Goya, or rather one of our contemporary artists

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By John

It is an engraving measuring 14 by 17 centimeters, displayed next to its matrix. It shimmers in the darkness of an installation that highlights each work in all its details. The title is “War massacres” and is part of the “Disasters of War” series which Francisco José de Goya y Lucientesknown simply as Goya (1746 – 1828), created between 1810 and 1814. The scene is tragic: a house after a bombing (by the occupying French), where women and furniture were thrown into the air, without there being any difference between humanity and objects for those who bombed. Faced with the admiration for the artistic realism of the scene (which inspired Picasso’s famous “Guernica”), capable of reproducing the feelings of rebellion of those who remained alive, the sensation of finding oneself in front of the images of civilian victims is striking which arrive at our homes every day from nearby wars, in Ukraine and in the Middle East. All the stolidity of warmongering contained in a few centimeters, a punch in the stomach that comes to us from the past to make us understand how humanity repeats its disasters, precisely the word used by Goya.

It so happens – and not only for this reason – that an exhibition that on the eve of the day someone considered minor due to the absence of the Prado’s great masterpieces, starting from the “Maya desnuda” up to the final “Black Paintings”, reveals an exhibition level of great value because it makes us see the soul and reason of this genius, his ability to express social criticism and closeness to discomfort, as a son of the Enlightenment ready to grasp all the currents of thought and art that arrive and indeed capable to anticipate them. Palazzo Reale in Milan presents, until March 3, the exhibition “Goya. The rebellion of reason”. The project, promoted by the Municipality of Milan-Cultura and produced by Palazzo Reale and 24 ORE Cultura-Gruppo 24 ORE, in collaboration with the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando of Madrid, is curated by Victor Nieto Alcaide and tells through paintings, engravings and copper matrices, recently restored, the world of Goya, his being a court painter and therefore successful and at the same time his discomfort at being “forced” into academic forms, clearly in contrast with his attitude as an artist, his thought and its ideology.

The exhibition itinerary, made up of around seventy works, bringing paintings and engravings into dialogue, demonstrates how it is not entirely accurate to speak of a before and an after in Goya’s art, as if a boundary existed, perhaps exacerbated by the deafness followed in 1792 to an illness, but rather to a “coexistence” between the desire and need for full-blown success and the inner and profound urgency to give expression to his desire to go beyond what has already been seen, to seek new paths, those that led him to be considered a precursor even of expressionism and surrealism. While working at the court of Charles IV, in 1788 Goya wrote to his friend Zapater: «… What I lack is the time to dedicate to things of my taste». The exhibition gives an account of this duality and if it does not present the most famous masterpieces, it still has masterpieces. The portrait room, for example, is resplendent with art both in the more academically obvious ones and yet the expression of an important vitalism, and in the others which are very far from the portraits of the king and queen, such as, for example, that of the friend Jovellanos, a leading exponent of the Spanish Enlightenment, captured in a melancholy expression that takes us straight into the atmosphere of Romanticism, accentuated by a dematerialization of color.
Goya’s son wrote how his father at a certain point had decided to take up “the painter’s knife”, but already when he was still working at the Royal Tapestry Factory he had touched on social issues by talking about children’s games in poor environments. On this side we find the beautiful and dramatic “The Asylum”, then moving on to “The Colossus” (which Prado had removed from Goya’s catalog and then reinserted), still linked to the theme of war, to arrive at the “Self-Portrait” of 1815, in which he seems to capture his own spirituality, in clear contrast with that of the dandy painter of 1785, placed at the beginning of the exhibition. To end then with “El tio Paquete” (1819-1820), a portrait of a blind beggar from Madrid, which precedes Bacon and his world. Everything flows as a demonstration of an evolutionary path that reached the “black paintings” (reflections on the destiny and cruelty of man) on the walls of his last Spanish home and his death, which arrived in the former enemy France, where he had taken refuge in voluntary exile. At home he had also been looked at with suspicion by the terrible Inquisition and we can understand this from another painting that enhances this exhibition, “Inquisition Scene” (1808 – 1812), where a gloomy atmosphere and a skilful use of darkness and light recreate anguish and they allude to intellectual obscurantism.

But it is certainly the engravings, from the famous “Capricci” to the aforementioned “Disasters of War”, that put us in contact with the deepest Goya, where we find anger and irony, contempt and hope, the donkeys that teach and the sleep of reason, with an emotional crescendo, constructive and destructive at the same time, which can make him considered our contemporary.