I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the first time in a year to see a perfect exhibition of Goya’s works on paper. It was eerie and reassuring to breathe in the musty smells of the galleries (even through a tightly fitted mask) and to glimpse old friends on the wall as I hustled by. Nothing had changed. Everything had changed.
Goya’s drawings and etchings tallied with the current moment, or maybe just with my mood. It can be hard to tell the difference between public emergency and interior gloom. His work teems with misanthropy, hatred, violence and bitter wit, but most of all with ambivalence toward those extremes.
This exhibition doesn’t provide escapist bliss, or stoop to mere beauty. It confronts us with ill will and seething rage. His slavering mobs look familiar: we see the same characters on endless replay in our own Goyaesque TV inferno, babbling about conspiracy, waving banners, clomping through the Capitol.
The lunatic cannibals of QAnon’s fever dreams appear right here at the Met in “There is Plenty to Suck”, where a ghastly trio enjoys a pinch of snuff after consuming a meal of dead babies. The leftovers fill a doggie basket at their feet. Goya confirms that neither modernity, rationality, nor progress can drive these demons from the collective consciousness. He pokes around the dark side of the Enlightenment, prying out the monsters that lurk there, standing back and standing by for their moment in the glare.
The show is a marvel, drawing mostly on the Met’s permanent collection, supplemented by a few key loans. Organised by Mark McDonald, it strikes wide and deep, balancing eminent works with obscurities, from Goya’s first etchings after paintings by Velázquez to lithographs from his late-life exile in France. McDonald elucidates formal and technical innovations, and also delves into the ambiguities and discontinuities that make this well-studied body of work feel as fresh as ever.
Goya spent the first part of his life in Madrid, soaking up its cosmopolitan atmosphere, socialising with the wealthy and titled, elevating them in portraits, and buffing his own reputation to a patent-leather gloss. In 1792, when he lost his hearing and had to learn to communicate all over again, he began drawing in earnest. The show opens with an etched self-portrait from 1796, when he was 50. A frizz of unruly hair haloes a round face, which is marked by piercing if slightly hooded eyes. The intensity suggests a person bent on confrontation and scrutiny.
Art historians typically read Goya’s work as an Enlightenment critique of Spain’s intellectual, political and cultural backwardness. They understand the Tauromaquia, a series of etchings on the history of bullfighting, as a repudiation of the spectacle’s cruelty. Yet, as McDonald points out, Goya upholsters his violence with the fabric of seduction. Goriness mixes with grace.
In one scene, a rabble goads a bull with lances, sickles and spears, desperate for the barest pretext to destroy it. An array of gormless humanity surrounds the creature, grinning and grimacing with bloodthirsty delight. The crowd takes chilling pleasure in viciousness, and Goya confers on it the same barely concealed disgust he lavished on murderous thugs and rapists in the “Disasters of War”. Yet the bull faces down his tormentors with monumental dignity. The artist’s urge to beautify the victim belies its ordeal, and the image transcends its subject. Cruelty is savage, but suffering is noble, and you can’t have the second without the first.
In one of Goya’s most iconic images, an exhausted scholar lays his head on a desk to nap. Pens roll away from his hand, only to be caught by a ghastly owl. Nocturnal creatures spring from the sleeping brain. The plate, which introduces the second section of his etching series Los Caprichos, urges vigilance in the face of irrationality.
The consequences of reason letting down its guard are too horrible to behold. But an earlier drawing of the same image suggests a slightly different message. We recognise the self-portrait from the wild coiffure and partially hidden round cheek. Here, instead of hiding the hands beneath his prone head, the dreamer intertwines his fingers in anxious entreaty. Goya’s features appear again among the grotesque faces that emanate from his mind — different iterations of the same man, now smiling benevolently, now grinning with evil intent. The artist understood that all his cruel inventions — the loons, fools, sadists, demons, and fiends — came from within, summoned by his dreams.
We like to think that a high ethical wall separates us from evil, but Goya intimates that the potential for horror lies in us all. Mere circumstance dictates what activates the worst in us. The lure of unreason lies coiled and ready, wielding ravishing power.
Goya’s Graphic Imagination exposes more ambiguities than it resolves, leaving relations between the sexes especially vexed. In the drawing “It’s All Your Fault”, a smirking man perched atop a cliff clutches the hand of a woman who is sliding down the steep incline. Is he hauling her up or threatening to let go? Is she pulling away from him or reaching out for help? His blasé body language — he holds his hat casually against one hip — does not bode well for her survival. The caption muddies things further: who, exactly, is to blame, and for what? I read it as the man’s thought, holding the woman responsible for whatever pain he is about to inflict on her.
A late lithograph, “Expressive of Double Strength”, is equally unsettling. A man and a woman grapple on the ground, but we see her from behind, face hidden, long white neck vulnerable and bare. He hogs the focus, gripping the woman’s wrist with one hand and wrapping the other around her back. His scowl is intense but difficult to read; it might betray anger, anguish or concern. Neither the title nor the composition reveals whether the struggle is romantic or existential, rape or rescue, violence or love. Or perhaps it suggests a mixture of them all.
Even in the serene precincts of this great museum, Goya permits no distance from the tumult and pain outside. He turns fantasy and nightmare into irresistible theatre, mixes pure and polluted passions, and twins each figure with its opposite so that we can never comfortably look on from a moral distance and say with certainty: That is not who we are. We are better than that.
To May 2, metmuseum.org
Follow on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first
Listen to our podcast, Culture Call, where FT editors and special guests discuss life and art in the time of coronavirus. Subscribe on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you listen