The Liberal Goya

Goya and the Spirit of Enlightenment 9–July 16, 1989).

an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City (May

Goya and the Spirit of Enlightenment

catalog of the exhibition by Alfonso E. Pérez Sánchez and Eleanor A. Sayre
Musuem of Fine Arts, Boston, 407 pp., $35.00


I think most of us would agree that the Goya exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum is the most powerful show in town. We can say this even though it doesn’t give us the whole Goya. We can feel it because he speaks to us with an urgency that no artist of our time can muster. We see his long-dead face pressed against the glass of our terrible century, Goya looking in at a time worse than his.

You can make a proto-modernist out of Goya, just as the nineteenth century made him a proto-Romantic and then a proto-Realist. His dismembered carcasses in the Disasters of War directly inspired Géricault’s. Manet assiduously imitated him—his Parisiennes on the balcony are Goya’s majas transposed to Paris, his bullfight is a direct homage to Goya’s Tauromaquia. Dali constantly invoked him and from L’Age d’Or to The Exterminating Angel Luis Buñuel’s films elliptically refer to Goya and constitute a cinematic parallel to his eighty prints about the sexual and social follies of Spanish society high and low, the Caprichos.

Picasso, of course, meditated on Goya from first to last and was always scared of the comparison. Among Americans, to name only a couple, Goya surfaces dramatically in late works of Philip Guston (so many of which seem like homages to the Caprichos) and in the tragic blacks and humped profiles of Robert Motherwell’s Elegy to the Spanish Republic.

But you cannot make Goya into a proto-post-modernist. He is never trivial enough for that. It is the wholeness of his fiction, its unremitting earnestness, its desire to know and tell the truth, that our art has currently lost.

This is what used to be meant when a great artist was called “universal.” The term can’t be taken literally—there is no imaginable Goya that could mean as much to a Chinese as to a European—but it does suggest the power of such artists to keep appealing through their imagery to very different people along the strand of a common cultural descent, so that even when beliefs have lost their fervency, when both the oppressors and the oppressed are dead, when the references of religion and popular culture have changed, as they certainly have between Madrid in 1809 and New York in 1989—still we venture to claim Goya as our own. Our ability to describe ourselves is somewhat inflected by this man’s paintings, drawings, and prints.

We could not claim this for any of his Spanish contemporaries. It doesn’t entirely rest on his greatness as an artist either, since other great painters of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries don’t have Goya’s ability to project their images from their time into ours. No matter how much we love Watteau, his sense of society is closed to us forever; we will never be able to imagine ourselves taking part in those rituals on the shaven lawns of the paradise garden. But Goya is a different matter.

Two paintings that are not in the Metropolitan show underscore…

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