New Mexico’s fascination with the life and work of revolutionary Spanish artist Francisco de Goya (1746–1828) seems to know no bounds, and in recent years has only deepened. In a state so rich with Spanish Colonial art and traditions, it’s no surprise that there is a deep affinity for a Spaniard who is often called the father of modern art.
First, there was the 2012 exhibition, at the Albuquerque Museum of Art and History, of a rare first edition of Goya’s print series Los Caprichos. Most recently, in July 2013, the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival presented Reflection & Revolution: Music from the Time of Goya, 1746–1828, at Santa Fe’s St. Francis Auditorium.
In December, Goya returns to New Mexico in a traveling exhibition that reveals an untold history of the Spanish graphic arts. Presented by the British Museum and anchored by 26 of Goya’s works, Renaissance to Goya: Prints and Drawings from Spain makes its only U.S. stop at Santa Fe’s New Mexico Museum of Art. The exhibition made its debut in London, at the British Museum, then traveled to the Prado National Museum, in Madrid, Spain, and the Art Gallery of New South Wales, in Australia. This ultra-rare peek into the drawing and printing history of Spain between the mid-16th and 19th centuries helps explain how Goya—a young artist with budding Italianate sensibilities—transformed himself from a subservient court painter under the rule of the Spanish crown into one of the most ardent visual critics of the establishment.
Among the 132 drawings and prints selected from the British Museum’s vast international collection of works on paper, visitors will be able to see nearly 70 works, including 17 Goyas, that have never before been displayed publicly outside the Museum. Curated by Mark McDonald, Renaissance to Goya reevaluates nearly four centuries of Spain’s graphic-arts history, and celebrates Goya’s timeless contributions to the art of printmaking.
BENEATH THE VENEER
While widely known outside Spain as a painter who depicted war and other atrocities, Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes was an incredibly accomplished drawer and printmaker. Often referred to as the last of the Old Masters, Goya himself acknowledged three masters: Diego Velázquez, Rembrandt, and nature. While displaying Goya’s graphic-art works among those of his contemporaries, McDonald demonstrates why Goya was such an outstanding force in the evolution of Spanish art. While many of his peers and colleagues were carving out careers by simply pleasing the monarchy and walking the religio-political tightropes of the time, Goya was stepping ever further outside Spain’s creative comfort zone, producing non-commissioned works that satirized and challenged artistic conventions and explored the underbelly of the Romantic ideal. Renaissance to Goya brings together marvelous examples of this, including selections from Disasters of War, a series of non-commissioned prints. Inspired by the horrors of the Peninsular War (one of the Napoleonic Wars), the series was a private project of Goya’s that was not published until after his death. His depictions of torture, mutilation, starvation, and other horrors—many of which he witnessed firsthand—spared no one involved in the conflict. Indeed, often both the French and the Spanish were portrayed as barbarians.
Illustrating the collateral effects of war was as important to Goya as depicting the brutal acts themselves. For instance, there is his drypoint-and-burin etching I Saw It (6" x 9"), in which a woman pulls her child away from unknown danger. Then there is What Bravery! (6" x 8"), in which a woman is shown standing atop a pile of corpses, lighting the fuse of a cannon. She represents what McDonald describes as, “the courage of the ordinary Spaniard, who was responsible for defeating Napoleon’s army.”
Drawings of tortured figures allowed Goya to examine the dynamics of physical contortion, McDonald notes. “They were explorations of form and movement of the human body. The range of his drawing practice is astounding.” Goya’s largest etching, 1778’s The Blind Guitarist (14" x 22.5"), is the only one he made as a copy of one of his previous paintings. In it, Goya strongly emphasizes the expressions on the subjects’ faces, and celebrates the ability of printmaking to capture minute details that his paintings could not achieve.
To forge a textural richness, in many of his prints Goya blended several methods of etching, and his experiments with technique in his early prints allowed him to develop a revolutionary style. It’s a lesson he passed down to his apprentices, urging them to develop and blend their own techniques rather than rely solely on the proven practices of other European artists.
The medium of etching—and especially of aquatint, a technique that was invented at about this time—allowed Goya to focus on the minute details of his human and animal subjects. He took the aquatint process to new heights, expanding the range of black and gray tones available to the artist by using finely powdered resin on the printing plate. Goya, who produced more than 1,000 prints and drawings, used these techniques, along with a strong focus on intricate, fluid lines, to imbue non-commissioned work with more lasting emotional impact. His approach to aquatint, as seen in Disasters of War, produced a more honest artistic reaction to social mores in Spain.
SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT
The artworks in Renaissance to Goya are displayed chronologically and by region, beginning with images by 16th-century artists practicing in and around Madrid. Viewers can gaze at works by artists from Spain’s Siglo de Oro, or Golden Age (1580–1680), including Diego Velázquez and José de Ribera. The order of images helps accomplish one of the exhibit’s main goals: to dispel the widely held belief that drawing and printmaking were not popular activities among Spanish artists of the 16th through the 19th centuries.
“We are not just trying to show marvelous pieces by famous artists,” McDonald explains, “but also to show how committed the Spanish were to prints and drawings.” Spanish artists may have inherited drawing and printing processes from other countries, but they adapted them to suit their own creative inspirations, and blazed their own paths in the studio.
In selecting prints and drawings for the exhibition, McDonald paid particular attention to their many different types and the roles these played in Spanish culture and society, from architectural drawings and religious ephemera to playing cards and paper fans. The variety of form and function in these printed items is astounding, and makes the exhibition all the more intriguing.
When New Mexico Museum of Art director Mary Kershaw learned that the exhibit was making the rounds in Europe and Australia, she contacted friends at the British Museum to inquire about the possibility of bringing it to Santa Fe. “I was aware that prints from this time period are very light-sensitive and can only tolerate so much exposure,” Kershaw says, “and much deliberation occurred to make sure a trip to Santa Fe wasn’t putting the prints in any peril.”
To Kershaw, for an exhibition to make good sense it must be mission-related, and in Renaissance to Goya she saw an opportunity to enlighten people about Spanish drawing and printmaking. Kershaw stresses that the culturally relevant message to take away from the exhibit is simple. “Spanish graphic arts are not as well known in academic circles in the English-speaking world,” she says, “and when that limited knowledge is filtered down to those who appreciate art and art history, half the story is still missing. Mark McDonald put this exhibition together on the premise that Spanish prints and drawings from the time of Goya and earlier are seriously underrepresented. It’s time to reset that balance.” ✜
NEED TO KNOW
Renaissance to Goya: Prints and Drawings from Spain opens December 14 and remains on exhibit through March 9, 2014, at the New Mexico Museum of Art. Hours: 10 a.m.–5 p.m. daily. $9, New Mexico residents $6, ages 16 and younger no charge, students with ID $1 discount; NM residents over 60, free on Wednesdays; NM residents, free on Sundays. 107 W. Palace Ave., Santa Fe. (505) 476-5072; nmartmuseum.org