New York's Brightest Lights

'Goya's Last Works' at the Frick Collection

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 12, 2006

There's only one thing better than a huge spread of important pictures, such as the wonderful Cezanne extravaganza now at the National Gallery: a much smaller, more focused show of great art.

"Goya's Last Works," which fills a couple of rooms in the basement of the Frick Collection, is such a show. Its modest scale, and the peculiar genius of its pictures -- 10 oils, 10 tiny works on ivory, 31 drawings and prints -- makes it the high point of New York's crowded art season.

The pictures were almost all made in a brief period before Francisco Goya's death at age 82 in 1828, when he was living in Bordeaux. Since at least the 1790s, Goya had been the leader of Spain's art scene -- he became official painter to the Spanish court -- though his last four years were spent in France, in flight from a crackdown on liberals.

The crucial question raised by the Frick exhibition, like other Goya shows, is this: How did Goya ever get away with the weird stuff he made, let alone win praise and patronage?

Many of Goya's portraits, for instance, have what look like massive flaws in their basic realist technique. The Frick's own "Portrait of a Lady" features a gold chain descending from the sitter's neck with no regard for gravity -- more like a curvy yellow line on the surface of the canvas than real jewelry. Her right cheek is outlined in black, coloring-book style, against all the rules of academic painting of the day.

Long before flashbulbs, Goya washes out his sitter's face as though he'd based his portrait on an Instamatic shot.

Not for a second is any of this description meant as criticism: To modern eyes at least, the picture is a gem. It's painted with a freedom and a disregard for academic standards that you wouldn't expect to see until many decades later. But how is it that Goya's contemporaries embraced pictures as radical as this -- pictures so unlike anything they could have seen before?

The great Spanish playwright Leandro Fernandez de Moratin wrote about his close friend Goya's plan to paint the portrait of him that's in this exhibition: "I infer that I must be awfully good-looking, if such a skilled brush wants to craft extra copies of me."

And yet by any kind of standard Moratin could have known, that brush should have seemed hopeless. When you compare the impressively clotted surface of this picture with any of the polished pictures favored at that time -- or even with the free but more illusionistic brushwork of a much-admired predecessor such as Velazquez -- it's hard to imagine what its first viewers could have made of it.

And these were paintings conceived for public consumption; when Goya was working just to please himself, he pushed things even further. During his very last years, he painted a series of grim, extravagant fantasies in watercolor on little scraps of ivory, barely four inches square, which he'd first blackened with some kind of soot. They're hardly more legible than a de Kooning "Woman" or a Francis Bacon "Pope," and are just as tortured: A man , barely scratched into the ivory's blackened surface, hunts for fleas in his shirt; a monk and an old woman stare out at us in wide-eyed horror; a crone embraces a fat, imbecilic boy.

How could Goya's peculiar work have been acceptable, to him or anyone else? The answer is also a crucial lesson: Humans seem to come equipped with an eye for art that absolutely overrules whatever writers or official culture tell us are the things to like. Some pictures can sit outside every "ism" of its day -- can be essentially inexplicable and even count as "wrong" -- and still speak to anyone who cares to look.

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