A new exhibition explores the variety of Goya’s preoccupations—from war to witchcraft, royalty to riffraff.
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There’s a warehouse door in Brooklyn, N.Y., that’s surrounded by crap—old flyers for “a man with a van,” rock band stickers, spray-painted expletives, broken glass and cigarette butts on the ground, and your standard, run-of-the-mill dirt. As far as Brooklyn warehouse doors go, it’s canonical—with one exception. Some street-art savant has “graffitied” Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zúñiga on it. The fancy red jumpsuit, the ornate little shoes, the pageboy bob, the bird on a string, and the hungry trio of cats are all there, rendered with rogue simplicity. It is arresting not because it seems out of place, but because it’s beautiful, and it’s beautiful because it is a representation of a painting by Francisco de Goya y Lucientes.
Goya, who lived and worked in Spain during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, was also regularly surrounded by crap—war, sickness, death (including the deaths of six of his seven children), religious extremism, the Inquisition, superstition, and general buffoonery—but used these circumstances as material for his paintings, drawings and prints. The breadth of his subject matter was equaled only by the keenness of his observations, and his works combined visual acuity with social commentary. A student of human complexity, he could render with equal verity both the stateliness of an aristocratic sitter and the instability of an eccentric teetering on a bicycle. During his employ as court painter to four consecutive rulers of Spain, the artist managed to appease the big guys in charge while publishing prints and painting scenes that elucidated the plight of the poor and the victims of war. But no group in Goya’s Spain escaped his critique—his 1797–99 set of 80 etchings, the Caprichos, skewered ignorance and irrationality on a mass scale. In the middle of it all he places himself, who in The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters—print number 43 in the sequence and one of Goya’s most famous images—falls asleep at his drawing desk and is bedeviled by night creatures, the symbols of wickedness and folly that were present in 18th-century Madrid and constant throughout human history.
The upcoming exhibition “Goya: Order and Disorder” (October 12–January 19) at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is the largest in America in 25 years, putting over 160 paintings, prints, and drawings on public view. Many pieces are on loan from international institutions such as the Met, the Louvre, the Galleria degli Uffizi, The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid, which has generously lent 21 works. The MFA Boston has a strong Goya collection of its own, acquired for the most part during the tenure of Eleanor Sayre, a former curator of prints and drawings at the museum and an esteemed Goya scholar. Around 60 works on paper from the MFA’s collection are included in the show.
Organized thematically rather than chronologically or by media, the exhibition will showcase a wide range of Goya’s work, with the goal of exploring his consistencies and idiosyncrasies. Refining the show’s themes wasn’t easy, considering Goya’s massive output, his seemingly limitless fascinations, and the wealth of material the museum has at its disposal. “It was difficult to try to find the themes that most represented Goya,” says Stephanie Stepanek, the curator of prints and drawings at the museum and one of the curators of the show, “At one point we had as many as 20 or 25.” The curators eventually settled on eight: “Goya Looks at Himself,” a selection of self-portraits; “Life Studies,” works focused on human nature; “Play and Prey,” a section devoted to both jovial and sinister game playing or sport; “In the Balance,” which shows figures in precarious states or being affected by external forces; “Portraits,” mostly of aristocratic commission; “Other Worlds, Other States,” focusing on lunacy, superstition, and religious belief; “Capturing History,” historical scenes, often showing the plights of victims in war; and “Solo Goya,” a catch-all category that takes a stab at summing up Goya’s greatness; it includes his symbolic images of power, namely Seated Giant (1818).
“Portraits” is the thematic section where viewers will encounter Goya’s Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zúñiga (circa 1784–92), which is on loan from the Met. The boy in the painting is the son of the Count and Countess of Altamira. Goya painted both the Count and Countess (holding her infant daughter), as well as Manuel’s older brother Vicente. A recent exhibition at the Met, “Goya and the Altamira Family,” created a rare family reunion of all four Goya portraits, along with a portrait of a third son, Juan, painted by Goya’s less-talented collaborator Agustín Esteve y Marqués. Visitors to the show likely noticed that, of the whole family, Manuel’s portrait seems the most robust. Goya probably agreed, considering that his calling card is rendered in the lower middle of the painting, gripped in the magpie’s beak. Unlike his brother Vicente, who was only 10 at the time of his sitting, yet nonetheless heavily suited, wigged and indifferent to the puppy playfully jumping at his legs, Manuel seems like a child. His hand gestures and puffy cheeks suggest innocence, while his wide eyes and pursed lips seem poised for mischief. Much has been said by art historians about his accoutrements, for instance that the magpie might represent the soul while the caged birds mean purity. Whatever the case may be, the picture is charged with an eerie sort of potential energy—one gets the sense that the animals are about to turn on each other or on the boy. Manuel is suspended in the safety of the portrait, but in reality evil might strike him at any moment. He died during his childhood, a fact that, once known, is difficult to forget when looking at the painting.
The first member of the family Goya painted was the boy’s father, Joaquín Osorio Moscoso y Guzmán, Count of Altamira, a director of the Banco Nacional de San Carlos (later the Banco de España), in 1787. When Goya was commissioned for this initial portrait, he had already painted other directors at the bank. He wrote to his friend the year before, “I have made myself most sought after.” At that time he was in increasing demand, having been appointed one of the Painters to the King in 1786. He had first started making a name for himself a decade earlier, having been called to Madrid (Goya’s hometown was the village of Fuendetodos, Spain) by court painter Anton Raphael Mengs to help design tapestries for the royal palaces of Charles III. Soon after, he was commissioned to make reproductive prints based on paintings by Spanish artists in the royal collection, particularly pieces by Diego Velázquez, the most famous Spanish painter of the 17th century. His facility with these celebrated images elevated his reputation and popularity.
In 1792 Goya became ill and lost his hearing. He used his brief recuperation time to create small paintings on tinplate he called “inventions.” Deaf, but still up to his ears in commissions, Goya continued to paint Spain’s high society, notably the Duke and Duchess of Alba, in 1795 and 1797, respectively. These two paintings will be reunited in Boston, after having been apart since the early 19th century. In her portrait the Duchess points authoritatively to words scrawled in the sand. They read “Solo Goya,” a subtle yet brazen act of self-promotion acknowledging that he alone could create such a piece.
The artist painted religious scenes on commission but explored a variety of belief systems when choosing his own subject matter, including themes of popular superstition, often dark or esoteric in nature. While painting frescoes in the royal chapel of San Antonio de la Florida in Madrid in 1798, he was also creating a series of canvases dealing with witchcraft. Goya’s attitude toward these subjects was complex and multivalent; there is a strong element of satire, but he clearly appreciated the weirdness and picturesque qualities of the occult and very likely also used these depictions to indirectly criticize the Church and the Inquisition. Witches’ Sabbath (1797–98) pictures a coven of witches encircling the Sabbatic Goat, who wears a crown of oak leaves. An old witch holds a baby, and two infant skeletons can be seen, one on the ground, the other in a witch’s arms. As bats circle overhead, the goat points his left hoof towards the living baby, who may be an initiate or prey to the devil’s appetites for human flesh (popular superstitions at the time held that the devil fed on children). The painting was bought by patrons of the artist, the Duke and Duchess of Osuna, soon after its completion, along with five other witchcraft-themed works. The subject was hardly a passing fancy; Goya would return to themes of esoteric ritual and the macabre throughout the rest of his career.
The “Other Worlds, Other States” section of the exhibition will show Goya’s scenes of superstition along with depictions of madness. It is conjectured that as he was losing his hearing, Goya developed a fear of going insane, which he explored visually in uncommissioned works. Yard with Madmen, painted in 1794, is one of the artist’s early depictions of the punitive treatment of the mentally ill at that time in Spain. Inhabitants of an institution are seen huddled, quarantined, fighting, and uncontrollably grinning, while being watched by a single guard and bathed in eerie, damp-looking green light. The setting is a human junkyard, with the discarded and stigmatized left to rot in squalor. Three decades later, after moving to Bordeaux, France, because of his disdain for the regime of Ferdinand VII, Goya drew a series of “locos” in various states of physical or mental torment. Raging Lunatic (Loco furioso), a black crayon on laid paper drawing, shows a typical Goya figure, burly and energetic, sticking his head and arm through the bars of a cell.
Victims of war pervade Goya’s history paintings. When the Napoleonic troops invaded in 1808, six years of battle and famine took hold of Spain. Goya somehow retained his position as court painter, even when Napoleon’s brother, Joseph Bonaparte, became the country’s interim ruler. Goya painted Attack on a Military Camp between 1808 and 1810. The grisly scene was imagined by the artist and shows a woman hysterically running from the encroaching enemy toward a pile of dead and dismembered bodies. In 1814, the year after the defeat of the French army, the artist completed Second of May, 1808 and Third of May, 1808, his most celebrated history paintings. In the four years preceding he had worked on a series of 80-some etchings called Disasters of War, inspired by the Peninsular War, which lasted from 1808 to 1814. Though journalistic in intent, the series was never published during Goya’s lifetime and didn’t emerge as a set until 1864. In No. 26, One Can’t Look (No se puede mirar), a huddled mass of victims await the stroke of bayonets, which can be seen looming on the right side of the print.
One of the goals of “Order and Disorder” is to reveal new aspects of Goya’s work. “We can make a lot of points that have only been in books and articles, but never in an exhibition,” says Frederick Ilchman, chair, art of Europe and Mrs. Russell W. Baker curator of paintings at the MFA and a curator of the show. “We have such a great print collection that we can make almost any point with prints.” As viewers will note throughout the exhibition, Goya’s oeuvre has compositional consistencies as well as thematic ones. Ilchman points to one of the Disasters of War etchings and a still life depicting a pile of dead fish as compositionally similar. When considered together, the similarities between the look of war victims and fish carcasses seems cruel. “He has an almost casual way of displaying death,” says Ilchman.
Goya almost died in 1819. When he unexpectedly recovered (he had nine more years to live), he painted a double portrait of himself with his doctor. Self-Portrait with Doctor Arrieta (1820) shows the artist looking fatigued and ill, while receiving some sort of fluid cure from his doctor. The portrait is neither triumphant nor hopeless—Goya just seems like a sick man taking medicine. In the years that followed he focused on prints and new ways of painting. He made a series of bullfighting images and a suite of 40-some watercolors. He also worked on the “Black Paintings,” likely from 1819 to 1823, shortly before he left for his self-imposed exile in France. Dedicated to fear, insanity, and the bleakness of human existence, especially in the wake of the atrocities caused by war, the 14 paintings used the tropes of myth, witchcraft, opposition, and ignorance, which Goya was so well versed in already. They were originally painted on the walls of his house, which was called Quinta del Sordo (Deaf Man’s House). Goya had “graffitied” his own home.