Friday, December 5, 2014

Goya in Boston: An unmissable exhibit

Before I heard anything more than the words "Francisco Goya" and "Museum of Fine Arts Boston," I knew where I'd be taking a mini-vacation this fall. Here's the scoop:

Goya remains unique in the history of western art. Over his 82-year-life, he evolved from rigorously formal paintings of the Spanish court to what could be considered the first "modern" art, surreal pieces that step out of time and come from some dark psychic place most of us don't dare go.

His brush gave us handsome princes and wizened witches, nabobs and nightmares, deeply religious pieces and savage attacks on corrupt clergy. This show has them all in 170 works culled from his six-decade career. (It represents about one-tenth of his output.) Yet at the end of the exhibit, you come upon a beautiful piece in which a physician comforts the aged Goya -- bringing him back from death, in the painter's estimation -- and you realize he never lost his ability to invoke optimism and hope.

You'd have to go to the Prado in Madrid to see most of the large paintings for which he's famous. But the curators for this show, reputedly the biggest Goya retrospective in America since the 1980s, have done an extraordinary job of revealing the whole man. They've grouped galleries according to topics (portraiture, sport, etc.) rather than chronology, so we can see how Goya thought and rethought about ideas. The show includes paintings, etchings and especially drawings, where he did some of his most unsettling work. Here's a famous example, "The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters:"

Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes lived from 1746 to 1828. That span was marked by wars: The fight for American independence, the French Revolution and Napoleon's two attempts at conquest. In Spain, the latter took the form of the Peninsular War of 1808-14, when Napoleon installed his brother Joseph as king of Goya's native land.

Goya painted war like no one before him. A small drawing in the show depicts severed body parts hung on a tree like trophies, and no one until Civil War photographer Mathew Brady would make the battlefield seem so terrible. War was another form of "unreason," and Goya -- the greatest painter of the Age of Enlightenment -- spent his career attacking ignorance in politics, religion, social roles and the court.

If I had to take the collected works of one artist to a hermitage to study until I died, I'm not sure whom it would be. But if I took three, I know Goya would be one of them, and I would find something new every time I contemplated him.