May 27, 2023

So much of our culture is tied up in a straitjacket of our own kind: a boring, unified moralism that is more concerned with saying right than saying good. I believe it is rooted in a fear of our own depths and what we would have to admit about ourselves if we actually risked looking inward. What if you let your imagination run wild? What if you just drew or wrote with no fear of being wrong? What if you discovered that you are a great artist but not that perfect yourself?

“Goya’s Graphic Imagination”, which opens this week at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, offers an important tonic for an artist with (for us) the right political commitments: appalled by violence, outraged by undeserved privileges, standing up for freedom and knowledge and rights for all. However, these obligations alone were worth nothing – nothing without the free play of his unconscious, the shadows of which cast doubt on all his liberal principles. Goya let these doubts take any form in drawings and print series, especially the ironic “Caprichos” and wild “catastrophes of war”. Here, in the privacy of the studio, an Enlightenment belief in human progress plunged into uncertainty, terror and confusion.

Francisco Goya (1746-1828) served as the official artist of the Spanish Crown and painted the Bourbon Royals as part of the conventions of the time. However, his mature career coincided with the bloodiest years in the country’s history: the Peninsular War (1807-14), in which Napoleon’s occupying powers faced the armies and guerrilla gangs of three countries. Spain would regain its independence, but under a capricious tyrant who led a campaign of censorship and arrest. Goya would leave the courtyard, cover the walls of his country house with the tortured black paintings (now in the Prado in Madrid) and die in exile. The “Catastrophes” – his 82 printed horror show of the Napoleonic occupation, the greatest anti-war art ever made – remained unpublished for another three decades.

Although it comes with an extensive catalog, Goya’s Graphic Imagination is an exhibition for beginners. I would do a bigger show with the “Caprichos” and the “Catastrophes” running at full speed. (The Met has complete sets of each print series.) In the introductions, however, this is Gibraltar-solid. Met’s curator, Mark McDonald, cut Goya’s drawings and prints into a reasonable representation of about 100 sheets hung with plenty of air. More importantly, he did not take Goya’s portraits of the Spanish aristocracy from the painting wing. The pictures are Goya during the day. Here we come to the province of the night.

We made Goya a useful archetype: the truthful liberal in an autocratic Spain, defender of reason, artist of the Enlightenment. In fact, he was those things. But Goya saw and represented with incomparable vision that error or evil can never be completely eliminated, neither from your company nor from your soul. A world of perfect justice will always be a mirage. Tyrants, idiots, cheaters, conspiracy theorists: they will always be with us. And deep in the chambers of our hearts – untouched by our rational skepticism, our belief in our own righteousness – remains an inescapable darkness.

Goya was born in the provinces and barely passed by for years after arriving in Madrid. At the age of 29, he secured a job as a cartoonist for the king’s tapestry factory. At the same time, he made etchings based on Diego Velázquez’s powerful paintings a century ago for the growing Madrid printing market. Goya copied the older artist’s riders and drunken night owls, but his gaze was already fixed on the strange, the ornery, the confusing. His print of a court dwarf, a joker for King Philip IV, preserves the humanity and sympathy of Velázquez’s original painting. However, check out the dark, dense cuts in the background. You get a taste of the artist who would redirect his predecessor’s naturalism into the realm of dreams.

To err is human. At the turn of the century Goya published “Los Caprichos” (or “The Caprices”), a series of satirical and fantastic prints, the ghostly, velvety gray tones of which prove his mastery of a new technique: aquatint printing. Her ironic joke almost always comes with a menacing undertone, complemented by unusual titles that make her even more cryptic. See, they are frightened by the complaining children and the idiot their mother admits. Repent for the misfortune of two farmers who are weighed down by ungrateful animals. (Are the donkeys the nobility? The clergy? Actual donkeys?) While his soft paintings flattered the counts and duchesses of Madrid, he drew Spain in his notebooks and etchings as a nest of folly.

The most famous of the “Caprichos” shows a man slumped at his desk. He is consumed to the point of unconsciousness and is pursued by a black cat, a lynx and wrinkled bats and owls. On the desk is a prime-time Enlightenment slogan: When common sense works, superstition thrives. However, this show also includes Goya’s first drawing for this key work, which was awarded by the Prado – and here you can see the artist’s distinctive face hovering above the sleeping man. (By this point he had gone deaf, the result of an undiagnosed illness that nearly killed him.) Even the great liberal is stupid. Your knowledge and prejudices cannot be torn apart that easily. And to create a permanent work of art, you have to defy the monsters.

Around 1800 Goya began with the “Caprichos” behind him to depict the atrocities of the Inquisition, which the Spanish Liberals wanted to abolish. The drawings almost filled an entire album. They depict Jews, Protestants, scientists, free thinkers, unmarried women, and in this case a foreigner – his back turned to us, but highlighted in darker ink against the tribunal’s faded browns. The accused (who, as the title suggests, doesn’t speak Spanish) wears two garments of shame: the coroza, or conical hat, and the sanbenito, a bib labeled with his alleged crimes. Prisoners, victims of torture, madmen: Goya’s prints and drawings repeatedly sympathize with her plight and expose those who veil their corruption in justice. Beware of the sleep of reason; Also beware of the merchants of morality.

Goya was not a revolutionary. He remained court painter when Napoleon put his brother on the Spanish throne in 1808. But his heart was marked by resistance, and with the privately engraved “catastrophes” he looked at an endless flood of the butcher’s shop. The Met’s show features a dozen of these extremely grueling sheets, including this one: A Spanish rebel slumped and blindfolded before an unmistakable death, like his comrade on the ground. (Observe the three rifle barrels on the right edge, carved out of the heavily etched sky.) In contrast to his heroic “The Third of May”, his mural of an execution in Madrid, the “Disasters” are free of martyrs. The dead are ragged, dishonored, mutilated, starved. The soul is a forgotten thing and we only have pain in the body.

Now “The Disasters of War” are being cherished as images of universal suffering that are still terribly relevant. But Goya etched a certain war that the most powerful army in Europe was waging against his country. He was still working on the series when reactionary Ferdinand VII returned to the throne and restored absolute monarchy and the supremacy of the Church. In this allegory, the radiant figure of Truth is heading for a shallow grave. In the shade, a bishop and two monks hurry to bury them. To feed a war one needs a diet of lies.

The year 1814 comes and Napoleon abdicates. Finally the war is over. Goya turns to a subject that is only superficially easier: bullfighting. He drew triumphant matadors and storming beasts, but the largest of this “Tauromaquia” series is the worst and shows a real catastrophe of a bull jumping into the stands. (Goya may have seen it.) Onlookers crowd the first drawing, but when he etched it, Goya left three-quarters of the picture blank to set down the pile of bodies. The cop bored a politician: another skewer. It’s hard not to see this bullfighting work as a coda for the “disasters,” an allegory of a land full of fear.

He grew increasingly outraged at the repression and censorship of the Bourbon Restoration, despite collecting his paycheck to paint a king he hated. During those dark years Goya began an enigmatic series now known as “Los Disparates” or “The Follies”. Larger than the “Caprichos” and “Disasters”, gloomy, scary, these prints of disorder and confusion seem like semi-coherent nightmares. (He also ended the related, incredible, “Seated Giant,” whose weirdness is exacerbated by the modulated gray background he created with aquatint.) These five men in bird costumes fluttering like crazy to stay in the air , are icons of human progress or human delusions: who can say what and what if they are the same?

At last he can’t take it anymore. Goya obtained permission to leave Spain in 1824 under the pretext of health treatment. Banished in Bordeaux, his last album depicts a street artist sitting upside down on a rickety table. Stray lines of black crayon evoke the easy stepping of his legs. Someone is watching in a hastily sketched shadow. The one-word title “Telegraph” is a scratch, but it suggests that 78-year-old Goya hasn’t given up on better things in the future. We are acrobats who ascend through training and practice. We achieve great things. We are always on the verge of falling over.

Goya’s graphic imagination

Until May 2nd at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan. 212-535-7710;; Advance booking required.