Time’s art critic and cultural pundit (A Jerk on One End, 1999, etc.) finally produces his decades-in-the-making consideration of the Spanish painter.
Hughes had been “blocked for years,” he admits, before a 1999 car crash in his native Australia landed him in the hospital for more than six months and gave him direct experience with the “fear, despair, and pain” that Francisco Goya (1746–1828) excelled in depicting. Despite opening on this personal note, the text overall is simply another demonstration of Hughes’s always impressive ability to write about art for the general public without either pandering or putting on airs (American Visions, 1997, etc.). The prose is vigorous and opinionated—swipes at “the animal-rights faithful” and Hemingway’s “kitsch writing” during a discussion of Goya’s bullfighting etchings, for example—but no more so than usual for this writer. And the firmly expressed opinions don’t convey a more private engagement with the material: exegeses of Goya’s scathing series on The Disasters of War or his great painting of political martyrdom, The Third of May 1808, are intelligent, thorough, and involved without achieving that additional intimacy accessible only to an author more willing to sound vulnerable than Hughes is. We wouldn’t miss this quality if the opening pages hadn’t seemed to promise it; Goya smoothly blends art, cultural, and political history with biography to cogently capture its subject’s wide-ranging genius, reminding us that the creator of such searing images of human cruelty, duplicity, and stupidity as the Caprichos etchings was also a perfectly contented, if slightly bored, painter of sedate royal portraits for three generations of Spanish monarchs. (The reactionary Fernando VII finally drove him into self-imposed exile in France in 1824.) For all Hughes’s fluid exposition and astute character assessments, it remains a mystery how this “man reasonably at ease in the world” could cast such a cold eye on its horrors.
A solid work of art history, though not the revelatory summing-up the author appears to have aspired to. (215 illustrations, 115 in color, color not seen)