Goya: The Portraits: Exhibition on Screen As Substitute to National Gallery, London’s Landmark Show

by Armin Callo

Want to see major art exhibitions around the world but lack the means to fly to the galleries housing such exhibitions?  Enter the world of “Exhibition on Screen” at a theater near you.

“Exhibition on Screen” is a logical extension of the recent phenomenon of screenings of live performances of opera (The Metropolitan Opera from New York) and theatre (NTLive from London).  Initiated with the major 2012 Leonardo da Vinci exhibition at London’s National Gallery, this is Exhibition on Screen’s third season.  As in the Tate and Museum of Modern Art’s important show, “HENRI MATISSE:  THE CUT-OUTS” and the National Gallery and the Rijksmuseum’s “REMBRANDT:  THE LATE WORKS,” the format remains unchanged.

A specific, newly-focused, and major art exhibition provides the pretext for a bespoke film that goes beyond the gallery walls to examine the artist within the context of the exhibition and beyond.   Now comes “GOYA: VISIONS OF FLESH AND BLOOD” as a theatrical experience of the National Gallery’s important and focused exhibition on Goya’s portraits.

Tracing Goya’s development from his first commissions to the more intimate later works painted during his “self-imposed exile” in France in the 1820s, this is a major art (and theatrical) experience for the simple reason that, until now, Goya’s story as an important and influential portraitist has never been told.   Presenting 70 of the artist’s most penetrating works from both public and private collections around the world, including paintings, drawings, print works and miniatures never seen before, the exhibition demonstrates Goya’s daring and unconventional approach to portraiture.  The exhibition shows Goya’s remarkable skill at capturing the psychology of his sitters.  As a complement, the film also provides penetrating insights into the public and private aspects of Goya’s life, the back story, if you will, of the portraits themselves and the context of their composition within both the artist’s life and the lifeline of Spain itself.

Seeing the exhibition, one understands Goya’s impact on Delacroix, Degas, Manet, Cezanne, Picasso.  Even today, Goya’s influence on Lucien Freud, Alice Neel, and Chuck Close is evident.   It helps explain why Goya is one of Spain’s most celebrated painters, ushering in modernity as he straddles between Velasquez and Picasso.

Acting as an introductory biography, “Goya: Visions Of Flesh And Blood” interweaves the narration of an artist’s life and work with an illuminating visit to the exhibition in high-definition.  On the screen the viewer both visits the exhibition — and Spain itself – seeing first hand the geographic settings for Goya’s life and art.

Renowned art-historians provide insightful and provocative commentary.  There are copious quotations from Goya’s own letters, some of which are surprisingly intimate and provocative.  The artist was apparently a prolific letter-writer, in particular to his school friend Martin Zapater.  In Goya’s letters to Zapater, he expresses a blushingly-passionate affection.  [Given Goya’s correspondences, particularly with Zapater, there have been both academic and social speculation of Goya’s homosexuality.  Imagine that.]  The film purposefully ignores this and posits that Goya’s idea of perfection would have been to go hunting with Zapater (Goya was apparently a keen hunter and, like most Spaniards, profoundly attached to his dogs) and then to drink chocolate.  OK.

Leading the viewer through the exhibition, Gabriele Finaldi, fresh from Madrid’s Prado Museum to direct London’s National Gallery, tells us that Goya never ceased painting.  That Goya never repeated himself, producing portraits of great psychological acuity.  That here we have it all.  We see the great familial set-pieces, the aristocrats, Goya’s friends, the portraits of his family, and his penetrating self-portraits.  But this theatrical experience is far more than a guided art tour.  Much more.

Scholarly enthusiasts include not only the art exhibition’s curator Xavier Bray, it also includes curators of the Prado and the Spanish royal palaces (in Madrid and at El Escorial). We visit a conservator at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC  who demonstrates Goya’s “orange priming techniques,” his translucent glazes, brushstrokes and Goya’s method of painting wet paint on wet paint.

In the film, Goya’s biography is intertwined with the portraits at the landmark exhibition and others unable to move to the London show (as in his massive “Carlos IV of Spain and His Family, 1800” considered “too important” to move from the Prado along with Velasquez’s “Las Meninas, 1656”).

From the fields and streets of Aragon, Goya’s birthplace in northern Spain, to Goya’s adolescence in Zaragoza, we move to Madrid.  There we witness Goya’s slow trajectory from designer for the Royal Tapestry Factory [designing large-scale paintings, called “cartoons,” of Spanish life and leisure which were translated into tapestries for the walls of Spanish Royal Palaces] to Goya’s travels to Italy, studying and copying the masters of the Italian Renaissance.   One particular standout item from this period is Goya’s 1771 Italian notebook.  The notebook was only recently rediscovered in 1993.  Given its fragile state it can never be exhibited, and as such is not included in the National Gallery exhibition.  But on film, the Prado’s curator of prints and drawings turns its pages for us, showing us Goya’s “attractive disorder” of ideas and his remarkable skill as a draftsman.

On his return to Spain, Goya wins his first aristocratic and royal commissions, including the provocative “’The Family of the Infante Don Luis de Borbón,” a highlight of the National Gallery exhibition.  In the film, we also see Goya’s paintings of frescoes in Spanish chapels and cathedrals as well as his highly-celebrated print oeuvre, the graphic works showing the violence and horrors of war and the Inquisition [“Los Caprichos” (etchings), “The Disasters of War” (aquatints), and “Bulls of Bordeaux” (the Bordeaux Lithographs)].

While “GOYA: VISIONS OF FLESH AND BLOOD” is a lucid, well-researched, and beautifully produced theatrical experience — chock-full of curatorial insights — it nonetheless leans too heavily towards one aspect of Goya’s life and work.  That Goya burrowed through layers and layers of both aristocratic and royal patronage from a number of conflicting sides.  Specifically, Goya become not only court painter to the Spanish Bourbons (both ruling and deposed), he was also painter to the French and English commanders on the eve of the violent Napoleonic wars in Spain.

So, Goya was both a Royalist and a man of the Enlightenment.  He was a man of great friendships and a man of contradictory impulses.  He painted a mesmerizingly full-length portrait of the Duchess of Alba (included in the exhibition from the highly-reserved collection of The Hispanic Society of America) to the Duke of Wellington, exhausted and blank-faced after battle but, nonetheless, wearing all his war-victory accouterments.  Begging the question:  Was Goya totally apolitical?   The film seems to posit such an idea, at least from the standpoint of Goya’s portraits.  Nonetheless, this is such a surprising idea given the bite and gravity of Goya’s highly-charged non-portrait social commentary images including “The Third of May,” Los Caprichos,” “Witches’ Sabbath (The Great He-Goat),” and “Saturn Devouring His Son,” etc.

Needless to say, the filmed art exhibition “Goya: Visions Of Flesh And Blood” adds to the body of our knowledge of Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828), both this artistic output and his standing within the canon of art history and social knowledge.  Catch it at a local theater near you.  For information, go to fathomevents.com.

Armin’s Grade: B+