Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Goya at the Petit Palais

There’s nothing like block print illustrations to demonstrate the yawning gulf that separates artists from the rest of us normal folks. These prints, quite common in 18th and 19th century books, originated as black ink drawings after all. Many of us draw and doodle, but very, very few of us could create anything like the prints that you find in those old books. They demand close and patient observation with a magnifying glass, if possible.

The Musée du Petit Palais in Paris is currently showing a complete collection of Francisco Goya’s prints as well as prints by some of the Romantics and Symbolists who he inspired. The exhibit starts with a number of prints of Rembrandt paintings, done by Goya. I had never really noticed it before but there truly is a similarity between the two artists: both of them make faces that look sort of ugly at first glance and then stop looking ugly the longer you look at them. It’s strangest in Goya because he draws humans that begin to look inhuman and demons that begin to look human, and then back again. His drawings seem to stand on the border of human and inhuman, as if to illustrate that famous George Orwell passage.

It was also surprising to me to see the humanity in his figures because I’ve always thought of him as being a fairly cruel satirist, aside from the war pictures. I guess maybe this is why I was never keen on checking him out further. (I went to the exhibit to learn more about western art, a personal and professional obsession) And, in a way he is cruel and caustic, but there’s also a real sympathy to his work, a realization that humans are frail being key to both satire and sympathy. Even his demons look like poor wretches. It’s something I also like about Ingmar Bergman- his characters are doomed, often due to their own flaws, but you don’t really feel any contempt at the heart of it. Goya’s satire contains a surprising amount of pathos.

And then there are the war pictures. While Napoleon’s army was struggling with the Russians, his troops were also mired in Spain, fighting the local insurgents. These fighters were known as little warriors, or “guerrillas”, one keepsake of the battle for Spanish liberation. The other souvenirs, of course, are Goya’s shattering illustrations and paintings from the battlefield. Goya captures the humiliating nature of violent public death and the way that wars obliterate sense and logic. They’re not pleasant illustrations to look at, but they strike me as honest. And I think it’s hard to imagine that war without thinking of those pictures, just as it’s hard to visualize WWII without thinking of Frank Capra’s photos, or perhaps to think of the Crimean War without hearing The Charge of the Light Brigade.

His other major subjects were royalty on horses and bullfight scenes. What jumps out about the horseback portraits are the horses: their eyes are wonderfully expressive and alive, and once again strangely human. The bullfighting scenes that are the most memorable are the ones in which the crowd is rushing into the ring and, in their chaos, seem to be joining the animal world. For an artist who is often connected to the Enlightenment, Goya seems more aware than anyone of that era, aside from Voltaire maybe, how hard it is to become human and how hard it is not to fall back into animalism.

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