Faces Are Key to Goya's Art

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Faces Are Key to Goya's Art

Meet don Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, the Spanish artist whose works have been studied, defined and redefined by art historians around the world.

The haunting image of an execution site and its dark, hilly backdrop in the artist's famous "The Third of May, 1808" encapsu0lates 18th and 19th century Spain more accurately than any other existing art works. The Spanish civilian, arms outstretched in the form of a crucifix, depicts Spain's helplessness under Napoleon.

The work is one of many on show at the "Goya: Face, the Mirror of the Soul" exhibition at the Toksu Palace National Museum of Contemporary Art in Seoul until January 28.

The exhibition, featuring engravings that Goya produced during his most traumatic years, focuses on the remarkable facial features in his works and the physiognomy - the belief that facial characteristics are a guide to a person's inner character - which Goya intended to convey.

Goya was the official portrait painter to Spain's Bourbon royalty, then to the French monarchy during the Spanish war of independence. He held such positions for 40 years, and was one of the rare court artists to portray human features in such profound detail. European aristocrats were impressed with his ability to capture subtle facial expressions and background details.

Goya developed his eye for detail at the Royal Tapestry Factory in Madrid. Under the guidance of Francisco Bayeu, he learned how to portray the complexities of human behavior.

When he later painted wall-sized scenes for royalty and aristocrats, the artist criticized the hypocrisy of the picturesque spectacles the clients often asked for in these commissioned works. This was particularly so in scenes glorifying the Spanish monarchy.

The artist's depth of human observation is best represented by the haunting satirical images he produced from 1792 onwards. After spending much of his career as an established court artist, Goya turned to more political works.

Around the same time, a serious illness left him permanently deaf. This not only caused personal turmoil, but also influenced his views on mankind and the world. Relying heavily on his imagination, he rejected logical reasoning, instead using symbols such as bullfights and animal heads as metaphors for the human condition.

In his notes for "Caprichos," Goya wrote, "He who departs entirely from nature will surely merit high esteem, since he has to put before the eyes of the public forms and poses which have existed previously in the darkness and confusion of an irrational mind, or one which is beset by uncontrolled passion." Goya once observed that his three most influential teachers were Velazquez, Rembrandt and nature.

The man-monsters in many Goya's prints are not mythical creatures that exist in the imagination. Rather, they represent humans transformed into demons through greed and evil desires.

Full of irony and symbolic metaphors, "Los Disparates," a series of etchings Goya produced before he went to Italy, reflects the artist's bitterness towards the Spanish government. An overweight priest praying amidst dancing revelers is Goya's protest against church involvement in political upheavals. The monks in Goya's etchings are often yawning or gorging themselves.

The faces of the allegorical figures in the "Disasters of War" series are partially obscured in shadows, suggesting an under-current of fear of war and dark days ahead. In his prints on war and famine, Goya expressed his concern about Napoleon's expansionism, and predicted the consequences.

Goya's well-known "Caprichos" series perhaps best reflects the exhibition's focus on physiognomy. In the European art world, where such satirical portraits were rare, Goya's prints caused a scandal when introduced to salons. After a few days, they stopped selling his works. "Too libertine," they said.

In "Caprichos" the artist vividly portrays the faces of those abusing power in Spain, graphically capturing images of terror and corruption. Bathing prostitutes, a feast of witches, and children being hideously tortured by unidentified figures are some of the disturbing imagery on display.

Goya once talked about the importance of image. He said: "I am old, full of wrinkles and with sunken eyes. People who see me now will only do so through the reflection of that image." This exhibition, focusing as it does on physiognomy, will give viewers an insight into Goya's representations.

For more information contact the NMCA, Toksu Palace at 02-779-5310.

by Park Soo-mee

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