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The many masks of modern art

I would like to beg indulgence of my readers and ask permission to reach beyond the borders of the 20th century for the subject of this particular essay.

My reason for doing so is simple: I believe that no other ''old master'' speaks as clearly and crucially to twentieth-century cultural realities as does Francisco Goya. And that none other is as vital and ''alive'' for us today as he.

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I say this even though Goya was born in 1746, and devoted much of his early professional life to painting lighthearted and delightful eighteenth-century pictures, designing decorative tapestries, and immortalizing Spanish royalty and its aristocracy in numerous shrewdly perceived and executed portraits.

But a brutal war came to Spain, and Goya saw and recorded its effects. Embittered and disillusioned, he withdrew to create his four great series of etchings, of which the last, the so-called The Proverbs, is the most haunting and prophetic. After Napoleon's exile, the restoration of the Spanish monarchy triggered a period of reaction and suppression. In response, Goya retired to a remote country house where he painted--entirely for himself--the series of darkly brooding, somber, and highly provocative canvases known as the ''Black Paintings.''

These paintings are large and loosely brushed canvases in which mankind is portrayed as living a marginal existence at the absolute edge of chaos and extinction. It is an existence from which all virtue, love, compassion, and charity have been withdrawn--much as air is withdrawn to create a vacum--leaving nothing but human degradation and despair.

Man, in this world, instead of interacting hopefully with his fellow humans, and joining together with them toward a common goal, huddles desperately for safety, indulges in brutalities and stupidities, descends to bestiality and witchcraft, and, in general, acts out a miserable and violent life lacking rhyme and reason.

The overall effect of these paintings is searing, spellbinding, and soul-wrenching. They are the pictorial equivalent of a huge, dark morality play in which all evidence of morality is missing. Or of a sermon on the necessity of human compassion and love preached with stark and dramatic allusions to hellfire , damnation, and the horror of being absolutely and eternally alone.

Goya, in these paintings and prints, was the first artist who purposefully painted men with all their passions intact--but without conscience or soul. The result is awesome, and yet, in its own terms, brutally logical. Mankind's energy , no longer urged toward compassion and concern, directs itself exclusively to survival and destruction--and to whatever can inflame or satisfy the senses. This kind of man is insatiable, totally self-centered, and expresses himself only in extremes. There is no middle ground, no place for peace and quiet. For him it is a fact: who does not destroy first is himself destroyed; he who asks for mercy will receive none, for such a thing as mercy does not exist.

Goya's pessimism was total, and yet it is absolutely convincing, partly because he himself had seen enough inhumanity, in the royal court, in the Spanish Inquisition, and in war, to document that perception of reality throughout his art. The profound and powerful impact of Goya's art derives to a large extent from the fact that the strange creatures and odd events he painted represented reality as he had seen and known it.

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Goya's uncompromising integrity, his refusal to paint hope when he saw only despair, or meaning when he saw only chaos, is his great link to our century and to the art of twentieth-century modernism. For most of his career, Goya belonged to the tradition of the post-Renaissance period, to the world that included Caravaggio, Rubens, Rembrandt, Tiepolo. From roughly 1800 on, however, Goya increasingly turned away from the beliefs and glories that had supported those artists, and found himself facing a huge and final abyss--a condition of nothingness which even Rembrandt could not have imagined--and which drove Goya himself to absolute despair.

Western painting saw nothing like this again until the very last days of the nineteenth century when Edvard Munch cried out with his images of human aloneness and alienation. Munch's images, however haunting and disquieting, were mere phantoms of fear and the unknown, compared with Goya's humanly real and dramatically three-dimensional embodiments of futility and despair. But miraculously--somehow his tremendous compassion shines through them all.

One of the most moving things about Goya is his wholeness and grandeur as an artist. He was, without doubt, the final full moment of the Great Ship of Western Art that came into existence with Giotto in the 1380s. Munch, from his vantage point of the 1890s, must have looked back at the art of Goya in much the same way as someone, leaving a great ocean liner in the middle of the Pacific and stepping into a small, frail rowboat, would look back and remember how safe and assured everything seemed aboard that liner. And that feeling would only have been heightened as he watched the liner steaming majestically toward the horizon, leaving him in his tiny boat, alone, terrified, and perplexed about the direction he should take to find land.

We of this century, like it or not, are also in that rowboat. We may look back at that Great Ship of Western Art and remember with an ache how assured and grand everything seemed aboard it, but it will do us no good. For better or worse, this is where we are, and this is where we will remain until such time as we can perceive and realize our appropriate level of greatness.

We do, however, have a choice at this time in how leaky and directionless that little boat will remain, or how secure and purposeful it will become. To date, we have done little but keep it afloat and heading toward where we think land lies. In all that time--and it is now almost one hundred years since Munch's cry set the keynote of our era--we have tried, sometimes out of sheer desperation, and sometimes with cool detachment, to find the central clue to who we really are and to where we really are going.

In art, we have sought the answer in the extremes of total abstraction and absolute mimicry of physical reality, as well as in pastiches and combinations of the two. We have pushed emotionalism in painting to its limit, and have then turned the results into decoration. We have distilled experience and ideals into circles, squares, and right angles--and have even turned human realities into frozen images of skin, hair, pores, and nails masquerading as people and as art.

We have tried almost everything, and have, by and large, done so with considerable imagination and, even, good grace.

What we have not tried, however, or only tried in fits and starts, has been to start our painterly creative processes as a response to the full measure and texture of human experience, accepting the fact that art is of, and only of, the full spectrum of man. And then to try to create an art that gives full voice to this awareness. But what have we done so far in this century, superficially or hysterically? Have we translated the human condition into its dimensionality--its humaneness?

This is not said lightly, nor with any native dislike for the art we have been or are producing. Readers of this series will, I believe, know that my love for the art of this century is wide and deep. What I am saying--and this has been powerfully and most urgently underscored for me by my recent experience with Goya's late paintings and prints--is that art can be more and greater than what we are now producing, but that it will never be so until we once again pay full attention to the fact that it is man in his full and dynamic actuality, and in his eternal search for meaning, that art is really all about.

Goya, for all his despair and pessimism, his anger and rage at human folly and stupidity, illumines the absolute necessity for human compassion and responsibility. His art may seem utterly grim and hopeless, but its effect is exactly the opposite. He poured such life and passion, such concern and love, into his art that those qualities are what ultimately come through. Despite his painful experiences with human folly and cruelty, he cared desperately for what was good in man. If he focused his attention on the negatives of human reality, it was only to make us more fully aware of man's affirmations.

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