At 70, I guess I typify the grisaille demographic that dominated the visitor numbers at the National Gallery’s show of Goya portraits. Goya’s an ‘old master’, safely beyond the reach of the contemporary agenda you might think, and in no need of approving or disapproving evaluation. With critical judgement suspended, the paintings should have offered an escape into the comparative certainties of the past, which is perhaps the main appeal of such exhibitions, especially for senior citizens. But while we might enjoy heritage excursions back into art history, the work itself has travelled in the other direction, into a future Goya never could have envisaged. The portraits arrive in our present, entering into our early 21st century culture, where, rather than being admired as a pleasurable anachronism, they present an unexpected challenge that tells us more about our times than a show of contemporary art would necessarily reveal.
I think what the Goya portraits tell the modern audience has to do with ‘experience’. Two connected definitions of experience are in play: Evidence for the first lies in the treatment of the faces, and for the second, in the clothes.
In many of the portraits, as reviewers have mentioned, the subject’s faces appear overworked as though the painter had spent a disproportionate amount of time rendering the physiognomies as if struggling to get a likeness. The brush marks lose their rhythm, awkwardly crowded into too small an area. It is particularly noticeable in those cases where harsh touches of black, showing the tracks of the bristles, follow the bony structures of the head and disturb the continuity of modelling of the skin’s surface. This contrasts with the technique used in the rest of the painting, which is assured and dynamic, amounting to an obvious aesthetic disunity. Such works contain both beauty and ugliness.
Goya did not render all his subjects this way. The infant complexion of the four-year old Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuniga (1788) is shown almost devoid of shadow, offset against the dark of the hair, itself standing out against an atmospherically illuminated backdrop, which merges with his semi-transparent lace collar. The skin of Maria Teresa de Vallabriga y Rozas (1783), under a strong light, appears even more stunningly flawless and is effulgently celebrated by the painter with the minimum of tonal intrusion.
The obvious observation is that these two portraits show people who are young while those in most of the other pictures are older. That can be interpreted as Goya reflecting on the ageing process in a series of works he began at 37 and continued till he was 81. But it seems he is making a slightly different point. He depicts the faces of his subjects as marked or unmarked by experience, altering his painting method to accommodate this insight at the expense of technical and aesthetic pictorial unity.
Unlike ageing, which has its poignancy, Goya in many of his portraits, is putting forward a strong, positive case for experience. He does not treat his sitters as victims, who have undergone something gruelling and damaging, but rather individuals whose experiences valorise and define them as characters. They have made themselves who they are and their faces show not their rank or their feelings, but their identity. The struggle Goya engages in is to record this identity and give it priority over achieving a likeness or making a unified painting.
The positive account of experience in these works contains the idea of knowledge or skills developed as a result of actual observation of, or practical acquaintance with, facts or events, over a period of time. The faces belong to individuals who have learned something from their encounters with the circumstances of the secular world. They have dealt with this world successfully, and defined themselves in relation to this success. Using his touches of Spanish black, Goya maps out the marks of this experience on their countenances, avoiding the temptation to aestheticise their appearance in the way an English painter of the same epoch would have done.
For Goya and his friends, the emphasis on the individual and the importance of experience in the formation of the individual, was so urgent that it demanded that the painting accommodate it explicitly, but in a limited location. The pictorial territory beyond the face was not under the same obligation. Clothing and objects are brushed in with a peculiar mixture of abandon and precision, creating what seem to be like painting ‘events’ addressed to the retina, which spontaneously give rise to phenomenologically convincing, but non-tactile, versions of silk and lace and velvet. It’s this aspect of Goya’s paintings that relate to the other definition of experience of interest to a modern audience.
The pictorial ‘events’ are turned into versions of materials by virtue of the viewer actively filling in the gaps that Goya strategically leaves. Fabrics, accessories, props coalesce and appear only when looked at. They are accessible to eyesight alone, not open to verification by touch, nor taking up quasi-sculptural residence in the paintings. And however long the paint’s been there, the silk or lace or velvet are always seen in the present, by a live viewer. This work is never over because each individual viewer keeps it going, moment to moment. So looking at a Goya is a permanently contemporary cognitive experience.
This is not unlike what is often described as a key component in encounters with modernist art, the viewers’ experience of ‘presentness’, of in-the-moment conviction in front of the work of art. At another level it is also a strong argument for painting as a medium, which is able to communicate powerfully by omitting information, keeping what it has elided available for a particularly constructive type of visual interrogation. When what was created by this omission appears, like the silk, lace or velvet, there is a thrill, rewarding the viewer for successfully doing the work the painter has left for them to accomplish.
In painting, of course, the constitutional omission was the third dimension. As soon as that was excluded however, for most painters and viewers, the thrill of seeing space ‘appear’ became irresistible and formed the basis for the contract that existed between painter and viewer for a long time. Painters used the apparent space to build a series of varied pictorial worlds; then Manet omitted the half-tone, reducing the quantity of apparent space the viewer needed to infer in order to appreciate the painting. By limiting the thrill of deep space and the pull of the vanishing point, and confining the pictorial events to the foreground, Manet hoped to provide another kind of thrill to offset the loss of depth.
With strict abstraction, the outside world was excluded from the pictorial world, but the thrill of apparent space often remained. In Kandinsky and Pollock, space appears intensified, as though the single vanishing point had been multiplied and distributed all over the pictorial field. Later, in high modernist examples, ‘optical’ space is equally apparent, but the contribution required of the viewer to see this space is different. The elements that are there in such paintings, chromatically active areas or patches, have to generate something that’s both visible and yet not there. Confronted with the colours, the viewer has to work to see the ‘space’, like the silk, lace and velvet, in the present.
In planar abstraction, Newman is the obvious example, rather than being a dull fact, flatness is constructed and maintained in the context of the long-standing contract that rewards the viewer with apparent space. Given the Western pictorial tradition, the exclusion of a spatial thrill where one would have expected one means flatness can be experienced in the present as a felt resistance to such expectations. By contrast, Islamic art, which has no such contract with its viewers, is flat, but its flatness is not experienced in the same way.
Like any modernist, Goya is playing to the strengths of the medium, particularly in respect of surface construction. It has to accommodate both thin washes and impasto touches of pigment and keep them separate and in a slightly unstable state that allows them to productively interact. Without these gaps the eye would have no entry point but simply bounce off a fully realised image sealed inside a continuous two-dimensional sheet of numbness.
While the passages relating to fabrics in Goya’s portraits seem to produce a contemporary experience that the modernist audience should recognise, the pursuit of identity in his treatment of faces is more difficult to absorb into the current agenda. The discomfort caused by the countenances may show that the parameters of our taste have narrowed a little too much. Maybe the unacknowledged preference for belle peinture, the promotion of Braque’s Apollonian virtues over Picasso’s flirtations with monstrosity, has made even the hint of ugliness inappropriate. On the other hand, a good deal of the force in the portraits comes from the anti-aesthetic rendering through which character is depicted, and their faces do seem to have the power to disturb.
It seems to me that the emphatic legibility of each individual person in Goya’s portraits is motivated by the ‘identity politics’ of the Enlightenment. The figure Goya projects is of a ‘modern’, self determining, rational individual, free of religious or state tyranny, creating their singular identity out of direct experience of this world, and relating to others on the same terms. Nearly two hundred years later, at what is surely a historical moment when the lethal power of religious belief has reasserted itself, this exhibition allows us to reflect on the current cultural influence of the system of secular tenets and values of the movement that dominated European thought in the 18th Century.
The first problem is that the figure that each of Goya’s sitters individually instantiates presents a notion of the human subject that has turned out to be untenable under 20th/21st century philosophical conditions. Given the systematic elusiveness of the self, what now counts as identity tends to be fluid and mutable, and does not lend itself to delineation. Individuality is currently expressed more in terms of membership of a group or demographic with whom one shares characteristics and this change seems to be a sure sign that the Enlightenment project has run its course. Modernism, which is often associated with individualism – the autonomous, usually male agent, working alone and grappling with the problems of history and self-expression – has similarly had its day.
But at that point we might consider another series of portraits, recently published in the newspapers, of the 130 individuals murdered in the Paris shootings, their faces mostly unmarked by experience. The events of November 2015 vouchsafed us a glimpse into what a non-theoretical post-Enlightenment world would actually look like, and perhaps make us think that the contested 18th Century project should be continued, in a spirit of solidarity with the dead, at least for the foreseeable future. It would be a pity if Goya’s people, visiting our contemporary culture, should end up looking more at home in modernity than we do.
Goya: The Portraits was at the National Gallery, London, 7th Oct 2015 – 10th Jan 2016