The Goya exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts — easily the finest show at that institution since “Degas and the Nude” in 2011-12 — ends on a disarming and deeply affecting note. It’s a portrait of the artist himself, Francisco Goya (1746-1828), propped up in bed. He is supported from behind by his physician, a phlegmatic-looking fellow who leans in to proffer a medicinal drink.
The ailing artist’s face is pasty grey, with a sheen of sweat playing across his brow and cheek. His jaw is slack. His heavy head lolls to one side. And his eyes, half-closed, look incapable of focusing on anything. Get up close, turn your ear to the painting, and you can almost hear the first stirrings of a death rattle.
Goya, who was 73 at the time, painted this work after recovering — miraculously, he felt — from a grave illness. He dedicated it to his doctor. An inscription at the bottom reads, in part, “Goya in gratitude to his friend Arrieta: for the skill and care with which he saved his life in his acute and dangerous illness...”
The painting closes the circle on an exhibition that contains, near the beginning, images of infants being similarly cradled and coddled (although also violently spanked), and fresh-faced young children looking directly at the viewer in a way that, in this late picture, proved beyond the ailing artist.
Goya’s approach, here and throughout the show, is brisk and businesslike. He was an artist willing to indulge many moods, but sentimentality was not one of them. Sniffing its presence, he reverted instantly to his baseline mode: a sardonic contempt, toxic to open-heartedness, but in the end — and given the circumstances — more trustworthy than any alternative. He was nobody’s fool.
And that, perhaps, is what makes the late self-portrait with his physician so moving. By the time you come to it, you have hurtled down a series of subterranean rapids, a nightmare realm of witches’ Sabbaths, wheeling bats, dismembered corpses, corrupted clerics, and skewered bulls. You are ready to receive any tenderness, any small act of kindness, with utmost thanks.
And Goya, whose imagination spewed out so much psychic muck, is not only there for you, he is there for himself, there for all of us. He has been granted a reprieve (albeit temporary; he died eight years later) and now offers up to us, as to his dear doctor, this sincere expression of tender pity.
Oh hallelujah! Hope lives.
You’ll find it nowhere else in this show.
A number of Goya exhibitions in recent years have focused on this or that aspect of the great Spaniard’s work: his small paintings (Madrid, London, Chicago, 1994), drawings from his private albums (London, 2001), his images of women (Washington, D.C., 2002), his last works (New York, 2006), his printmaking (Paris, 2008), and so on.
This large MFA show — 170 works — is a rare attempt to see Goya whole. Organized by the MFA’s Stephanie Stepanek and Frederick Ilchman, it includes prints from all of Goya’s major series, drawings, portraits, self-portraits, and religious paintings, as well as many of his smaller, uninhibited, often fantastical paintings. It boasts loans from institutions all over Europe and the U.S., including the Prado (whose Goya holdings are unsurpassed), the Louvre, the Uffizi, the Palais de Beaux Arts in Lille, the Royal Palace of Madrid, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum, the Hispanic Society of America in New York, and Boston’s own Atheneum and Public Library.
The show is organized not chronologically or by medium, but rather by theme, with small clusters of works — often made years apart — devoted to particular themes or recurring motifs. The approach threatens to unleash anarchy. But it works.
There is a particular emphasis on Goya’s many images of flying, falling, swinging, and losing balance, which is very interesting, and on a broader dichotomy, captured in the show’s title, between order and disorder, which struck me as redundant. Life itself, after all, is a tussle between order and disorder, and so is all great art.
The MFA’s ability to mount such a dazzling show owes much to Eleanor Sayre, a longtime curator of prints and drawings at the MFA, who died in Cambridge, aged 85, in 2001. A granddaughter of Woodrow Wilson, Sayre was one of the world’s leading authorities on Goya’s works on paper. She spent many years building up the MFA’s Goya holdings. (She also, rather wonderfully, brought a large show of the drawings and book illustrations of Beatrix Potter to the MFA, which established a temporary petting zoo in its courtyard for the occasion.)
What, then, does Goya look like, whole?
Not a bit like Beatrix Potter. He looks, rather, like a stupendously original and inventive artist, who achieved greatness in spite of some glaring technical limitations.
Electrifying in his great print series — in particular, “Los Desastres de la Guerra,” “Los Caprichos,” and “Los Disparates” — he was nevertheless insecure when it came to anatomy (very noticeable in his female nudes, including the Prado’s famous “Naked Maja,” which is not in this show). His religious pictures, with few exceptions, are insipid. And his portraits are frequently weakened by what John Updike called “a button-eyed cartoonishness that thins the[ir] human presence.”
Updike’s rough but, I think, fair description applies even to Goya’s celebrated portrait of the Duchess of Alba, the centerpiece of a large gallery billed as the finest congregation of Goya portraits anywhere in the world. It shows the duchess, whom Goya fancied but probably failed to bed in a black mantilla (she was in mourning for her young husband) with a bright red sash that once belonged to her late father, a captain general.
The duchess points down at the arid Andalusian earth in front of her glittering, pointed pumps. Inscribed in the sand are the words “Solo Goya” — “only Goya.” The gesture is more a marker of the artist’s self-regard than an attempt to publicize the duchess’s regard for him. But, combined with her pursed mouth and implacable stare, it gives the portrait the instant intensity of a flamenco dancer’s heel snap.
Still, her face remains somewhat vapid, and the portrait is bettered by other, more subtle portraits here. One is a very fine seated portrait of an elegant, elderly woman, the Marchioness of Villafranca. Another is a full-length portrait of a young woman, believed to be Maria Luisa de Vallabriga, dressed in a simple Empire gown. And a third, smaller portrait shows a dashing artist, identity unknown, in a long black smock with blue trimming, dramatically posed before an atmospheric background of wooden scaffolding.
In all three cases — but not always in Goya’s other portraits — the modeling, the sense of close-in scrutiny, and a degree of psychological perceptiveness instantly convince you of the sitter’s presence.
These commanding works are matched by a number of images of Goya himself, on both canvas and paper. The most arresting (aside from the late double portrait with his doctor) shows us Goya at this peak. It’s the “Self-Portrait While Painting,” of about 1795. A freely brushed, bravura image, it shares some of the quietude and mysterious atmosphere — the sense of an alchemist at work, brewing unknowable things — of Rembrandt’s “Artist in his Studio,” owned by the MFA.
It complements a softer, more vulnerable image Goya painted of himself in 1815, hanging nearby. We think of Goya as one of the first of the moderns. The characterization is confirmed when we see how many later moderns identified with him, from Manet to Picasso, from Otto Dix to Salvador Dali, and from Robert Gober to the Chapman Brothers. But of course, much of what Goya painted was relatively conventional, and had to be if he was to sustain his position as painter to the courts he served.
His reputation for modernity can be partly attributed to the period he lived through. The 18th-century enlightenment and its violent struggle for oxygen in repressive, suffocating Spain, the French and American revolutions, and the Napoleonic adventure all ushered in states of skepticism and permanent insecurity that became hallmarks of 20th-century modernity.
Goya saw much of this first hand. (“Yo lo vi,” as the caption of one of his most famous prints affirms: “I saw it.”) He felt Napoleon’s invasion, in particular, as a direct, concrete, and complex reality, not merely an abstract ideal or a muffled side effect.
His critical eye — the intolerance with which he greeted whatever was backward and benighted — also marks him out as modern, although here we may exaggerate Goya’s humanism, his enlightened secularism, in order to make him match an image we may wish to maintain of ourselves.
To my eyes, what makes Goya most refreshing is the rampant, unbounded quality his art possesses. You can call it a modern quality, but it is really not the point. “There are no rules in painting,” he said in a 1792 address. And of course, the dictum applies with double the force to his drawings and prints.
Don’t misunderstand me. Goya’s graphic inventions are extremely artful; they employ compositional devices and dramatic tonal effects to bring order and unity to unruly subject matter. But they are fired, above all, by an urgency, a freewheeling immediacy, and a sense of solutions cooked up in the heat of the moment, that can utterly overpower you.
They also mark the beginning of a tendency that is noticeable again first in Courbet, with his clumsy palette-knife effects, then in Manet, with his awkward compositions and abrupt tonal shifts, and eventually in Matisse, Picasso, and much of the rest of the 20th century avant-garde — to equate gaucheness with directness, ham-fistedness with sincerity, and virtuosity with lies.
Goya himself was as interested in lies as he was in truth. His scenes of witchcraft, the lynchings, the rapes, the twisting and dancing giants, the fraudulent phantoms, the drunks, the donkeys, the dreamers, the dead animals — all gather to a greatness in our minds as we view his work in depth. Eventually, they trigger an apprehension that feels more ancient than modern to me: an understanding that truth-telling and fantasy might co-exist, and even be mutually enhancing.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at email@example.com.