In Spite of Age and Infirmity, Goya’s Sharp Gaze Persisted

Hard on the heels of Memling’s Portraits, surely one of the finest exhibitions in the city within memory, the Frick Collection has mounted another exhilarating tribute to an Old Master. Goya’s Last Works may not astonish as much as the last show: For a lot of us, Memling’s crystalline art was a revelation, but many of Goya’s most famous prints and paintings are instantly recognizable. So one challenge for the Frick lies in overcoming indifference bred by familiarity.

Another challenge is in the intimate scale of the Frick’s temporary exhibition galleries, which can’t accommodate the broad historical scope of a blockbuster. Space restrictions do, however, compel curators to focus their attentions and bring their expertise to shed light on this or that facet of an artist’s work. In that respect, Jonathan Brown and Susan Grace Galassi shine. Goya’s Last Works gives us a thorough measure, not of the artist’s complete accomplishment, but of his deeply humane, if often scabrous, vision.

The show is full of paradoxes typical of the man and, for that matter, the human animal itself. The introductory wall label informs us that Goya’s patrons—Charles III, Charles IV, Ferdinand VII and, during France’s occupation of Spain, Napoleon’s brother Joseph—“recognized his genius and treated him with tolerance.” Given the caustic nature of Goya’s art, as well as his sympathy for the Liberals and their disdain of the Spanish monarchy, the tolerance of a king would seem generous.

But Goya was no fool: He recognized the realities of revolutionary foment. After the Liberals failed to unseat the monarchy in 1823, Ferdinand VII brutally suppressed them. Sensing his allegiances might place him in danger, Goya applied for, and was granted, a leave of absence. He headed for France, saving his own skin. He died in Bordeaux four years later at the age of 82. The last four years of his life are at the heart of the Frick show.

Many things can power art, and political expediency is among them. It wouldn’t be misguided to guess that the often brusque liberties Goya took with artistic form and subject matter resulted from his voluntary exile: Starting over, particularly after the risk of potential catastrophe, can be reenergizing.

So, too, can one’s encroaching mortality. Goya had battled grave illness earlier in life. Among the most vivid pictures at the Frick is a small self-portrait, drawn in gray wash on paper, shortly after a long sickness left the artist deaf at age 46. Surrounded by an unruly shock of hair, a lion’s mane of lilting black marks, Goya renders himself pitilessly, though with surprising reserve, in a solemn moment of introspection. It’s a painfully candid portrayal of newfound vulnerability.

Self-Portrait with Dr. Arrieta (1820) honors the physician who with “skill and care … saved [Goya’s] life.” It’s another marker of the artist’s increasing fragility. Seen cradled in the arms of Dr. Arrieta, Goya is a mere wisp of a man, humbled by age and infirmity. But Goya’s Last Works also makes clear how these circumstances fostered artistic vitality—in its own scholarly way, the show is an essay in optimism.

The exhibition is devoted to four aspects of Goya’s art: portraiture, drawings, paintings on ivory and printmaking. Everything on display makes evident the artist’s unflinching moral probity. His gaze could not have been easy to withstand; it seems to have pierced the darkest corners of the psyche with alarming ease. His hand couldn’t make a mark without revealing judgment: Each portrait is a commentary on an individual’s worth. All the same, Goya didn’t allow his misgivings about humankind to cloud (or misdirect) his art. Insight, not dogma, was the rule.

He was patently moved by the devotion of José Duaso y Latre, charmed by the barely contained impetuousness of Don Tiburcio Pérez y Cuervo, and somewhat taken aback by the porcelain-like features of a woman who may or may not be María Martínez de Puga. Even at his most scathing—in many of the roughhewn, preparatory drawings featured in the Bordeaux Albums—he could still allow a surprising tenderness to grace the crudest of images. Comer Mucho (To Eat a Lot) (1824-28) bluntly condemns gluttony, but only Goya could exercise a light-dappled lyricism while depicting a fat man moving his bowels.

The crayon drawings include caricaturish images of female giants, abusive husbands, airborne lesbians, and an impenetrable allegory featuring a cunning wolf and a needy man. They recall the parables of Los Caprichos, Goya’s renowned series of etchings devoted to the horrors and hypocrisies of war. So, too, does an improvisational group of miniatures painted on shards of ivory. The use of carbon black and watercolor lends a sleek, airy sensuality to pictures of malevolent children, grimacing crones and a man searching for fleas with gross enthusiasm.

The ivory pieces (all from 1824-1825) also include a lovely pair of proto-Surrealist reveries, one devoted to erotic surrender ( Reclining Nude) and the other to isolation ( Woman with Clothes Blowing in the Wind).

The empathy filtering through these images stands in contrast to a suite of lithographs dedicated to bullfighting. In them, Goya’s ruthless appreciation for human folly, not to say his misanthropy, is unmistakable and bracing. Goya’s picadores are hapless and hopeless—clownish grotesques whose sense of sport is as coarse as their physiognomies. In the lone painting devoted to the subject, Bullfighting Scene, known as Suerte de Varas (1824), a bull soberly assesses the bumbling clump of men attempting to quell him. The bull, clear-eyed, knowing and not entirely unamused, could be a stand-in for Goya, whose complex intelligence this show illuminates so unforgettably.

Goya’s Last Works is at the Frick Collection, 1 East 70th Street, until May 14.