Goya: The Portraits at The National Gallery

I’ve been on many Ertegun cultural excursions now, but the latest Goya portrait exhibition at the National Gallery has to rate among my favourites.  Goya is not the household name that numerous Italian and Dutch painters are, and the prospect of seeing an exhibition of Spanish court portraiture led me to anticipate an endless row of monotonous pictures of aristocratic children with ridiculously large frilly-lace-collars: all of which is to say that I was not expecting much. Happily these expectations were soon confounded.

Though some of Goya’s early portraits do not quite ‘work’, there are clearly sparks of genius present from the beginning in individual visages or novel compositions. As the artist matures, however, some of his works are simply sublime. The painter’s cultivated familiarity with his sitters results in portraits which convey a deep empathy and a profound humanity. These features shine through the often opulent costumes and elaborate hairstyles, which Goya masterfully employs to express personality rather than distract from it. Many features of his technical toolbox are before their time: impressionistic blurs, postmodern splodges and unconventional compositions are all deployed to great effect. His minimalistic, often monochromatic, backgrounds gently yet unswervingly focus one’s attention on his subjects. Above all, his capacity to portray personality and emotion through facial expressions, poses and a seemingly intuitive grasp of light and colour results in consistently arresting images.

The curatorial aspects of the exhibition are also to be commended.  An impressive haul of works was gathered and helpfully arranged. The space was somewhat cramped and crowded despite timed entry: a victim of its own success. The lucid audio guide provided the necessary background about the sitters and their relationship to Goya. It also drew one’s attention to particularly innovative aspects of his style and accomplishments. Goya’s own biography, political positions and contextual predicaments were brought in where they illuminate the progression of the exhibition. The focus on the portraiture of only one artist functioned as a ‘creative constraint’, setting parameters within which sizable variation and novel reinterpretation could take place. Five stars.

Tobias Tan