Goya portraits at the National Gallery

A servant braids the hair of a lovely young lady in a white dressing gown. Her face glows by the light of a single candle on the table exactly where her husband, Infante Don Luis, plays cards — a game of patience, solitario in Spanish. He is 31 years older than her, and simply because she is only the daughter of a cavalry captain, their marriage has cost him his position at court: his brother the king has exiled them to a remote country estate.

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A gaggle of retainers, including a dandy secretary with cheeky grin and dashing headband, watch the card game. Don Luis himself, vacant features a play of vanity and doubt, looks ahead uninterested, yet his detached expression pulls in all spectators as nervy witnesses to his insecurity.

“The Loved ones of the Infante Don Luis” (1783-84), Goya’s very first royal picture, opens the National Gallery’s exceptional exhibition Goya: the Portraits and, like so significantly else about the painter, is a paradox. What requires centre stage is the marginalisation of a prince, as Don Luis the man actions out of the public role assigned him by history. So does Goya: into the composition he has ambitiously inserted himself. He sits before a blank vertical canvas, subverting a straightforward portrait into this horizontal panorama of a hierarchy disintegrating.

A century soon after “Las Meninas” (1656) — Velázquez as model is in no way far more than a breath away all through this show — Goya dethroned monarchs and created immortal the architects, bankers and civil servants of the Enlightenment. He depicted reforming minister of justice Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos with sparkling eyes and mobile mouth but posed right after Dürer’s “Melancolia I” (1514), a troubled intellectual bowed by the cares of workplace. He imbued economist Francisco de Cabarrús, delivering a radical speech in a fur-trimmed lime suit, with the lively, exaggerated gestures of Velázquez’s buffoon Pablo de Valladolid.

However authority competes with disorder: in red silk and pearly waistcoat, the prime minister “Count Floridablanca” (1783) is resplendent as the sun itself, responding to supplicants — such as, wittily, Goya himself — in the shadows. “The Count of Altamira” (1787), a small particular person and director of a liberally inclined bank, adopts a commanding posture as well, sitting at a yellow-draped table — except it is as well high for him, and he appears like a trapped, awkward doll. Never thoughts: he is, exceptionally, reunited right here with “The Countess of Altamira” — mask face, sparkle of pink satin — and their son Manuel, both from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The boy holds by a string a pet magpie, with Goya’s calling card in its beak, attended by two murderous-searching cats.

The show marks the deep shift in influence from kings to citizens, heralding the birth of civil society

Privilege and tension, manage and freedom, flattery checked by honesty, tradition infused with urgency: everywhere, Goya’s ambiguity and infinite nuances mesmerise. How he inaugurated the modern day portrait, where human personalities and interior universes shine via the most stately charades of pomp and energy, is not only one particular of art’s excellent stories but, as the National Gallery unravels in this once-in-a-generation exhibition, also marks tremendous social modify: the gradual shift in influence from kings to citizens heralding the birth of civil society.

There are outstanding loans: ten masterpieces from the Prado, and the last-minute arrival of the stellar pair “Charles IV in Hunting Dress” and “María Luisa wearing a Mantilla” in the gilt wood frames in which they have hung in the Palacio Actual in Madrid because 1799. These allow us to adhere to this sweeping drama amongst a tight band of Spanish aristocrats and intellectuals in the shadow of the French Revolution, and to appreciate the improvement of Goya’s artistry in chronicling it.

The informal hunting portraits with which the two kings, bulbous-nosed Charles III — intelligent, well-known, famously ugly — and dim Charles IV sought to seem approachable, for instance, are separated by a decade. The former is stiff even though charming, the latter a miracle of light flowing, flickering, animating the unimaginative, portly, affable monarch who wanted absolutely nothing much more than to be left to ride with his hounds.

No excellent tragic painter was ‘more absorbed, in his untragic moments, by fashion than Goya’

Fifteen years later, the portrait of his despotic son “Ferdinand VII in Court Dress” (1814), brilliantly expresses restrained dislike in the language of ostentatious formality. Although his pose is respectfully full frontal, Ferdinand’s head is offset to his left, his chain and robe hang off-centre, so that he appears twisted — physically, morally — rather than upright as he stands squat on flabby legs and feet. Goya lavishes his most radical brushwork — darting blobs, dots, drags of paint — on the sumptuously brocaded robe, scintillating in contrast to its unprepossessing owner. Alongside hangs a portrait of Ferdinand’s proper-hand man, the Duke of San Carlos, who, swaggering back on a cane that fails to propel him forward, imitates the gestures of a stuttering old soldier ridiculed in the satirical print “Capricho 76”.

Living so long — he died in 1828 aged 82 — Goya caught the ebb and flow of political regimes and person alter. The hopeful child “Luis María de Borbón y Vallabriga” at his geography lesson in 1783 is, by 1800, a pensive, below-confident young cardinal. A vibrant-eyed daughter in “The Duke and Duchess of Osuna and their Children” (1788), whose exquisite green-grey harmonies mirror family members closeness, becomes the reclining figure, navel provocatively visible, in gleaming white silk, the energetic folds contrasting with her motionless classical pose, in the daring “The Marchioness of Santa Cruz” in 1805.

No great tragic painter, Robert Hughes noted in his biography, was “more absorbed, in his untragic moments, by the minutiae of style than Goya”. He dresses up himself, a bullfighter in 1 self-portrait right here elsewhere, his sensitivity to the erotic frissons of fabric blends with acute psychology.

He leavens the heaviness of Queen María Luisa (1799), plump, toothless, nonetheless incorrigibly flirtatious, with delicate touches — pink bow, fan subsequent to her heart, mantilla into her hair — to recommend her pathos at ageing, a pathos enhanced right here as she faces the magnificent Duchess of Alba in Goya’s most famous portrait (1797), in Britain for the 1st time.

Tall, slender, fine-boned, La Alba too wears the mantilla, with gold-embroidered blouse and red knotted sash: passion blazing through black filigree lace. This is sex as power: her expression is chilly, her gestures imperious as, one particular hand on her hip, she points with the other towards words traced in the sand at her feet: “Solo Goya”.

Only Goya: a painter’s sexual fantasy about a haughty patron, probably, but above all a proud reference to his supremacy as artist. Sand slips like time, the duchess died a few years right after this portrait we care about her and her whole world only due to the fact a genius evoked for ever how they thought and felt. This is the most enjoyable, profound, spectacular show of the year.

‘Goya: the Portraits’, National Gallery, London, to January ten


Slideshow photographs: Fondazione Magnani Rocca, Parma, Italy Colecciones Reales, Patrimonio Nacional Museo Nacional del Prado. Madrid The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York Courtesy of The Hispanic Society of America, New York Minneapolis Institute of Art Duquesa del Arco Private Collection, Spain

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Section: Arts

The Face of Britain: The Nation Through its Portraits, National Portrait Gallery, London — evaluation

Simon Schama curates an exhibition that explores British portraiture through themes

Self-portrait by Gwen John Simon Weston by Nicky Philipps

Self-portrait by Gwen John Simon Weston by Nicky Philipps

“The faces which look out at us from the past are the surest indication we have of the which means of an epoch.” So stated the art historian Kenneth Clark, and I think Simon Schama would almost certainly agree with him. A new exhibition curated by Schama, The Face of Britain: The Nation Via its Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery in London, shows above all that portraits, be they painted, drawn, printed or clicked, are about some thing much more than a simple likeness they are a reflection of the time and situations of their creation. And, in fretting about the ephemerality of today’s selfie-snapping, I suspect that Schama is attempting to put his finger on the meaning of our personal age.

Schama’s central thesis on portraiture, which he also develops in a book and forthcoming BBC2 series, is that it emerges from a “triangular collision of wills amongst sitter, artist and public”. For the most part this is accurate, although art historians and curators have a tendency these days to see “tension” everywhere. A literal example of such a collision is Graham Sutherland’s doomed 1954 portrait of Winston Churchill, the story of which is engagingly told in the exhibition with preparatory studies and archive footage.

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The portrait was commissioned by the Homes of Parliament. Sutherland, a gifted, perceptive but rather stubborn artist, chose not to stick to the suggestions (if he knew it) of the wonderful 18th-century portraitist Joshua Reynolds: if a painter “cannot make his hero speak like a great man he must make him appear like one”. Rather, Sutherland saw before him an old, occasionally shambling man prone to dozing off. So that is what he painted.

Sutherland’s portrait was also truthful for its time. Churchill hated it. To everyone’s discomfort, the presentation ceremony went ahead, broadcast on television from Westminster, where Churchill mocked the picture by calling it a “remarkable example of modern art”. In these days, to contact art “modern” was one thing of an insult. Some years later, Clementine Churchill’s private secretary burnt the painting, to her employer’s delight. (Or so the story goes Harold Wilson utilised to claim it was not destroyed, and, touching the tip of his nose, would add: “I know exactly where it is.”)

Churchill had wanted a lot more manage over his image, like most holders of power. Elizabeth I directed Nicholas Hilliard to show her face with “no shadow at all” — that is, no wrinkles. And the exhibition showcases two instances of Margaret Thatcher’s portrait meddling she insisted on smiling for Helmut Newton’s camera in 1991, in case not doing so produced her appear “disagreeable”, even though for Rodrigo Moynihan’s oil portrait of 1983/85 Thatcher not only changed the colour scheme, but even the depiction of her eyes. Her interference is blamed by the National Portrait Gallery for “a compromised painting that speaks of artistic flare extinguished”, even though in truth it is tough to see much artistic flare in Moynihan’s work usually.

The exhibition reveals a lot of such entertaining tales, and there are gems worth seeing. The self-portraits by Gwen John and Lucian Freud are among the ideal you will see, and they prove — perhaps inconveniently — that portraitists excel when totally free to ignore the demands of paying sitters. Nicky Philipps’ portrait of the Falklands veteran Simon Weston, for example, is that uncommon thing: a good modern portrait in oil. And the wit of James Gillray’s satirical caricatures still resonates today.

There are limitations, nonetheless, and they are mainly self-imposed. Like the series and the book, the display explores the history of British portraiture not chronologically but by way of themes “power”, “love”, “fame”, “self” and
“people” (as in “ordinary people”, not posh ones). In the book (and doubtless the series) the thematic approach works when it is held together by Schama’s wide selection of portraits, his enthusiasm, and some of the best writing on British portraiture I have read. But take Schama away, replace his energetic presence with wall text and labels, and the themes at times fail to provide.

What ought to have been a defining moment in the gallery’s mission to showcase British history by means of portraiture is alternatively an inconsistent, somewhat forced display. That it is spread about the developing in separate rooms (or in curatorial-speak, “interventions”) does not help. And nor do the themes look always to make sense. The Chandos portrait of Shakespeare is often a pleasure to see, specifically when rival Shakespeare portraits are “discovered” almost weekly. But it fits oddly right here in “fame” (and by the staircase), for Shakespeare was not a celebrity in his lifetime in the way we would recognise today. Certainly, the Chandos portrait is so in contrast to history’s vision of fame that 19th-century viewers felt the require to tinker with it, giving Shakespeare longer hair to make him look much less like an accountant and much more like a playwright.

The gallery says the exhibition “has been created in wider discussion with National Portrait Gallery curators”, and at occasions the display does really feel like the operate of a committee. Nowhere is this much more apparent than in the “Introductory” section, where the 5 themes are introduced as follows: Margaret Thatcher for “power” the abolitionist William Wilberforce for “fame” George Leigh Mallory (by Duncan Grant) for “love” the 19th-century black actor Ira Aldridge for “people” and a self-portrait by the Scottish painter Anna Zinkeisen for “self”. These are all fine portraits, but such box-ticking shows how subjective a thematic interpretation of British portraiture must be.

This is not, as a result, the face of Britain as it truly existed. Right here you will discover no imperialists, no rich merchants, and surely no slave traders. As an alternative, it is the face of Britain we want had existed inclusive, romantic, and (mostly) agreeable. From within this thicket of political correctness, we struggle to draw any broader conclusions about the history of the British face, or the artists who developed it. But perhaps that is not the point. For these curated faces inform us a lot more about present ideals than past realities.


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Section: Arts