him in their cause, would celebrate as the madness of the Romantic artist.

He was, if anything, mostly what he claimed to be: a common-sense man of the people, a rational skeptic dubious of grandiose schemes and ideologies, a witness to human misery whose empathy sprang from his own terrible experience of suffering, which included the early deaths of all but one of his children and a devastating illness in 1792, at the age of 46, that left him deaf and cut off from normal human contact for the rest of his life.

Goya was drawn to the liberal ideas of the Enlightenment, and numbered among his friends many of the progressive thinkers of his day. But he was also acutely aware that men and women are fallible and that the ideal of human perfectibility is illusory.

In his etchings, produced for the general public rather than on private commission, Goya gave fullest vent to his tragic view of life, and these works, along with the gruesome "Black Paintings" of his last years, Hughes rightly places at the center of his narrative.

First were the 80 aquatints of the Caprices, published in 1799, which Goya intended to illustrate what he called "the multitude of stupidities and errors common to every civil society and ... the ordinary obfuscations and lies condoned by custom, ignorance or self-interest."

They were followed by The Disasters of War, depicting Napoleon's occupation of Spain from 1808 to 1814, which Goya created between 1810 and 1815 but which remained unpublished for 35 years after the artist's death in 1828.

In both these great cycles, as well as in the "Black Paintings," which even in Hughes' capable exposition remain stubbornly enigmatic, Goya emerges as a prophetic voice against the twin follies of religious fanaticism and war. In this he seems as much a man of our time as of his own.

As in his earlier writings on art, Hughes proves a master storyteller with a scholar's comprehensive grasp of his subject and a journalist's eye for the colorful anecdote and telling detail. Goya was such a monumental figure that perhaps no book can completely do him justice, but Hughes offers insights on nearly every page that reward readers with a deeper appreciation of this most modern of Old Masters.

Glenn McNatt has been The Sun's art critic since 1999. From 1995 to 1999 he was The Sun's arts columnist, and from 1985 to 1995 he served as an editorial writer, columnist and occasional op-ed page editor for The Sun and The Evening Sun. Before coming to Baltimore, McNatt was a writer and editor for Time-Life Books and a reporter for Time magazine. He began his career as a teacher of literature and sociology at Brandeis University and Wellesley College.

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