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Treading in Goya's psychic minefield

Goya; Robert Hughes; Alfred A. Knopf: 448 pp., $40 Goya; Werner Hofmann,translated from the German by David H. Wilson; Thames & Hudson: 336 pp., $75

November 09, 2003|Michael Bracewell | Michael Bracewell is an author of such works as "England Is Mine: Pop Life in Albion From Wilde to Goldie" and "When Surface Was Depth."

Spanish artist Francisco Jose de Goya y Lucientes, born in 1746, is one of the supreme anatomists of human struggle, daily event and indiscriminate suffering. As concerned with the eloquence of detail -- a dropped shoe, a bottle of wine, a sidelong glance -- as he is with the deepest psychology of horror, madness and the supernatural, he is in many ways the ultimate realist. Best known perhaps for his series of etchings, "Disasters of War," and his allegory, "The sleep of reason brings forth monsters" from his satirical "Capricho" series, Goya's name is forever linked to some of the most disturbing images in the history of art.

To engage with Goya as a member of the gallery-going public, let alone in the intense relationship between a biographer and his subject, is to enter something of a psychic minefield. There is a terrifying tenacity in much of his imagery, a visceral communication of shock and unease that can stay in the mind for life. While some of his works -- cartoons for the royal tapestries, "The Naked Maja" and court portraits -- have a lighter presence and vivacity that speaks across the centuries about people not too dissimilar to ourselves, even in these there is always the proximity of disquietude and some near subliminal tic of anxiety. More than almost any other artist -- Francis Bacon is in the same territory, but for very different reasons -- Goya has the ability to confront viewers with their deepest fears.

The vivacity, compelling strangeness and sheer acuity of the artist's depictions of human unease are analyzed in Werner Hofmann's gorgeous "Goya" with its intriguing subtitle, "To every story there belongs another." With sumptuous and well chosen illustrations and color plates, Hofmann's book is a celebration of the artist's energy and immediacy, and ittracks the impact of his religious and spiritual significance through his epoch's philosophical development. It also richly details Goya's engagement with the pathology of human weakness and moral sickness, as well as the tension between the artist's vision of suffering and the role of that vision as a restorative, ultimately healing power. In its seamless interweaving of biographical insight and intellectual analysis, Hofmann says Goya is "situated between metaphors of sense and senselessness. He calls upon reason to fulfill its judgmental role, but his Angstlust [pleasure in fear] takes him back into the labyrinth of chimeras and demons."

Goya is not an artist to tackle lightly; he demands not simply insightful scholarship but some more profound sense of empathy. This is where Robert Hughes has triumphed with his superb new biography, "Goya" -- arguably its author's masterpiece -- and he seems to step from behind the shadow of his subject to offer a greater theme. In the middle of the bravura chapter "From Tapestry to Silence," in which he is tracking the effects of sudden, terrifying, inexplicable illness on Goya, Hughes tells readers he has undertaken this book in part as a response to a 1999 motor accident in Western Australia that nearly killed him:

"Any trauma makes you think of worse trauma: it sets the mind worrying and fantasizing about what else might be in store, and whether you can bear it if it comes. Much of the pain is in the slow waiting....

"To fall badly ill, sustain grievous injury, yet not be able to name what the trouble is, know whether it is temporary or permanent, or, if the former, make any guesses about how long it will last, whether it will ruin your career and your normal social relations or eventually sheathe its claws and let you alone -- all that is an experience that verges on desperation."

Hughes' "Goya," therefore, is the study and the product of pain. But in addition to the formative experience of intense trauma, Hughes introduces his fascination with Goya by projecting the contours of this theme onto the broader question of visual art's current capacity -- or indeed inclination -- to express the profundity of conflict or suffering: "[T]he fact that at the end of the twentieth century we had (as we still have) no person who could successfully make eloquent and morally urgent art out of human disaster tells us something about the shrivelled expectations of what art can do. So how could someone have managed it with such success two centuries earlier? There is no convenient answer, no wrapping in which to package such a mystery, which is nothing less than the mystery of the tragic sense itself."

With his earlier books "Shock of the New," "American Visions" and "Culture of Complaint," Hughes has defined himself as one of the great critics and cultural commentators of the postwar period. His brilliance lies not just in his erudition -- "Goya" is an astonishing example of his intellectual vigor -- but also in his rugged, keen style and eye for historical and thematic detail that can lead him to gorgeous sweeps of overarching observation.

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