The Father of Modern Art

April 6, 2005

Robert Hughes, Goya, London: Harvill Press, 2003.

Reviewed by Sasha Cyganowski

487px-Vicente_López_Portaña_-_el_pintor_Francisco_de_GoyaThere has been much on TV recently about the 18th-19th century Spanish artist Francisco Goya y Lucientes, or Goya. The British art commentator Matthew Collings, in the second part to his series This is Modern Art, walks amongst contemporary artists who, with their oversized plastic noses, sniff the bottom of a fellow artist. In another scene, we watch a gluttonous freak almost choke on melted chocolate, which is being poured into her mouth from a funnel inserted between a pair of thighs hovering above her. Goya, claims Collings, is the father of modern art. Few would doubt this, but I wonder what Goya would think of being catalogued alongside such art.

Prior to Collings’s series, SBS screened a show in its Masterpiece series by Australia’s Robert Hughes. Both Hughes and Collings released television shows to accompany their latest books; Goya by Hughes, and This is Modern Art by Collings. But that is where the similarity ends. Collings’s commentary is verbose and all-embracing, Hughes’s style is sharp and critical.

In his show, limping with a cane, Hughes takes us on a personalised journey through Goya’s Spain. The limp is a result of his car accident on a West Australian desert road in 1999. Emotionally, the effects of the accident, court case, and media coverage are obvious; his book is infused with sentiments such as West Australian justice is to justice what West Australian culture is to culture. Indeed, the major motivating force pushing Hughes to write this biography he had thought so long about was his horrendous car accident, which left him in a coma for five weeks. His chances of survival were rated as extremely low, and it was in nightmares during the coma that Goya came to Hughes, taunting him like a toreador to a bull. Driving into Goya seems a suitable title for Chapter One.

It was through the accident, Hughes writes, that I came to know extreme pain, fear, and despair; and it may be that the writer who does not know fear, despair, and pain cannot fully know Goya. If one strips away all the media coverage of Hughes, one is left with his writing:

They were friends. But that, in broad outline, is all we know about Goya’s relationship to the duchess of Alba.

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Despite the acreage of scented embroidery that has been superimposed on their friendship, despite the romantic novelists and the Hollywood scriptwriters – for, inevitably, there was a film about their liaison, The Naked Maja, with the duchess played by Ava Gardner;  alas, it was made too early for Cher, who really did look like her when she was young, to take the part – there is no good reason to suppose that the beauty was ever in bed with the deaf genius twice her age.

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Goya was deaf (not mad) from the age of 46 to his death at the age of 82. To live so long was an amazing feat of longevity for a Spaniard at that time, partly because of the status of Spanish politics and religion. The Inquisition, although coming to a close, was still a terrifying presence and war with Napoleon’s France brought out the worst in humanity, both illustrated by Goya in his Caprichos and Desastres series, respectively. When the war was over Spain fell into the hands of the bumbling Fernando VII, which was enough to drive Goya into exile, arriving in Bordeaux “deaf, old, awkward and weak, and without knowing a word of French.” Some 12,000 families similarly went into exile, most of them to France, like Goya. An illustration of Fernando’s incompetence, and in particular his attitude to education, is provided by Hughes:

… the chancellor of the university rose, or rather sank, to the occasion …he assured the Desired One, [Fernando] “Far from us be the disastrous mania for thinking.”

Hughes poses many interesting questions. Some, such as the following, are particularly relevant in today’s culture of fear:

Nearly sixty years after the bomb bay doors of the Enola Gay opened to release Little Boy, and a new level of human conflict, over Hiroshima, there is still no major work of visual art marking the birth of the nuclear age. No esthetically significant painting or sculpture commemorates Auschwitz.

Vietnam was tearing the country apart, and where was the art that recorded America’s anguish? … in general there was nothing, absolutely nothing, that came near the achievement of Goya’s Desastres de la guerra, those heartrending prints in which the artist bore witness to the almost unspeakable facts of death in the Spanish rising against Napoleon, and in doing so became the first modern visual reporter on warfare.

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Hughes’s technical remarks on Goya’s work are as insightful as the historical context in which he places the art. Goya’s use of aquatint in etching and his use of the sketchbook as a visual diary were both innovative, and his use of ‘stable’ structures such as diagonals, pyramids, and triangles to compose an often brutal subject matter was to become his hallmark. Prior to the chemical process of aquatint, the most common method of varying tones was by Rembrandt-esque hatching and cross-hatching. In the above plate, Goya shades with aquatint and places triangles, such as the void between the legs of the kneeling man in the background, deliberately.

Apart from late-night TV, where else had I seen Goya lately? The vivid, grotesque characters from the recent Peter Booth exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria were loitering in my mind, and it was no surprise to learn that Booth studied Goya. Booth seems to detest the crowd as much as Goya did, and he captures humanity, as Goya did, at its lowest.

If one is interested in Goya, then it almost goes without saying that Robert Hughes’ book will appeal, but it would also appeal to those with an interest in the fashion, politics, or sport (i.e. bullfighting) of 18th-19th century Spain. Physically, it is a hefty hardcover with thick glossy pages, and excellent colour plates. A book by one of the best known art critics on one of the greatest ever artists, it is a gem.

Photo credit: El pintor Francisco de Goya, Museo Nacional del Prado, Wikimedia Commons Made available under the Creative Commons Licence

Photo credit: La Maja Desnuda (the Nude Woman) by Goya, by Frank Kovalchek, Flickr Made available under the Creative Commons Licence

Photo credit: La Maja Vestida (the Dressed Woman) by Goya, by Frank Kovalchek, Flickr Made available under the Creative Commons Licence

Photo credit: Desastres de la guerra, by Goya, Wikimedia Commons Made available under the Creative Commons Licence

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