Robert Hughes on Goya

With characteristic wry humor and eloquence, art critic Robert Hughes, standing before a packed Irvine Auditorium on April 7, argued that the work of Spanish painter Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes still speaks with urgency, even 175 years after his death. With the help of slides—from Goya’s early portraits of royalty through to his late “Black Paintings”—Hughes outlined the artist’s life, its relationship to his art and how he was influenced by both war and illness.

Hughes, the second speaker in the Annual Locks Foundation Distinguished Artists Series, is one of the most widely read writers on art in the English language. Time magazine’s art critic for more than 30 years, he has also made films for the BBC and is the author of several books on Australian and American art, social criticism and, most recently, Goya—“a particular obsession of mine,” according to Hughes.

Art as the way to truth

“Goya is a man who understands that art is the medium by which you come to know and tell the truth,” said Hughes, who called attention to the artist’s striking 1814 painting, “The Shootings of May Third 1808,” where a line of faceless French soldiers point guns at Spanish prisoners. Hughes pointed out the ragged surface of the painting and the depiction of blood on the ground, which Goya created by scraping the thick paint with a palate knife for an unsettling, half-dry effect. “This is the first modern image of war,” said Hughes emphatically.

While the Spanish painter moved with ease through different levels of society, it was only when he suffered a mental breakdown and was struck deaf by illness in 1793 that his work became what Hughes called “the essential Goya.” Said Hughes, “Without madness and illness, [Goya] would have remained condemned to normality.”

Hughes elicited laughter with his observations on Goya’s “Nude Maja.” Turning to look at the slide, Hughes remarked, “you just want to hop on those lace pillows with her and get right down to it.”

In response to a question about the war paintings of Goya and Picasso, Hughes replied that while paintings were once the principal medium for showing reality, “People don’t look to painting for the primary life truths anymore.”

Originally published on April 15, 2004