Nearly two centuries after his death, Goya is still worth fighting over. He forces you to pick sides, dares you to claim him for your own. Critics can’t tame him, but they’ll set him on their opponents like an attack dog. For the young John Berger, Goya was the nemesis of glib midcentury Parisian cynicism. For Robert Hughes, he was the nemesis of glib Manhattan postmodernism. For cultural commentator Jason Farago, writing in the New York Times recently, he makes a mockery of glib online virtue signaling. Fair points all, though it’s much easier to see what Goya is against than to define what he is. Is he the last old master or the first modernist? Realist or dreamer? Is his motto, “I saw it,” a simple statement of fact vis-à-vis the wreckage of the Napoleonic Wars, or a subtler boast about his vivid imagination? The only thing everyone seems to agree on: there was nothing glib about him.
“Goya’s Graphic Imagination,” a Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition featuring more than a hundred of the artist’s drawings and prints, takes sides with its very title. “Imagination” lends a faint favoritism to Goya the dreamer, Goya the granddaddy of Buñuel and Beckmann and Bacon. Tellingly, the show’s online header features the 1818 aquatint Seated Giant, one of his most nakedly fantastic creations—the wall text helps you to situate this work in its place and time (possibly as an allusion to the violence that tore Spain apart when Goya was in his sixties), but no amount of history or biography could explain it. This show is crammed with drawings of witches, monsters, cadavers, and mangled body parts—clearly, Goya’s imagination was graphic. But before his pictures could be vividly gory he had to submit himself to the staid art of draftsmanship—and the story of how he transcended that submission, his journey from graphic to graphic, is the one the Met has opted to tell.
And There Is No Help is the fifteenth plate of “The Disasters of War,” Goya’s most famous print series. Amply represented at the Met, the suite dramatizes the clash of two ever so civilized imperial powers through a combination of bloody excess and sinister blankness. Some plates have clear-cut villains—e.g., Not [in This Case] Either (1810), in which a Napoleonic commander smirks at a hanged Spaniard. But more often the killers are faceless: out of frame, visually obstructed, masked in shadow, or absent altogether. Because we can’t really see the French soldiers in And There Is No Help, we have no way of knowing what they’re feeling, and in a sense it doesn’t matter. Their acts seem at once impassioned and impersonal.
How will civilization end? Hatred or indifference? Fire or ice? Monsters or robots? The answer, per “Disasters,” seems to be some of both. After the 1810s, however, Goya doesn’t really do faceless horror—abandons it so utterly, in fact, that he seems to be trying to forget he ever gave it form. The show ends with his black crayon sketches of drunks and cackling lunatics, images that, it’s been suggested, betray an element of morbid fascination, though maybe there’s some nostalgia too. I’d take a drunk over a soldier any day.