Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 24, 2022
Andreas Beyer, et al. Goya Exh. cat. Basel: Foundation Beyeler, 2021. 400 pp.; 300 color ills. Cloth CHF72.00 (9783775746571)

In the latter part of 2021, the Beyeler Foundation in Basel mounted the most important retrospective exhibition on Goya in recent decades. Curated by Martin Schwander—who is also the editor of the catalog—and developed by Isabela Mora and Sam Keller in collaboration with the Prado Museum, it gathered 181 Goya works, including seventy-seven paintings, fifty-three prints, and fifty-one drawings. It was a unique opportunity for those able to attend the fully booked exhibition, since many of the works have rarely been shown outside of Spain, and many come from private collections.

This is the first retrospective exhibition of Goya’s work since Goya en tiempos de Guerra (Goya in Times of War; Museo del Prado, 2008) and the earlier Goya. 250 aniversario (Museo del Prado, 1996). A comparable exhibition celebrated the 200th anniversary of the Prado Museum in 2019 with more than three hundred of Goya’s drawings, which was, in essence, itself a retrospective (Goya. Dibujos. “Solo la voluntad me sobra”). The last large exhibition dedicated to Goya in a German-speaking country was in 2005–06 at the Berlin Nationalgalerie and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna (Goya: Prophet der Moderne).

This exhibition and its accompanying catalog are structured in six chronological blocks: The Early Years (1775–1788), The Court Painter (1789–1799), First Court Painter (1800–1807), The War Years (1808–1814), The Postwar Period (1814–1823), and The Late Years in Bordeaux (1824–1828). The large number of works included in the Beyeler exhibition and their astounding variety made vividly clear the great complexity and ambiguity of Goya’s work, revealing the apparent contradictions and contrasting facets that coexist: the fashionable court painter with the satirist of social and political evils. The exhibition revealed how, throughout his career, the Aragonese artist was, simultaneously, working on religious paintings, portraits, prints, and drawings. Furthermore, accepting commissions from the Church, the aristocracy, and the royal family, was not at odds with the creation of artworks in which members of these institutions were mocked or fiercely criticized.

One of the first works in the exhibition was El cacharrero (The Pottery Vendor) (1778–79) from the Prado Museum, which immediately overwhelms with its loose yet precise brushstrokes and its attention to detail—the realism of the shiny porcelain plates, the delicacy of the lace, the sparkle of the golden embroidery. El cacharrero anticipates the juxtaposition of opposed qualities, later found in Romanticism, which would become inherently Goyaesque: ugly and beautiful, old and young, light and dark, good and evil. An attentive visitor could also see, even in the early works such as the Cartones para Tapices (Tapestry Cartoons) (1775–92)—made to decorate a royal palace—hidden layers of meaning and subtle elements of social satire. One only has to look at the innocent-looking woman surrounded by grinning and probably inebriated men in the Picnic (1785–90), where the stormy clouds above seem to predict a tragic ending.

The exhibition included some of Goya’s most stunning portraits, such as Doña Antonia de Zárate (ca.1805), the infant Marquesa de Montehermoso (1810), Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos (1798), Juan Antonio Meléndez Valdés (1797), and the two portraits of Martín Zapater (1790 and 1797). Also in the show were the world-famous Clothed Maja (1800–07), the beautiful Majas on a Balcony (1808–12), and the Maja and Celestina on a Balcony (1808–12).

Some of the most fascinating pieces of the exhibition were the small preparatory oil sketches for religious paintings, many of which are in private collections, such as Saint Francis Borgia Attending a Dying Impenitent (1788) and The Miracle of Saint Anthony of Padua (1798). Among this group of small works are the eight cabinet paintings from the Marqués de la Romana (1808–12), never before seen outside of Spain, which represent appalling scenes of slaughter, a plague hospital, and a prison. At least three of these paintings specifically display acts of violence against women—rape, imprisonment, and murder at the hands of bandits and soldiers. These works are comparable to Goya’s cabinet paintings from 1793–94, such as Attack by Robbers, products of his capricho e invención (fantasy and invention) (139–156), which, like his print series, were not commissions but reflections of his own interests.

An element missing from both the exhibition and the catalog was an open and honest discussion about the thorny topic of Goya’s fakes and imitations, which is still a major issue in museums all over the world as well as in the art market (the catalog makes only brief allusions, such as Manuela Mena Marqués references to the copies of Majas on a Balcony) (237). A major achievement of this exhibition is that it does not include a single work of dubious authorship—all the artworks are indisputably Goyas. Although this in itself is a significant statement, it leaves an elephant in the room, which is the considerable existence of paintings “in the style of,” “attributed to,” or even “workshop of” Goya. This problem, which started soon after Goya’s death, continues today and is the result of the enthusiastic demand for his art from the public, museums, and collectors, which surpasses by far the supply of authentic works.

More comparisons with other artists and writers would have been welcome, even in this monographic exhibition. As it stands, only Gudrun Maurer’s biographical segments and occasional discussion by other authors cover artworks by different artists—for instance, the self-portraits by Rembrandt, Velázquez, and Mengs (Andreas Beyer, 58), and Meléndez Valdés’s still lifes (Bodo Vischer, 246). Only at the very end of the exhibition does a large timeline on the wall place Goya’s works in context of historical events. A larger discussion of his correspondence, mentioned in the catalog, for instance, by Maurer (51), Mena (233), and Vischer (246), would have helped the viewer to better understand Goya’s personal and professional relationships.

Goya’s work is a mirror in which everyone seems to see their own reflection. But his is a mirror of deformity that does not show us what we want to see but only the brutal, uncomfortable truth. Schwander states: “Each generation discovers ‘its’ Goya. The differing versions of Goya include: the satirist and caricaturist; the Enlightener and liberal; the politically committed artist engaged in the struggle against war, oppression, exploitation, and ignorance; the proto-Surrealist and proto-Existentialist” (29). The catalog manages to illustrate all of the artist’s facets without falling into the common trap of choosing a singular “authentic” Goya.

We must not, however, confuse this with neutrality. Avoiding the projection of one’s ideology on Goya should not stop us from acknowledging the artist’s irrefutable rejection of bigotry, violence, and superstition. The exhibition reveals the “early champion of modernity in the struggle against absolutism and obscurantism” (7). Goya’s politics are knowable from the artworks themselves. Despite the variety and seeming paradoxes among Goya’s patrons and acquaintances—aristocrats, artists, members of the Inquisition, afrancesados—as an author he always positioned himself on the side of the oppressed, the weak, and the abused. And simultaneously, his sense of justice and bitter pessimism was usually accompanied by a relentless irony and humor that can only come from great wit, resulting in an oeuvre that acts as a timeless, universal criticism.

Even the most objective eye can catch the evident anticlericalism in Goya’s paintings, prints, and drawings, and it is visible throughout the exhibition and catalog. Priests and monks are depicted in the Caprichos as lecherous, gluttonous monsters, almost as incarnations of the Seven Deadly Sins—one plate even appears to depict pedophilia (Capricho 69, “Sopla”). Goya’s views on the church can also be seen in the gloomy Inquisition Tribunal and A Procession of Flagellants (ca.1810–16). Novelist Colm Tóibín reminds us of Goya’s preference for the “secular world”: “The visible, the non-transcendent. He liked the light of the world more than the light of heaven. Instead of angels and saints, he liked mortal flesh” (24).

This earthly flesh can also be admired in Goya’s breathtaking still lifes, such as the Golden Bream (1808–12), which are a metaphor of death (or of depression as a “living death”) and were made during the most pessimistic period of Goya’s life, which coincided with the Peninsular War (1808­–14). In the catalog, Vischer asserts: “After studying Goya’s Salmon Steaks, it is difficult to see any meaning in life. Goya’s interpretation of human existence leads to despair and the extinction of hope” (251).

Both the catalog and the exhibition close with such exquisite works as the magnificent oil portrait of Mariano Goya (1827), and drawings from the Bordeaux albums like I am still learning (ca.1826) and Two Merry Old Women Dancing (1825–28), a nod to Goya’s more optimistic side.

Paula Fayos-Perez
Margarita Salas Postdoctoral Fellow, Universidad Complutense de Madrid