LONDON — 2015 saw a clutch of high-profile London museums lose their directors: Neil MacGregor at the British Museum; Sandy Nairne at the National Portrait Gallery; Penelope Curtis at Tate Britain; Nicholas Penny at the National Gallery. Many commentators have pointed to an increasingly hostile atmosphere for arts institutions, in which savage cuts in government funding demand the need to generate income through special exhibitions, while at the same time maintaining free entry and curatorial integrity. Goya: The Portraits is the first major exhibition at the National Gallery to herald the arrival of its new director, Gabriele Finaldi, fresh from his tenure at the Prado, Madrid. And rest assured, any anxieties that the National might begin a program of showy but curatorially superficial crowd-pleasers are immediately allayed: what a success it is! A dual victory of curation and diplomacy. The decision to investigate Goya, well-known for his darker, more tormented output — the Black Paintings, Atrocities of War, or bullfighting series (the Courtauld Gallery recently showed his Witches and Old Women album) — entirely through portraiture proves a fresh and profitable one. The show is the first of its kind in the UK, made possible by exceptional negotiations that led to the borrowing of more than 70 works from all over Spain, the United States, and some impressive private collections (a 1783 portrait of María Teresa de Vallabriga y Rozas belonging to Mexican billionaire Pérez Simón makes an appearance). They’re curated by Xavier Bray in a way that boldly allows them to speak for themselves, rather than imposing a forgone conclusion. A classic example of show, not tell.
When was the last time you saw a survey of one artist that could dispel completely the need for filler, i.e. supporting and contextual works by others? That every piece here is Goya’s, and that they’re all arranged simply chronologically, achieves that rare curatorial trick: to allow stylistic analysis to emerge through progression, without spoon-feeding us what that stylistic development is. It’s to be expected, then, that some early clunkiness is apparent: his first official commission, at the age of 37, for the Count of Floridablanca in 1783 shows Goya himself in the picture, holding the canvas for approval. The imbalanced piece is chaotic and crammed with extra details referencing the Count’s duties as First Minister of State and Protector of the Royal Academy of San Fernando. Elsewhere, despite flourishes such as the beautiful rendering of fabrics and embellishments, sitters are often stiff and lacking in dynamism, bearing a weirdly blank, spaced-out gaze. The Marquis of San Andrián, painted in 1840, sports the most wonderfully zingy lemon-green velvet breeches, painted with verve and confidence, yet a distinctly constipated, strained expression.
Minus the occasional wobbles, the 1790s and onwards signalled the blossoming of Goya’s success as a portraitist. He suffered a devastating illness which left him deaf in 1792–93, but he remained a lively communicator, learning sign language and connecting in a new way with his sitters through his work. An array of stunning examples is shown here, notably the celebrated portrait of the Duchess of Alba in 1797, lent by the Hispanic Society of America. A whirlwind of rapid brushwork captures her extravagant lace; a haughtily defiant, knowing gaze communicates her famed eccentricity. Goya wrote in 1794 of his capricious new patron: “[The Duchess of] Alba … barged into my studio yesterday to have her face painted, and went off like that.” No less lively are the portraits of the celebrated engineer Bartolomé Sureda and his wife, Thérèse Louise Sureda y Miserol: both combine relaxed stances indicative of real friendship with the formalities of commissioned portraiture, as well as some superb costume work.
In 1799 Goya was made First Court Painter to the King, the highest honor for artists in Spain, and became the first Spaniard to hold the position since Diego Velázquez. The influence of the latter emerges as a strong thread throughout the survey, as early as 1783 with “The Family of the Infante Don Luis de Borbón.” The work directly references Velázquez’s “Las Meninas” (1656), with which Goya was intimately familiar, sharing the same composition of the central regal figure attended to by family and servants, and more explicitly by placing both the canvas in question and Goya himself within the frame, creating an optical game. His “Count of Cabarrús” of 1788, now in the Prado, draws upon Velázquez’s depiction of Pablo de Valladolid (c. 1635), discarding props and background setting and placing the sitter as if poised in action. I would even venture to say there’s a whiff of the “Rokeby Venus” — Velazquez’s celebrated nude that Goya admired while it was in the Duchess of Alba’s collection — about “The Marchioness of Santa Cruz” (1805), shown full length and reclining in the guise of a muse, classical lyre in hand.
The greatest benefit of this chronological arrangement of a great many works together, undiluted, is the emergence right from the outset of the very essence of Goya’s peculiar style. Even before the dark periods and ill health, his work evidences a curiously perplexing, almost uncomfortable tone that falls short of flattering his sitters; some pieces are deliberately unforgiving. A certain vulnerability and willingness to reveal his sitters’ — and indeed his own — soft underbellies distances him from the undeniable bravura which permeates the work of, say, Rembrandt or indeed his hero Velázquez. And while an unflinching deathbed self-portrait from the very end of Goya’s life, in 1820, brings us into line with the more familiar Black Paintings, an early 1780 self-portrait which opens the show is almost selfless in its total lack of vanity and faux-humility — a far cry from the distinct self-awareness that’s present in even the humbler of Rembrandt’s self-portraits. It’s as if Goya tended towards pessimism and a bleaker outlook on life from the very beginning, and continued on unaffected by the sparkling glory of societal and royal commissions. Whereas Velázquez displayed unabashed virtuosity and vivaciousness, there is undeniably something earthier and more genuinely sincere about Goya’s work. It is hugely affecting, haunting even. Some critics are calling this the exhibition of the decade: I couldn’t possibly comment in that regard, but it is certainly the most richly rewarding and important show you will see in a long time.
Goya: The Portraits continues at the National Gallery (Trafalgar Square, London) through January 10, 2016.