The People’s Goya

Nicholas Penny

  • Goya by Robert Hughes
    Harvill, 429 pp, £25.00, October 2003, ISBN 1 84343 054 1

Robert Hughes has a great enthusiasm for Goya’s art, which he communicates in this biography, together with much useful information, forcefully expressed, about the rival factions at the Bourbon court, the Napoleonic invasion, the evolution of bull-fighting, what a maja was, what guerrillas were. This is mixed with some less useful observations – there were in those days priests who ‘groped boys’ and were ‘quite as bad’ as their modern counterparts – and some errors, as when Hughes claims that the curls of pubic hair in the Naked Maja are certainly the earliest in Western art. He concedes that little is known about Goya, yet takes us out shooting with him. Goya ‘liked the macho life . . . You didn’t need to be the duke of this or that to hit a partridge, or to blaspheme victoriously when a puff of dust flew from its ass and it came pinwheeling down, feathers awry, out of the hard hot blue air.’ The vivid image was perhaps suggested by the Caprichos etchings, in which falling winged creatures and even anal puffs feature, but it also removes Goya from the deferential and hierarchical society in which he lived.

Hughes follows most modern writers on Goya in rejecting the idea, so often found in the old literature, that his portrait of Carlos IV and his family (today in the Prado) was satirical, and he even proposes that the artist was, despite anticlerical tendencies, a true believer. All the same, like many who have written about Goya (notable examples are Francis Klingender in Goya in the Democratic Tradition and Fred Licht in Goya: The Origins of the Modern Temper in Art), Hughes argues that Goya is in some ways our contemporary; or that he was, at least, the first modern artist. Not unexpectedly, it is Goya as a painter of horror and atrocity who attracts most attention. Hughes contrasts the Meadow of San Isidro, painted in 1788 when the artist was 42, with the Pilgrimage of San Isidro, also in the Prado, of 1821-23. The former shows a pleasant picnicking scene while the latter, one of the very damaged murals removed from the artist’s house, depicts a ‘sluggish snake of thoroughly miserable-looking humanity crawling towards the viewer across an earth as barren as a slag heap’. It is of course the Pilgrimage which is taken as a philosophical statement: ‘Goya’s vision of humanity in the mass, in the raw, almost on the point of explosion.’ Hughes is impressed by the coarse violence of the handling as well as the subject matter, but if it were ever possible to reconstruct what these murals originally looked like we might be less inclined to think of Ensor, de Kooning and Bacon.

Early in his career Goya had been helped by Anton Raphael Mengs, the favourite painter of King Carlos III and the most admired artist in Europe, who was also an exceptionally eloquent and original writer on art (Hughes regards him as a ‘frigidly correct pedant’ and ‘one of the supreme bores of European civilisation’). Mengs’s greatest contribution to Goya’s success, however, was his decision to return to Italy in 1777, leaving no major portraitist in Spain to rival Goya. Paradoxically, Goya’s success in this genre owed something to his lack of thorough academic training, a shortcoming which makes Mengs’s support surprising. Goya’s vivid portraits, in complete contrast to those by Mengs, which skilfully graft the melting graces of Correggio onto court sitters, look as if they were painted with little premeditation. Hughes describes Goya as ‘one of the greatest draughtsmen in European history’, but this claim is made with reference to the sketches intended for or used in his prints. There are hardly any surviving drawings for his portraits, and many passages in them are, in the conventional sense, ill drawn.

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