Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 15, 2022
Mark McDonald Goya's Graphic Imagination Exh. cat. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2021. 320 pp.; 166 color ills. Cloth $50.00 (9781588397140)

There can be a tendency to portray Francisco Goya—frequently celebrated as the last of the old masters and the first of the moderns—as an artist existing outside of time. Goya’s Graphic Imagination firmly situates Goya in his artistic and cultural milieu while simultaneously teaching us to look closely and marvel anew at the boundless imagination and technical prowess of his graphic production. The catalog’s associated exhibition (which this author did not see) drew from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s remarkable holdings of Goya’s graphic work with supplemental loans from the Museo Nacional del Prado, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, New York Public Library, and private collections. In all, over 100 works—a substantial selection from the artist’s oeuvre of approximately 300 prints and 900 drawings—reveal Goya’s “graphic imagination.”

The thoughtfully chosen works capture the technical and thematic range of Goya’s graphic explorations and offer new insight into his production beyond his four major print series, Los Caprichos (The Caprices, 1797–99), Los Desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War, 1808–15; published 1863), La Tauromaquia (Bullfighting, 1814–16), and Los Disparates (The Follies, 1815–19; published 1864). Selections from these series are intermixed with Goya’s independent prints and drawings, as well as album drawings and drawings prepared for prints. The result is a more nuanced examination of the interconnections between Goya’s graphic modes of expression than can be offered by studies of a single medium, album, or series.

The graphic arts were an important aspect of Goya’s practice from his early years studying with José Luzón in Zaragoza. But it was not until the 1790s, following a devastating illness that left the artist deaf, that Goya turned to drawing and printmaking with renewed vigor. In an oft quoted 1794 letter to politician Bernardo de Iriarte, Goya describes the desire to “make observations of subjects which in general are offered no place in commissioned work and in which there is no room for fancy and invention” (18). While here referring to a group of cabinet paintings, Goya came to find a more flexible and expansive form of expression in the graphic arts. Indeed, author Mark McDonald describes each of Goya’s prints and drawings as a “petri dish, a site of graphic experimentation that cultivates and multiplies meaning” (8).

Deftly exposing the through lines that traverse Goya’s graphic oeuvre, McDonald is nonetheless careful to emphasize the distinctions between the artist’s approach to prints and drawings and their audiences. Goya’s printed series are generally understood as intended for a broad public, although only two of the four—Los Caprichos and La Tauromaquia—were published during his lifetime. Many of his independent prints are known through a small number of impressions, further complicating efforts to approximate their initial circulation. Around 550 of Goya’s surviving drawings were once bound in albums commonly designated A–H, which McDonald helpfully recasts as “journals”—a term first suggested by Eleanor Sayre that better captures their intimate nature (Eleanor A. Sayre, “An Old Man Writing: A Study of Goya’s Albums,” Bulletin of the Museum of Fine Arts 56, no. 35 [Autumn 1958], 116–36, 120). Goya’s decision to number and organize his drawings nonetheless suggests that they had an intended audience, even if just his friends. While he made drawings in preparation for prints, McDonald emphasizes that these are not typical preparatory sketches. Instead, their many permutations and changes reveal how Goya “thought through drawing” (17).

The first of two extended essays in the catalog, “Goya’s Graphic Imagination” by McDonald, serves as an invitation to close looking as an entry point into Goya’s graphic universe. McDonald defines the building blocks of Goya’s “visual arsenal” (20), from the recurrence of particular objects such as leg braces to the artist’s compositional strategies and technical processes. Building on this scaffolding, he identifies four overarching themes—dreams and disorientation; violence; madness; and the five senses—that can be traced throughout Goya’s decades-long engagement with the graphic arts. Attention to Goya’s visual language is met with a careful analysis of his use of written captions to create layers of meaning. Throughout, McDonald models the type of sustained looking rewarded by Goya’s graphic work. Beautiful descriptive passages replicate through language the disorientating compositions of Los Disparates, the uneasy sense of impending violence in a drawing, or the overwhelming sensory effects of fireworks surrounding a bull’s head in La Tauromaquia (29, 32, 34).

The second essay, “Goya in Context” by Jesusa Vega, offers a sketch of Goya’s life against the backdrop of major political events and artistic, literary, and societal shifts of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Goya’s graphic production is integrated unevenly into the essay; Vega provides rich context for understanding Goya’s early artistic development, his prints after Diego Velázquez, Los Caprichos, and Los Desastres, but there is less discussion of La Tauromaquia, Los Disparates, his drawing albums, or his forays into lithography. Similarly, greater emphasis is placed on the context surrounding Goya’s early years—the Bourbon dynasty, the Spanish Enlightenment, and the Peninsular War—while less space is dedicated to Ferdinand VII’s rule or Goya’s final years in Bordeaux. This supports the characterization of Goya as a “son of the Enlightenment” (44). However, it offers less of a framework for considering Goya’s later work in relation to the complex and turbulent events of the early nineteenth century.

Following these essays are 103 catalog entries by McDonald, Mercedes Cerón-Peña, and Francisco J. R. Chaparro. The entries are divided into nine sections with brief introductions and are organized largely by chronology and medium. This structure offers a comprehensive overview of Goya’s graphic output. But it also speaks to the challenge of imposing a scholarly apparatus upon an artist whose work defies classification. In this case, the catalog divisions often reinforce a separation between prints and drawings that contradicts the spirit of the exhibition and asks the reader to piece together connections across media and time—something more easily accomplished on the walls of an exhibition than in the pages of a catalog. This organizational dilemma has no simple solution; it is one reason why exhibitions and catalogs continuously offer new ways of looking at and discovering Goya.

The catalog entries situate Goya’s prints and drawings in their historical, cultural, and artistic context. A welcome emphasis has been given to including impressions and drawings that offer insight into Goya’s working process. Two proofs that Goya ultimately chose not to include in Los Caprichos (cats. 33, 34), for example, serve as a reminder “of the trials and errors behind the apparent effortlessness” of his prints (134). Entries on prints made around the same time as Los DesastresLandscape (cat. 35), The custody of a prisoner does not call for torture (cat. 47), and Seated Giant (cat. 48)—place these individual prints within the context of Goya’s concurrent interests. With selections from all of Goya’s drawing albums, the catalog also traces how his ambitions evolved, from pocket-size wash drawings in Album A to large, complex drawings enclosed in black borders of Album E that reveal his “regard for drawings as finished artworks,” to his final black crayon drawings in Albums G and H that revisit themes such as madness and violence with profound empathy and vulnerability (234).

Perhaps the most revelatory entries are those that compare prints with drawings related to them. These instances clearly demonstrate how Goya used drawing as a form of exploration rather than as a means to an end. For example, pairing Goya’s red chalk drawing for the Dreadful events in the front rows of the ring at Madrid and death of the mayor of Torrejón and the corresponding plate 21 of La Tauromaquia (cats. 71 and 72) reveals how Goya “creatively responded to the material characteristics” of each medium to express the chaos and tumult of a bull rushing into the bleachers of a bullring (216). In the drawing, the unmoving figure of the bull appears almost as an afterthought compared to the jumble of interlocking bodies that dominate the bottom half of the sheet. In the print, meanwhile, Goya uses a stark contrast of light and dark, and an emphatic division between positive and negative space, to draw a viewer’s eyes to the bull and its victim, the mayor of Torrejón.

The catalog concludes with a chronology by Chaparro that provides a biography of Goya punctuated with major historical and political events. Given the catalog’s emphasis on Goya’s visual strategies, an accompanying appendix defining the many techniques in which he worked would have been a welcome addition so that an uninitiated viewer might better appreciate his skill and experimentation.

Through an insightful and wide-ranging selection of works, Goya’s Graphic Imagination reaffirms Goya’s status as an artist who “simultaneously defied and defined his era” (8). Although Goya presented himself as a painter—even in his inscriptions on prints—McDonald’s catalog is a compelling reminder of the centrality of the graphic arts to his practice both as a way of thinking and as a “repository to which he returned time and again” (27).

Alexandra Letvin
Duane Wilder, Class of 1951, Associate Curator of European Art, Princeton University Art Museum