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Goya risked art's edges to capture Spanish society

December 16, 2013|By Kirk Silsbee
  • Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (Spanish, 1746-1828) Los Disparates: Where There's a Will There's a Way: A Way of Flying, printed 1864. Etching with aquatint.
Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (Spanish, 1746-1828) Los… (Courtesy of the…)

If it's a truism that art reflects the surroundings and the time that it's made, there's another accompanying truth equally durable: All artists have to navigate in the surroundings they work in. Da Vinci could schmooze wealthy patrons, and Michelangelo had no talent for it. Pollock's exposed-nerve personality kept him from the public eye, but Warhol — ever-present yet supremely aloof — attracted the glitterati and the curious like moths to a flame.

The new show at the Norton Simon Museum by Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, "Unflinching Vision: Goya's Rare Prints," shows Spain's art colossus to be a supreme technician with an appetite for exploring different media, but reminds us that he walked a very fine civic line.

Goya (1746-1828) was the favored court painter to no less than three different Spanish kings and many other royals. Yet he could mock and poke fun of them in his work — even to the point of making one monarch look like a baker who'd just won the lottery. Were he around in 20th century America, Goya surely would have excelled at the schoolyard game of "the dozens," where successive insults become successively more personal. The trick, of course, is to verbally wound — but just short of physical provocation.

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The seven groupings of 80 pieces (dry points, etchings and lithographs) range from tentative character studies to keen-eyed commentary to raucous depictions. They include working proofs, trial proofs and published prints. Some of Goya's most incisive series are partially represented: "The Caprichios" and "The Disasters of War." The former skewer the follies and failings of his fellow Spaniards, while the latter decry the savage nature of war — presaging by a century the horrific drawings of Weimar Germany's famine by Käthe Kollwitz.

The show's curator, Leah Lembeck, sees Goya's unwillingness to idealize his subjects and life around him as groundbreaking. "For me," she says, "modernism begins with Goya. Manet and the later French Impressionists all studied him closely because they appreciated the way he looked at the world; he was a realist. He was very attuned to his society."

"He was born at the twilight of the Enlightenment," she continues. "Goya lived through the Napoleonic War and the Spanish Inquisition: He saw a lot of greed, superstition, and government overreach. But there's very little superficiality in his subject matter and his style is very straightforward."

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