To the best of my knowledge, this is only the second English language review of the Prado’s ambitious Goya in Times of War exhibition thus farAs such, I feel the weight of such an important duty rest heavily on my shoulders – I only hope I can do both you, my dear reader, and the exhibition justice.

 

Dos de Mayo

 

First and foremost, some (highly significant) context.  Madrid’s magnificent Prado gallery already houses the greatest Goya collection in the world, but this is its first retrospective proper in over a decade.  The occasion?  Nothing less than the 200-year anniversary of the most evocative date in Spanish history: the 2nd of May 1808

This famous uprising against French oppressors – not to mention the bloody revenge exacted the following day – retains legendary status for the Spanish people and inspired some of Goya’s greatest work.  However, as we shall come to see, our friend Goya was somewhat more equivocal in his treatment of the events than many of his compatriots.

Coming to the Prado, let alone this enormous exhibition of my favourite artist of all time, I was (inevitably) unfairly saddling the artwork contained therein with some huge, huge hopes.  As a friend of mine is fond of reminding me, he read Great Expectations once, but it wasn’t as good as he expected it to be.  But, let me say now – if you get the chance, make it to Madrid asap and treat yourself to some of the greatest art galleries in the world, of which the Prado is very much first among equals.

Goya at the Prado

Goya at the Prado

To the point though: for me, Goya is the greatest artist the world has ever seen.  But, and here’s the rub, this exhibition was not the greatest that I – let alone the world – has ever seen.  Why?

Well, I’m not going to give you too much unnecessary detail on the choice of paintings and layout here – the Time review and the official site can fill in those gaps – but a very simple thought occurs.  Great exhibitions tend to fall into two camps: the exhaustively-comprehensive or the tightly-focused.  These options often lead naturally to either the grand retrospective (i.e. Louise Bourgeois at Tate Modern recently) or the concept exhibition, where the artworks are selected not necessarily because of their merits as such, but primarily because they illustrate a particular style or time period or theme or argument.  A good recent example of the latter would be The Painting of Modern Life at the Hayward which, despite its inconsistency in terms of quality, stuck steadfast to its interesting concept all the way through: painting inspired by photography.  Of course, the rare exhibition – I’m thinking of From Russia at the Royal Academy – can be both comprehensive and maintain an overarching theme, but such perfect combinations of the two are few and far between.

Sadly, Goya in Times of War is not one of them.  To be honest, the exhibition’s title should have been the first warning.  You’ll note the careful imprecision used.  It is not ‘Goya and War’, or ‘Goya on War’ or even ‘War in the work of Goya’ – no, it is Goya in times of war.  And the reason?  Well, in doing so, the curators give themselves an escape clause.  Despite hinting at the martial focus of the exhibition – and of course the two great May canvases provide the beating heart of the exhibition – they allow themselves the wiggle room to sneak in all manner of paintings that arguably detract from an overall theme rather than nourish it.

After all, few of Goya’s years were spent in times of peace.  From some rough and ready research I’ve conducted, of the impressive 82 years that Goya was on this earth, Spain was at war (at home or abroad) for 54 of those.  That’s two-thirds of a lifetime spent in conditions of war – no surprise then that the terrible impact of such bloodshed is felt so vividly in his works.  But, given the incredible scope that allowed the curators to include almost all of his output (around half of Goya’s peacetime years occurred before he stopped painting designs for royal tapestries and truly joined the royal court as a painter) the lead theme just seems misleading.  After all, grateful though I was to see them, why include the two Majas (nude and clothed) in the exhibition, but keep the haunting Black Paintings elsewhere in the Prado when they surely demonstrate a far greater nihilistic influence from times of war?  (Unless, of course, the ever-circulating rumours about doubts as to their authenticity are true, in which case the Prado should be making its position clear immediately rather than just ignoring the issue.  Still, I digress…)

Great Deeds! Against the Dead!

Great Deeds! Against the Dead!

Anyway, a slightly tenuous theme is not the greatest crime a curator can commit, but it is unfortunate here.  When you have the greatest collection of paintings by the world’s greatest artist, you don’t need to crowbar them all in together under the pretence of a particular angle, then exclude some that would happily enhance our understanding of the artist as a whole.  Sure, anyone stupid enough to visit a Goya exhibition like this and not complete their duties by visiting the other parts of the Prado featuring his works deserves their ignorance, but you don’t generally buy tickets to a major exhibition and expect to have to top up your experience elsewhere in the same gallery.

If there were a single simple improvement I could have made to the exhibition, then it would have been to have included every plate from the Disasters of War series.  As it was, a few scattered across a number of rooms was not really up to the task.  Of course, the impulse to only show original works is admirable, but if – and I would be seriously shocked if this was the case – the Prado somehow could not get hold of a full set of original prints, then even a room mixing reproductions with originals in order would have made for a fascinating insight.  After all, sticking an etching called This is Worse up on a wall without us being able to see what it is actually worse than (i.e. the two preceding plates) is just shoddy.

Anyway, enough grumpiness here.  Did I mention that the Prado is fantastic?  And that, despite its flaws, this exhibition was too?  Well, it is and was.  To get up close and personal with the wonderfully-restored Second of May and Third of May is an incredible privilege.  Their vivid colours now present across the entire canvases, you find not only the blunt horror of the works but also their looming beauty.  Even so, the two great paintings inevitably permit a rather shallow narrative (heroic Spaniards v. dastardly French) for those who seek it.  On the other hand, private etchings of the Disasters of War reveal the deeper truth: that warfare makes grimy villains of us all, perpetrator, spectator and victim.  And, of course, that victim can all too easily become perpetrator, perpetrator become victim and so on in vicious circularity.  If you take one lesson from Goya, it is surely that evil is a natural, human deed, as well as a supernatural, inhuman one. 

Ultimately, to have been fortunate enough to see so many great Goya works will remain in the memory for a very long time.  Who knows when I will next be able to make it to Madrid?  But, whenever the Prado decides to hold another Goya exhibition of this size, I’ll be the first one at the door.

I only hope they decide to come clean and have a Goya retrospective proper next time.  It is the least the great man deserves.

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