Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 30, 2001
Vibeke Vibolt Knudsen, ed. Goya’s Realism Copenhagen: Statens Museum for Kunst, 2000. 231 pp.; 90 color ills. Paper (8790096037)
February 11-May 7, 2000, Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen.

Almost all post-War scholarship on Francisco Goya (1746-1828) has been concerned, in one way or another, with the artist’s relation to the political, social, and cultural upheaval that wracked Spain from the 1780s through the 1820s. Over the past decade, the touchstone for thinking about these issues has been Goya and the Spirit of Enlightenment, organized by Eleanor A. Sayre and Alfonoso E. Pérez Sánchez (Madrid: Museo del Prado, Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, and New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1988-89). Under the guise of a retrospective, this exhibition presented a highly selective assortment of paintings, drawings, and prints with the intention of demonstrating that Goya’s art provides evidence of a deeply felt affinity with ideals and politics of the Spanish Enlightenment and the Liberalism that grew out of it, and that this reform-minded outlook and faith in reason act as unifying principles for the artist’s entire career.

Goya’s Realism makes a notable contribution to our understanding of the relation between the Spanish artist’s work and the context in which it was made. This exhibition was organized by Vibeke Vibolt Knudsen, curator in the Department of Prints and Drawings at the Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen, where it was on view from February 11 to May 7, 2000. In the accompanying catalogue, Knudsen’s lead essay, “Goya’s Realism,” offers an analysis of Goya’s art that differs in two important ways from the paradigm established by the authors of Goya and the Spirit of Enlightenment. First of all, although she presents Goya as “a supporter of the ideas and reforms of the Enlightenment” (17), Knudsen views his art as “…a multiperspective and fragmented representation of reality” (19) that reveals an “ambiguous view of the world” (32) rather than simply a reflection of the Enlightenment context in which it is was created. In addition, Knudsen is more interested in the visual rhetoric that Goya employs in his art than she is with particular themes he treats. The aim of the exhibition, as she phrases it, is “to describe how he constructs reality in his depictions of the world of his time and the formal means he employs to create this reality” (11).

Knudsen’s account of Goya’s construction of reality revolves around the depiction of the body, which acts as a point of connection between artist and viewer. Her insightful discussion of viewing the body of Goya’s art utilizes the concepts of classical rhetoric and the Burkian sublime. Notably absent from her analysis, however, is a sense of the chronological development in Goya’s career, or an account of how the forces of patronage might have shaped his visual rhetoric. I take as an example two paintings that Knudsen discusses: although A Bandit Murdering a Woman (c. 1798-1800) and The Third of May (1814) have in common certain formal and thematic elements, these works served radically different purposes that surely played a role in shaping how they look.

It is noteworthy that Knudsen presents a more ambivalent view of the Spanish Enlightenment than one usually finds in treatments of Goya’s work where the projects and reforms of the ilustrados tend to be treated in a celebratory manner. Relying on the writings of Michel Foucault, she situates the focus on the individual in Goya’s art within the context of the rise of the modern disciplinary state, which seeks to control and shape the individual. The chief weakness here is that her discussion of contemporary events remains on a level of generalization that seems overly abstract.

The second essay is authored by Juliet Wilson-Bareau, who has curated or contributed to several important Goya exhibitions held at the Prado and elsewhere over the last decade and is co-author (with Pierre Gassier) of the standard oeuvre catalogue on the artist. Her contribution here, “The Roots of Goya’s Realism,” centers on a small notebook containing sketches and notes that span the period from Goya’s trip to Italy in 1771 to his early years in Madrid, where he settled in 1775 as a painter of cartoons for the royal tapestry factory. Wilson-Bareau contends that this notebook, which was rediscovered in the early 1990s and first exhibited in 1993, “previews virtually every aspect of his art” and “reveals unequivocally that the style and manner in which he was to express himself to the very end of his long life were formed in the earliest years of his artistic career” (53). Although some of the comparisons that she makes with drawings from the end of Goya’s career seem forced, Wilson-Bareau’s discussion of his habits as a draftsman offer the kind of close attention to visual questions that is often lacking in Enlightenment readings of the artist’s work which tend to emphasize thematic issues. Also noteworthy is her examination of Goya’s transformation of a landscape study in the Italian notebook into the background of a tapestry cartoon entitled A Picnic (delivered 1776), one of the first that Goya designed himself. This example, and others relating to images of children in the notebook and elsewhere in his art, reveal the complex interaction in Goya’s art between observation and invention. As Wilson-Bareau states by way of conclusion, “Above all, the notebook shows the interweaving of life and art that gave Goya’s work its remarkable solidity, its sure and enduring contact with the world of human experience” (68).

Goya’s attitudes toward history is the focus of Reva Wolf’s essay, “Goya: Image, Reality, and History.” Wolf makes two principal arguments: that the artist’s graphic work reveals “an extraordinarily cohesive, clear, and powerful expression of his view that history lives within each of us” (73), and that he shared the Enlightenment belief that history is “a window onto the present” (76). To make these points, she begins with Goya’s treatment of the history of bullfighting in La tauromaquia (1815-16) and discusses the artist’s lack of historical accuracy, sense of generalization, and disregard for chronology in the ordering of the prints. Wolf then examines a selection of drawings from “Album C” (c. 1810-24) that depict punishment. In this instance, similarities in captioning serve to conflate past and present, and to indicate that Goya intended his drawings portraying Inquisition scenes from the past to be read as commentaries on the present. In the case of Los Caprichos (1799), Wolf contends that images of teachers and pupils suggest that Goya also understood history “as a passing down of behaviors, practices, and traditions from one generation to the next” (81). As she notes, such an attitude intimates a sense of uncertainty that the forces of history can be overcome. Wolf’s outlook seems closest to that put forth in Goya and the Spirit of Enlightenment, and she relies heavily on previous Enlightenment interpretations in supporting her arguments.

All three of the essays focus on Goya’s graphic art, and on his drawings in particular. This is fitting, since 36 of the 57 works included in the exhibition (which I did not have the privilege to see) were drawings, while 15 were prints and six were small-scale paintings. In contrast to the substantial literature on Goya’s paintings and prints, the artist’s drawings remain an understudied but central aspect of his oeuvre. During the first several decades of his career, Goya’s practice as a draftsman was limited to such conventional procedures as executing preliminary sketches for paintings and prints. Drawing continued to function in this manner later in his career, as several examples in the catalogue indicate. But in the mid-1790s Goya began to make drawings as independent works of art. During the remaining three decades of his life he filled a series of albums (designated A through H by the scholars who reconstructed them) with over 500 images. The exhibition included drawings from six of the eight albums borrowed from a range of European and North American collections, with the largest number coming from the Metropolitan Museum Art, New York.

The entries on individual works, written by Knudsen, are the most disappointing aspect of the catalogue. Some are just a few sentences long and have the flavor of wall labels. Even those that are more substantial fail to provide important information. For example, in the entry on Winter (cat. no. 9; 1786, Art Institute of Chicago) no mention is made of the fact that this oil sketch relates to one of the artist’s tapestry cartoons. In addition, none of the entries includes bibliographic references, which is a particularly glaring omission in cases where the text relies directly on previous scholarship. More generally, there is no apparent rationale behind the ordering of works. On the positive side, the quality of the illustrations is excellent, which should lead others to become interested in further unraveling the meanings of Goya’s drawings.

Andrew Schulz
Associate Professor of Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Art, Department of Art History, University of Oregon