art: goya: order and disorder

Before visiting the latest blockbuster MFA show I had little sense of Francisco Goya except a vague and incorrect association with Maja soap. I came away flattened by his reach and versatility: portraitist, cartoonist, war artist, realist, imaginer, storyteller; in oils, watercolor, half a dozen forms of printmaking, and patterns for tapestry. His life began before the Enlightenment revolutions – basically in feudal times – and ended after the Napoleonic Wars, almost but not quite into the age of photography.

Goya’s most memeworthy image is The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, which created logjams when people saw how small and intricate it was – or wanted to comment on the cats, like these two patrons:

“I like the upside-down head.”
“Look at the kitty in the bottom corner. That’s a strong kitty.”
“I’ve always liked the dark kitty, above his waist, watching, looking out.”
“And we’ve seen that kitty before, in the painting in the Met, of the little boy in the red suit.”
“Well, there’s only one black cat.”


“You know, El sueño de la razón produce monstruos has two meanings – it can be that when reason sleeps, monsters come out, or that the dream of reason produces monsters. Very Spanish.”

In the next room, there was the the Met painting of the little boy in the red suit (Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuñiga). Same feline fans:

“I love the foreshortened hand.”
“I love the magpie with Goya’s card in its beak.”
“The cats look a little friendlier.”
“That cat on the left reminds me of Amelia.”
“You don’t think.”
“That’s a pretty fat cat.”

The curation was exceptionally good, organizing the spaces around themes including self-portraits, life studies, play and prey, buoyancy, witchcraft and disasters. Two remarkable aspects were the giant video wall showing works and details to patrons standing in line to get in – as my father said, it was like looking at the paintings with a magnifying glass, which they don’t let you do – and the quality of the texts on the walls. These were erudite without being obscure, informative without being condescending. The text for The Sleep of Reason ended, “Watch for this image again, in a later state with more bats, later in the exhibition.” That for the Manuel Zuñiga portrait observed that he “seems to rule over his own small domain of natural enemies who coexist in harmony – for the moment … Manuel died only four years after this portrait was painted.” That’s the stuff we can’t see for ourselves, or can’t work out right away with a hundred people jostling behind us. More, please.

Goya: Order and Disorder closes 19 January. Free with museum admission. Lines are long but worth it. Thanks to Lisa G. whose member guest I was, and to K. who even found free parking.

Posted on by Diana ben-Aaron
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