"Goya’s Last Works," Feb. 22-May 14, 2006, at the Frick Collection, 1 East 70th Street, New York, N.Y. 10021
For a jolt of pure terror, take a look at Goya’s Monk and Old Woman. The toothless woman’s eyes are about to pop from her head in horror, while the monk intones something malevolent into her ear.
Monk and Old Woman measures less than two-and-a-half inches in height and width, yet it crackles with outsized emotion. It’s one reason why Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828) is considered both an Old Master and one of the first modern painters. His unflinching expression of the human condition encompasses all that human beings are capable of, from the animalistic to the magnificent.
Goya worked the miniature up from a drop of water on a carbon-blacked piece of ivory, along with roughly 40 other ivories he made during the winter of 1824-25. The Frick Collection, miraculously, is presenting ten of them, each as monumental as the next, in an exhibition that must qualify as one in the season’s biggest blockbusters.
In other ivories, a man in his nightshirt struggles to find fleas, a young prostitute with a droll smile sits in her finery with a white-haired procuress at her elbow, two young boys peer into a book as if it contained the key to some secret, and Judith whacks off the head of Holofernes with a sword.
Concentrating on the final four years of Goya’s life, 1824-28, "Goya’s Last Works" contains large oil portraits, lithographs and black crayon drawings as well as the ivories. The show demonstrates that Goya, despite being deaf, increasingly feeble, and living in self-imposed exile from Spain in Bordeaux, continued to experiment until he died.
One portrait from around this time depicts Joaquín María de Ferrer, who fought for the constitution of 1820, Spain’s attempt at an enlightened government following its annexation by France after the Peninsular Wars. Ferrer also supported the removal of Ferdinand VII, but when the king returned and restored absolute monarchy, he fled with many other liberals to France.
Goya supported liberal ideas, too, but remained the official court painter and was never treated badly by the king, let alone marked for death like Ferrer. When he was allowed to leave Spain to take the waters for his health, however, he went to France to protect himself in case the king changed his mind. Before settling in Bordeaux, Goya spent the summer in Paris where he met Ferrer and painted his portrait. Ferrer’s thin, sensitive face with downcast eyes shows a mixture of determination and regret.
The stage is set for the later work by the inclusion of a few earlier, miniature drawings and a couple of oils from 1820. In the self-portraits, you get to see Goya age before your eyes. A brown ink miniature Self-Portrait in Three-Cornered Hat (1780-92) shows Goya as a large, robust man and a bit of a dandy in his imposing hat and fancy buttons. His face is fashioned of stippled ink, the traditional way to making miniatures, and far from Goya’s process for making the later ivories.
Self-Portrait after Illness of 1792-3 in gray wash presents a different man, one staring into the abyss, his hair wild around his face creating a sense of panic. It was after this illness that Goya became deaf. This sheet has often been compared to representations of Beethoven after losing his hearing.
Perhaps the most touching of the large oil portraits is a kind of non-religious ex-voto, Self-Portrait with Dr. Arrieta from 1820, shortly after the doctor saved Goya’s life from yet another illness. The artist is now a gray-haired, collapsing figure, supported and offered drink or medicine by the good doctor. Three dark figures hover in the background, possibly monks or other clergymen. One is relieved to read in the inscription that the artist recovered.
And with his recovery, even with his infirmities and in exile, Goya plunged into new things in his old age. He took up lithography, which he had tried to no great effect earlier in his life. But this time around he produced a series of memorable bull-fighting scenes and a handsome portrait of the Bordeaux lithographer who helped him with his prints.
Goya filled albums with drawings for his personal pleasure throughout his life. Black crayon drawings from the last two albums feature human oddities from the streets and environs of Bordeaux -- a beggar with a wheeled apparatus for getting around, a skater reeling from a passing cyclist in a park, a female giantess at a fair, and raving inmates from an insane asylum.
The meaning of Goya’s drawing of a flying dog with webbed feet remains unknown. It’s one of several drawings that may be related to folk beliefs which have been lost. Perhaps he simply made them up. But their surrealism is of a haunting, melancholy kind.
What one takes away from these late works as a whole is the sense that Goya knows he is at the peak of his powers and soaring, both into new artistic territory and towards death. That he could find delight in the midst of his work is best illustrated in his black crayon drawing of an elderly Man on a Swing. Nothing stops him or Goya.
Exclusive to the Frick Collection, "Goya’s Late Works" was organized by Jonathan Brown, a professor at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts, and Frick curator Susan Grace Galassi, who also produced the show’s fine catalogue. Timed admission is offered to the special exhibition galleries to prevent crowding.
N.F. KARLINS is a New York art historian and critic.