Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, regarded as the newest old master and the first modern master, comes to life in The Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena. The exhibition, going on now, hosts a great number of rare etchings, prints and charcoal drawings of exceptional skill. They present an intimate picture of the inner machinations of Goya’s maddening mind and a window into his tumultuous era of wartime Spain.
Four print series are on display: “Los Caprichos,” “The Disasters of War,” “La Tauromaquila,” and “Los Proverbios.” The works were mostly put on display after Goya’s death in 1828 at the age of 82. The Spain of Goya’s lifetime was an oppressive, fundamentalist Catholic empire of waning wealth and absolute monarchy, so it is interesting to note the profane and subversive quality of his works. While court painter to the Royal Crown of Spain, Goya produced religious and aristocratic subjects standard to other contemporary painters such as Thomas Gainsborough, Jacques Louis Davide, or Franz Hals.
Outwardly conservative, Goya painted beautiful, yet boring works. However, the danger of losing his lucrative royal commission if his other works in the Norton Simon were released during his lifetime was very real, considering that the Spanish Inquisition ended in 1834.
Romantic and rapturous, gory and graphically violent, the diverse prints speak of the real Spain, which hosted horrors and hardships the aristocrats did not want to acknowledge. The “Los Caprichos” series depicts imaginative scenes of the Spanish underworld juxtaposed with crazy phantasms. “There They Go, Plucked” features prostitutes chasing away little chicken-bat men, former clients, away with brooms while more bats are shown flying in from overhead. “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” is one of the most famous works of art from the era. While its prestige is great, it does not dominate the gallery since it is tame compared to the bullfights of “La Tauromaquila“ and the ghastly violence of the “The Disasters of War.”
The full color portrait of “Don Pedro, Duque de Osuna“ hangs in a neighboring gallery next to Goya’s more mainstream published paintings. These truly resplendent paintings are on loan from the Frick Collection in New York. Don Pedro was one of Goya’s most generous patrons, but the painting of him lacks any flattery. Goya’s portrait depicts Don Pedro as stout, too plump for his small waistcoat. He smiles placidly, looking off to the viewer’s right with a beady-eyed gaze.
“There is very little hint of extravagance,” the painting’s description reads.
The portrait evokes a sense of peace and stability.
Meanwhile, the “Disasters of War” series depicts naked men being sawed in half by French hussars, and dismembered corpses crucified to olive trees. It’s quite metal.
One of the most interesting features of the gallery is that all the explanatory text on the walls is only in English. Patriotic Francisco Goya was always the ardent Spaniard, so it seems inappropriate that no Spanish descriptions appear paired with the English. In Los Angeles, such a lack of partnership is inexcusable. With the formidably large staff of the Norton Simon Museum, it is disappointing that at least one intern from the uniformed legion wasn’t tasked to transliterate a bilingual exhibit description.