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.