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Goya's ghouls

Francisco de Goya foresaw the nightmares born of the Enlightenment. Claudia Schwartz dares to look them in the face at the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin.

Things start off on an amiable note on the second floor of the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin; with tapestries, tapestry cartoons, court portraits and colourful genre scenes from the dying days of Rococo. Later on, having stared into the faces of madness and death, of war, of maltreated Spanish bulls, of witch-filled horror fantasies, of four-legged winged creatures of the night, having passed by "Shipwreck" (1793), "Interior of a prison" (1793) and "Inquisition Scene" (1804-14), you return to the feel-good section with the curator's advice ringing in your ears: "Don't forget the happiness of Goya!"

Francisco de Goya: The Parasol. 1777, Museo Nacional del PradoFrancisco de Goya: The Parasol. 1777, Museo Nacional del Prado
But the shadow from the youth's parasol, once intended only to protect the fair skin of a young girl's face, has grown longer, dark clouds and a tree bowing in the wind all point to a storm ("The Parasol", 1777); the noble carriage rapidly passes by the "The Crockery Vendor" (1778) as a young woman stares blindly into nothingness; cabinet paintings like "The Wounded Mason" (1786-87) or "Transport of a Quarry Stone" (1786 bis 1787) demonstrate a keen eye for the socially disadvantaged; and in the group portrait "The family of Charles IV" (1800-01) the figures are looking around in all directions as if they had completely forgotten how to pose with sovereignty. These are images of an epoch in decline; the desire to escape every bit as tangible as the fear of doing so.

Francisco Jose de Goya y Lucientes (1746 -1828) disliked working on commission, so in the work for his patrons, he uses the guise of folk art to paint subtle references to human ambiguities, the war of the sexes and hierarchical decline. Under the guidance of Goya expert Manuela Mena Marques, Berlin has presented an exhibition with the cheap and vacuous title of "Goya – Prophet of Modernism". Its course demands stamina, but the oeuvre of the Spanish master unfurls artlessly as a fascinating school of seeing. In his reportage-like narrative technique (used in the "Bull fighting cycle", 1824-25) and his filmic horror effects ("Here Comes The Bogey-Man", Caprichos 3, 1797-98) so much seems uncannily contemporary.

The Berlin show came about in co-operation with the Museo Nacional del Prado (as principle lender) and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. With around 80 paintings, 40 drawings and 20 lithographs, this is the most comprehensive exhibition of Spain's greatest master, alongside Velasquez, ever seen in a German-speaking country. Even if Berlin cannot replace a visit to the Prado, because icons such as the historical painting for May 2nd and 3rd 1808 are missing, this is still an impressive art experience. The rooms of the Alte Nationalgalerie and Goya's paintings blend harmoniously, as if they were meant for one another.

A tour through the show starts off in the large halls with prodigious examples of Goya's commissioned works and court paintings, only to fork off in the surrounding cabinet paintings into the gloomy world of the dissident and critic, into a range of pictures about absolutism and superstition, masquerades, violence, inquisition and war. The opposing forces which pull the artistic genius between official commissions on the one hand and mistrust of any form of salvation on the other, break out into an allegorical cosmos full of elemental forces.

xxxxFrancisco de Goya: Flight of the Witches. 1797/98, Museo Nacional del Prado
Goya's modernity, if you want to call it that, is expressed in the Berlin show less in a formal renunciation of the artistic conventions of his time than in the deeply felt insight that the modern does not necessarily imply progress or improvement. The rationality of the Enlightenment also brings with it all the doubts which make a person increasingly alien. Even Goya's still lives are stamped by ambivalence, the breath-taking series of paintings of killed animals for example ("Golden Bream", "Hares", "Woodcocks", "Plucked Turkey", 1808-12) which were done during the Napoleonic occupation, and tell of mourning and dying.

Existential hazards start to take on increasingly human characteristics, such as in the small oil painting "Flight of the Witches" (1797-98) in which one figure runs away, protecting himself from the light of recognition by holding a cloth over his head. Here man has long since fallen prey to his own imagination. And above all the monsters and nightmares in the "Caprichos" (1797/99), "The Disasters of War" (1810/ 15) as well as the final series of the "Disparates" (1815-24), watches that famous image, in which a maelstrom of monstrosities grow out of a man's head ("The Sleep of Reason Brings Forth Monsters", 1797-98).

It remains unclear whether the demons appear because reason is sleeping or whether it is reason itself which first conjures up the evil dream images. The art is driven between the light of reason and the darkness of imaginative powers.

"Goya - Prophet of Modernism" is in Berlin's Alte Nationalgalerie until October 3, 2005.


This article originally appeared in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on July 15, 2005.

Claudia Schwartz is a cultural journalist at the Neue Zürcher Zeitung.

translation: lp.

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