Few writers would have the moxie it takes to write a 400-page critical biography about a man whose life is virtually undocumented -- in words, that is.
Such was the case when Time magazine art critic Robert Hughes decided to tackle the life of artist Francisco Goya y Lucientes -- one of the most widely revered and least-understood artists in a rich Spanish arts tradition that includes Diego Rodrguez Velsquez, El Greco, Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dal. Fortunately for Hughes, the shadows cast on Goya's life by the lack of written documentation are greatly illuminated by the hundreds of paintings and prints he created in his unusually long (for his time) 83-year life.
Hughes, if you aren't familiar with him, is the erudite curmudgeon behind such cocktail-party-chat-inducing tomes as The Shock of the New (1991) and The Culture of Complaint (1993). The former volume is a popular history of modernism and its decline that was made into a documentary mini-series on PBS. The latter was Hughes' diatribe against the whiny babies of post-modernism and a decaying, selfish American culture obsessed with "feelings."
With his latest book, Goya, Hughes seems to have found a perfect personage on which to project his blustery views (as most biographers do): a general distaste for the contemporary; a masochistic love of history; and an interest in artists whose classical training bleeds into a bleak modernity. And like the life of Goya, Hughes' book is long, occasionally brilliant and often boring.
Spanish history buffs might disagree. Goya's life was, after all, inextricably linked with the tumultuous history of late 18th- and early 19th-century Spain and its various monarchs, wars and social upheavals. In fact, though Goya is best known for his brooding, dark paintings of war and its atrocities, many will be surprised to learn that the vast majority of his works were royal portraits, tapestries and church commissions.
At 43, Goya's talent for portraiture and scenic vignettes, combined with his mastery of luminescence and shadow, earned him the esteemed position of court painter for King Carlos III. His position continued with several of the king's successors and their royal affiliates. When not painting the royals, Goya pursued various side projects including the wildly imaginative and graphic Caprichos, Desastres de la Guerra, and the Pinturas Negras, all of which comprise his best-known and most perennially relevant works.
Despite the hundreds of illustrations of Goya's work and the mountains of text that accompany them, the book provides a shadowy portrait of the man. Other than the fact that he married, had one son, went deaf at an early age, had a seemingly unrequited love for the duchess of Alba, and painted such a large swath of Spanish history, the book relies upon carnivorously researched historical details for its illuminations of Goya's oeuvre.
Hughes speculates about Goya's intent in paintings about which little is actually known. "The Naked Maja" -- a nude portrait of an unknown subject and one of the earliest known Spanish nudes -- for example, has more than a few of these conjectures. Hughes insists that "whoever the lady may have been, she was definitely not the duchess of Alba -- and does not look like the duchess in other portraits of Goya's, despite her black ringlets, by then a fairly generic attribute of female beauty." But again, "The Naked Maja" looks close enough to the duchess of Alba, with whom Goya was obsessed, where a man's fantasies might be concerned. Who says she was painted from a live model? Besides, no one would paint the likeness of naked royalty during the Inquisition. So why bother with the speculation?
While Hughes' Goya is an admirably rigorous and comprehensive study, it frequently reads like the fluffing of an intellectual ego with a nostalgic eye for a past that no amount of detail can reinstate. In his introduction, for example, Hughes says, "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. Nor did there seem to be any painting produced by an American that could have sustained comparison with Goya's painting of the execution of the Spanish patriots on the third of May, 1808." The fact that it would be photography, film and television (rather than paint) that would capture the horror of Vietnam (Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket are among the greatest and most terrifying artistic examinations of war in any period of history) seems to escape Hughes almost entirely.
Such omissions stand as testimony to the minute cracks in this otherwise impressive monument Hughes has erected in Goya's honor. Don't miss your chance to catch this art world giant at the Fine Arts Center next Wednesday.
Robert Hughes lecturing on his latest book, Goya
Fine Arts Center, 30 W. Dale St.
Wednesday, Dec. 10 at 6 p.m.
$17 ($14 for members)