Goya: The Portraits


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).



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.





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.


The Deutsche Börse Photography Prize shortlist

The Photographers’ Gallery is holding its annual exhibition of the shortlisted contenders for the Deutsche Borse Photography Prize – one of the most prestigious international awards given to a living photographer for a specific body of work.  It’s an impressive line-up this year.  Pure photography forms the core of each individual exhibition (as opposed to the press clippings, video or GPS images that have dominated in past years), with each distinguished by a strong topicality or visual concept and a different style of presentation, bringing in video, text and other modes of display to great effect.


Nikolai Bakharev’s ‘Relation’ series were taken in Russia in the late 1980s and early 1990s when it was still forbidden to photograph nudity.  He pushed the boundaries of this censorship by approaching holidaymakers at public beaches, and in doing so has created a touching psychological portrait of a people at a certain place and time.  The photographs also reveal specific personal relationships, from the shy awkward youths to long-married couples, to fathers and sons, all captured in this strange dislocated context of semi-nakedness by the beach.  The images are small – little bigger than snapshots – and capture moments of intimacy that seem almost voyeuristic.


1_36_l-DBPP15-l--l_3245008kZanele Muholi - 'Kekeletso Khena' Cape TownZanele Muholi’s work, ‘Faces and Phases 2006-2014’, is far more overtly political.  She is actively using her art to campaign for the rights of the LGBTI community in South Africa, where there is still widespread abuse and violence towards them.

Zanele Muholi - 'Lungile Cleo Dladla', Joburg from 'Faces and Phases'

This message is powerfully put across in the wall full of unframed black and white portraits, stark yet full of pathos, and accompanied by written testimonies.





Also working in South Africa, Mikhail Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse’s project takes a very different approach.  With an equal interest in social inequalities, their investigation ‘Ponte City’ takes a broader time period and a narrower focus: the eponymous tower block was built in Johannesburg in 1976 for the white elite but by the 1990s was a refuge for immigrants and a beacon of urban decay and illegal activities.

Mikhael Subotzky & Patrick Waterhouse - 'Ponte City from Yeoville Ridge' 2008

The artists build up a picture of the community living within this notorious building by systematically photographing the doors and the views from the windows of each apartment at the same scale and angle.  These images are displayed in tall light boxes reaching up to the gallery ceilings which give the impression of seeing the tower block itself lit up from a distance.


On the walls alongside, abandoned, squalid interiors are depicted, with found snapshots of the previous tenants in these same rooms pinned or superimposed on top.  Another wall features architectural plans, handwritten statements and visa application forms, knitting together a web of the many individual lives played out within this structure.


The fourth shortlisted photographer is Viviane Sassen.  Her work, collectively entitled ‘Umbra’, is in contrast predominantly abstract, though figures and landscapes do play a part in some images.

DEFprintUmbra_NAB_VS_2748vbuitsnede-150x140_-392x420Colour predominates, which is a shock to the senses after the monochrome or low key tones of the previous galleries.  But the key to the works is shadow (‘umbra’) which silhouettes forms starkly against strong light, creating not only an almost sculptural aesthetic contrast but also a less direct, but no less powerful, sense of foreboding.  Embodying fear, the unknown, the ‘shadow of death’, the pictures encroach on our subconscious selves and become quite unsettling – a feeling heightened by the hypnotic background soundtrack of recited poetry.

Viviane Sassen 'Coil' from 'Soil' 2014

Sassen’s images do not, however, seem to me to form any cohesive narrative; some are about colour and depth, others the shadowy presence, some are abstract, others figural.  Essentially each stands alone so that as a body of work this seems less successful.  In my view, the ‘simpler’ the story, the more powerful the photographic ensemble – and as some of these photographers show, the ‘simple’ premise in no way lessens the subtlety of perception or force of visual impact.  Quite the opposite.