Exhibition On Screen: Goya – Visions of Flesh and Blood

The restrained vibrato of strings with a Spanish twang accompanies the mysterious steps of stockinged legs before the figure of Goya appears and his voice is heard, reflecting on poetry and art – then with a triumphant crescendo the title unfurls on screen.  This is the wonderfully cinematic introduction to ‘Goya – Visions of Flesh and Blood’, a feature length film presented by Exhibition On Screen.  Pioneers of exhibition films for cinema, Exhibition On Screen was the brainchild of Phil Grabsky, director and producer at Seventh Art Productions; beginning a few years ago with ‘Leonardo’, he works with Arts Alliance Ltd to bring these films to cinemas around the country.  The idea works both as a means for those with limited mobility to see the exhibition on a scale and quality almost equivalent to first hand, while also acting as an extension and enrichment to a gallery visit.

unnamed-5

We begin in the National Gallery, with the institution’s director Gabriele Finaldi standing within the exhibition of ‘Goya: The Portraits’.  Then the exhibition’s curator, Xavier Bray, begins our tour with an introduction to the artist at the beginning of his career as a portraitist, ‘crude’ and almost too direct; meanwhile art historian Juliet Wilson-Bareau draws our attention to the incredible interaction between the artist and sitter that Goya captures and which makes such a powerful impact.  The camera pans in on the faces with the their dark eyes, alive and transfixing the us as if we were the artist behind the canvas.  Only recently has the development of technology allowed such material to be reproduced to such a high quality on a cinematic scale – every detail is astonishingly clear, the brushstrokes almost tactile.

unnamed-3

Then we are swept off to the landscapes of Aragon and Saragossa, immersed in the heat and colour of Spain while a brief biography of Goya’s early life is narrated.  At each stage of his career we gain access to the surroundings that the artist would have inhabited: the Royal Palace in Madrid (above left) where Goya was official court painter to Charles IV, the country house Goya bought in his later years.

unnamed

The film also allows us to see Goya’s letters (including those to his childhood friend Martin Zapater – full of scurrilous sketches, descriptions of food, his dogs, his finances and court intrigues) and his wonderful Italian sketchbook (above, c.1771) which is stored at the Prado in Madrid, as is the family portrait of Charles IV, forbidden to travel (below right), and which gives a fascinating insight into the working methods of Goya, the freedom of style and independent nature of this self-taught artist.  unnamed-4And, when it comes to his large-scale public commissions, such as his altarpiece for the chapel of San Bernardino de Siena in the Basilica of San Francisco el Grande, we are taken into the building itself where the camera glides over the architecture, showing off the grandeur and scale of the building and the accomplishment of Goya’s painting in its intended context (below left).

unnamed-1

Later in the film we are shown behind the scenes in the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC – where a conservator, Joanna Dunn, talks about her work on the Portrait of Dona Teresa Sureda (below) – and into the studios of contemporary portraitists. Dryden Goodwin talks about the technical process of drawing, combining the humanity and physicality of his subjects, while Nicola Phillips, a ‘court painter’ of the 21st century having painted Princes William and Harry, talks of the relationship between artist and sitter, and of her admiration for Goya’s ‘extraordinary psychological grasp of personality’ and ‘extreme attentiveness to body language’.

unnamed-2

Frequently we return to the National Gallery, back to the curator and art historians, to the paintings themselves; the personalities are revealed, their costumes unpicked, the technical approach deconstructed so that each comes alive.  Letizia Treves, curator of Spanish Paintings at the National Gallery, describes Goya as a ‘truthful’ or ‘naturalistic’ painter rather than ‘realistic’, an artist who finds the essence of a sitter’s character, imbuing his portraits with an immediacy and humanity, and through his own depth of interaction putting himself into the portraits.  The idea of portraiture at this time in Spain was to be an equivalent to the real person; thus Wellington looks gaunt and tired, as if just this minute retired from the field at Waterloo (below); Don Andres del Peral, the court gilder and a colleague of Goya’s,  looks out with eyes that are piercingly alive, in the process of turning to us in conversation.

Unknown

The film combines the best of the TV documentary tradition with the drama of the cinema experience – as director David Bickerstaff has emphasised, the film is an ‘emotional journey’, costume drama, history, biopic, and certainly very different to the more analytical progress one makes through a gallery.

‘Goya – Visions of Flesh and Blood’ will be released in cinemas nationwide from 1st December 2015. For more information visit www.exhibitiononscreen.com.

Goya: The Portraits

image

There is something quintessentially Spanish about Goya’s portraits.  But perhaps that is because what we have come to see as Spanish in art has been irrevocably shaped by his pictures.  Like his predecessor Velazquez, Goya chronicled a critical period in Spain’s history – the Napoleonic invasion and the Peninsular War illustrated in all their horror in his famous ‘Black Paintings’ – and at the National Gallery we can now appreciate the characters involved whom he brings so vividly to life.

dona_maria_teresa_de_vallabriga_y_rozasGoya painted royalty and aristocracy, ministers and diplomats – but these are not the staid formal likenesses of previous generations.  A large and arresting group portrait dominates the first room of the exhibition and introduces a tone of intrigue and bravado tempered by a light-hearted wit.  ‘The Family of the Infante Don Luis de Borbon’ (above, 1783-4) shows the younger brother of the King of Spain at a table with his wife as she has her hair dressed, other members of their household crowding around and the artist himself in the foreground shadows, his back to us as he paints the scene.  The Infante had been forced to marry in an effort to halt his overzealous Goya-X7161_432promiscuity, and banished from court; Goya stayed with his household over several summers, also painting simple but beautiful bust-length portraits of the couple (‘Maria Teresa de Vallabriga y Rozas’, 1783, above right). In the group portrait the eyes of all the participants focus somewhere different, each has his or her own secret agenda – especially the two figures to the far right, one grinning out at us, the other skulking furtively behind, hand reaching into a pocket…  In one concise set-piece Goya speaks volumes about the intricate network of relations in the exiled court, the outward theatricality hiding layers of scurrilous gossip and subterfuge.

DP287624Next door there is a tender family portrait of the Duke and Duchess of Osuna and their children (above left, 1788).  Perhaps influenced by the Enlightenment neo-classicism of David in France, Goya leaves the background empty; the figures are grouped in natural poses, the Duke leaning in in frozen movement, the children playful and the small dogs refusing to stay still – an appropriately avant-garde approach to depicting one of Spain’s most enlightened families.  Nearby there is a portrait of a small child in a splendid red suit and silver sash (‘Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuniga’, 1788, right) with his pet magpie on a string, looking out at us with cherubic innocence while behind him three crouching cats look on their intended prey with greed.  There is a lively comedy to the picture that enhances what is already an affecting portrait.

goya_220Then we meet some of the personalities of the new post-French Revolutionary administration – along with the artist himself, in the small ‘Self-Portrait before an Easel’ (left, 1792-5).  Light streams in behind him, perhaps symbolic of the Enlightenment thinking embodied by the surrounding characters.  There is Ferdinand Guillemardet, the French ambassador in an extravagant swagger portrait, wearing the uniform of the Directoire; there is Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos, a writer and reformist politician, his quiet intellect symbolised by the statue b-m-26of Minerva (below left, 1798), and Francisco de Saavedra, the Minister of Finance and man of action, painted with correspondingly rapid strokes; and there is the ruddy-cheeked poet, politician and lawyer Juan Antonio Melendez Valdes, whose highbrow, critical, moral intellect is incisively captured in this portrait (right, 1797).

Goya-X7177.pp_banner_crop

 

The Duchess of Alba is a highlight (below right, 1797); with her haughty expression outlined by thick black brows and the extravagant black lace mantilla she epitomises both Spanish tradition and feminine power.  She points imperiously at the ground where an inscription reads ‘Solo Goya’, a proud indication of status by the artist that also reminds us of the extensive estates that the widowed Duchess owned – and her fiery temper.

802D3006-F479-9B08-51678DB5B2A0803CAs well as his famous Black Paintings and Disasters of War etchings Goya also painted portraits of many of the protaganists in the upheavals of the early 19th century.  Charles IV was forced to abdicate in favour of his son Ferdinand VII in 1808, whom Goya paints with barely repressed irony almost smothered by the weight of his regal regalia, his short stature and stubborn expression eerily similar to that of Napoleon in Imperial guise.  He was a narrow-minded reactionary, power-hungry and unenlightened, and probably did not sense the subtle subversion latent within his brazenly propagandist portrait (left, 1814-15).  Goya-X7219_432Goya also painted General Guye (below right, 1810), Governor of Seville under Joseph Bonaparte, who had been placed on the Spanish throne by Napoleon in 1808, and the Duke of Wellington, who led allied troops to recapture Spain and restore Ferdinand to the throne.dam-images-resources-2007-04-thaw-resl03_thaw

In the next room are portraits of Goya’s friends and fellow artists; though no more or less incisive, the intimacy of these is in stark contrast to the preceding galleries.  The most striking are those of Andres del Francisco-De-Goya-D.-Juan-de-Villanueva-SPeral (below right, c.1798), the master gilder at court, who in turning his face towards us reveals its droop – the effects possibly of a stroke; and Juan de Villanueva (left, 1800-5), architect of the Prado, who is caught in mid-speech, endowing the portrait with a lively warmth and immediacy.

event-goya-don-andres-peral-ng1951-wide-banner

 

 

 

The centrepiece of the final room is the ‘Self-Portrait with Doctor Arrieta’ (below, 1820) in which the aging artist is propped up in bed by his doctor who offers him a cure; in an inscription underneath Goya gives thanks to Arrieta for saving his life.  It is curiously old-fashioned, the text and the subject lending the religious air of a medieval manuscript or fresco.  The painting is hung to face the exit, so that one can see it simultaneously with the group portrait of the Infante’s court hanging to face the entrance; it makes a joyous and satisfying conclusion, the two masterpieces representing youth and age, spirited ambition and disillusionment – and how far those pre-revolutionary days of 1783 must have seemed in 1820.

Goya-Self-Portrait-with-Doctor-Arrieta

Veronese: Venetian Splendour at the National Gallery

Cena-a-Emmaus-Paolo-Veronese

Veronese painted on a vast scale – altarpieces, decorative schemes, portraits – and so the  instinctive first impression of this show is one of awe at the grandeur of these compositions and the monumental figures that look down from them, so very far from the humble spectator.  Yet one of Veronese’s talents – to a greater degree than many of his contemporaries – was to insert his patrons into religious scenes within the same pictorial space as the biblical characters.  So, for instance, in ‘The Supper at Emmaus’ (c.1555, above) a noble Venetian family crowd around the table where Christ holds court, their children happily playing with a large dog in the foreground.

5.1detail..N-0294-00-000124-pr-640x583

This may be linked to Veronese’s obvious delight in portraying contemporary costume – the rich layers of patterned fabrics that made up women’s dresses, and the magnificent gold chains and luscious strings of pearls, all testament to the success and wealth of Venice as a capital of trade.  Moreover, Veronese doesn’t take his subjects too seriously; though he composes scenes full of the necessary drama and pathos, he also frequently includes some light relief by way of additional monkeys, camels or dwarves.  In ‘The Family of Darius before Alexander’ (c.1565-7, detail above) one’s attention wanders off from the heart of the action towards the monkey dangling a chain from a balustrade, or the diminutive figure clutching spaniel puppies, or the ghostly horses prancing behind them.

the-finding-of-moses-by-veronese Another swarthy dwarf appears in ‘The Finding of Moses’ (c.1575-80, right) striking a macho pose before the proffered baby, though also appearing to be shepherded forward but the motherly figure behind him.  This is another virtuoso display of sumptuous Venetian fashion, modelled by the Pharoah’s daughter, who has become inexplicably blonde and alabaster-skinned.  The smaller scale and secular interpretation of the subject are in contrast to most of the work on display, and incongruously suggest Watteau’s bosky fetes galantes, rather than the swaggering Tiepolo version of the same subject (also with dwarf).

539px-Paolo_Veronese_-_Adoration_of_the_Magi_-_National_GalleryThere are two versions of ‘The Adoration of the Kings’ facing each other across room 5.  Neither disappoint in terms of peripheral entertainment (in the National Gallery’s version note the grinning camel’s head protruding from behind a wooden beam, in the very centre, left).  But that from from the Chiesa di Santa Corona in Vicenza – though perhaps compositionally less successful – must win out for its extraordinarily melodramatic storm clouds, its veritable cascade of disembodied putti directing the theatrical Ray of Light, and most of all for the expression of impatient disgust on the face of baby Jesus, as the kneeling Magi proffer their gifts.

Veronese

Veronese’s skill – and humour – are displayed equally well in his mythological and allegorical paintings. A cycle depicting four aspects of human love sees a chubby Cupid vigorously attempt to hold down a large and muscular man with a small pink foot in ‘Scorn’ (right), while Chastity looks on in an inappropriately revealing dress.

venus-and-mars-with-cupid-and-a-horse.jpg!BlogCupid also makes regular appearances in paintings of Mars and Venus; in almost every case his presence is a rather farcical intrusion.  In one canvas (c.1575-80, left), he appears leading a horse down the stairs, interrupting the gods in flagrante.  It is comic timing par excellence in Renaissance terms (does the horse even seem to smirk just a little?)  And again, in another version for a Spanish patron, the erotic rendezvous is interrupted as Cupid is knocked over by an excitable spaniel (c.1580, below).

Paolo Veronese Title Mars, Venus and Cupid Date 1580So, despite the magnificence and the vibrant colour – the hues likely exaggerated to be viewed through the smoke and penumbra of a church, and therefore often striking one as almost kitsch in the excellent lighting of the gallery – Veronese succeeds in suffusing his narratives with a tender and light-hearted humanity.  This is perhaps most obvious in a simple portrait, ‘Iseppo da Porto and his son Leonida’ (1552, below); ostentation is relinquished in favour of depicting the touching subtlety of their familial relations – and in so doing appears surprisingly modern.

Iseppo_da_Porto_-Veronese