The Art of Disaster


by Robert Hughes
Knopf, 429 pp., $40.00


Of the three towering figures in Spanish painting—Diego Velázquez, Francisco Goya, and Pablo Picasso—Goya seems to have a special appeal for imaginative writers. Too little is known of the life of Velázquez, Goya’s seventeenth-century idol. Velázquez has, as Robert Hughes notes, “next to no personal myth.” Of Picasso, whose Guernica owed so much to Goya’s searing depictions of war, we know perhaps too much; the sheer weight of the facts impedes our power to give them meaningful shape. It is difficult for us to feel the intimacy with these imposing artists that we do with Goya, who seems, though he worked two centuries ago and died in 1828, to combine accessibility and mystery, tradition and modern sensibility, in his person and in his pictures.

That mystery as well as the rich variety of Goya’s work accounts for sharp differences among the writers who have written about him. Goya spent his last years in exile in France, and through the nineteenth century it was the French who took the most interest in his work. For the Romantic poet Théophile Gautier, Goya was the quintessence of Spanish flair, a debonair connoisseur of bullfights and dark-eyed courtesans. For Baudelaire, by contrast, Goya was an alienated peintre maudit, a brooding painterly counterpart to that French invention “Edgar Poe.”

Goya’s series of etchings depicting Napoleon’s occupation of Spain, known as the Desastres de la guerra, or Disasters of War, was published posthumously in Paris in 1863, just as Mathew Brady’s photographers were fanning out across the killing fields of the American South to add their own deadpan horrors to Goya’s numbing record. From 1937—when the Goyas in the Prado Museum in Madrid were shipped to Geneva for exhibition and safekeeping during the Spanish Civil War—to 1945, no artist spoke more poignantly to European writers (not to mention such painters as Picasso and Robert Motherwell) of the disasters of war than Goya. André Malraux, Simone Weil, Ernest Hemingway—all testified to Goya’s disturbing prescience.

Lately, we seem to be in another Goya moment. During the past two years, the novelists Julia Blackburn and Evan S. Connell have written books about Goya’s life.1 The Goya of the Desastres is the presiding spirit in Susan Sontag’s study of visual representations of atrocity in wartime, Regarding the Pain of Others; “With Goya,” writes Sontag, “a new standard for responsiveness to suffering enters art.”2 Last year there was a perceptive exhibition on Goya’s images of women, curated by the Goya scholar Janis A. Tomlinson, at the National Gallery in Washington. The sumptuous Manet/ Velázquez exhibition at the Met this year, to which Goya was as central as Velázquez, added considerably to our understanding of Goya’s decisive influence on French and American realist painters.

Now we have Robert Hughes’s intensely written and powerfully imagined critical biography, a book that gives the impression of muscling the competition off the shelf. Hughes, for twenty-five years the chief art critic at Time magazine and the author of two marvelous evocations of place,…

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