TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Our classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz lives in Boston and has been visiting and revisiting the current exhibit at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. It's one of the largest shows ever seen in this country, featuring the work of the Spanish painter Francisco Goya. Here's Lloyd's review.
LLOYD SCHWARTZ, BYLINE: Goya was one of the most complicated artists who ever lived - one of the most unflinching and pervasively ironic. In his 82 years, he produced a vast output of paintings, prints and drawings that included images of human folly and superstition, the innocence of childhood and the horrors of aging, images of sex, love and marriage and divorce, images of the Spanish court, both elegant and satirical, images of the ravages of war and subtle portraits - all ranging in technique from the exquisitely refined and painterly to the raw, rough and cartoon-like - almost pre-modern.
With 170 works from its own impressive holdings, as well as from major international museums and private collections, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts has assembled a labyrinthine exhibit organized by theme rather than the more academic chronological order, which allows us to observe the artists of varying approaches over his long career. Take his self-portraits, for instance. When you enter the galleries, the first thing you see is a huge canvas depicting the young Goya painting members of a royal family in exile. He's kneeling next to an easel in one corner, craning his neck to see the young matriarch conversing with her hairdresser, her elderly and unprepossessing husband playing solitaire and their young children with their servants, including the family's young chef, who's grinning directly at us. The dapper figure standing on the right might be the composer Luigi Boccherini. Goya is hardly glamorizing this disheveled group at its morning ritual.
In the Boston show, this mock-epic scene is flanked by two smaller but hardly less conventional self-portraits. One shows Goya painting, standing almost silhouetted by the glare of sunlight from a window behind him. He's wearing a matador costume, and his hat has spikes to hold candles when it gets too dark to paint in natural light. His fierce eyes are burning with confidence. On the other side of the family portrait is a devastating self-portrait from 20 years later, showing the weary face of an artist who has seen and been through a lot - illness, deafness, the deaths of five of his six children, war.
But Goya's greatest self-portrait is saved for the very last room. It's actually a double portrait of the elderly artist in the arms of his doctor - his friend, Goya writes in an inscription at the bottom of the painting, who has saved his life. The artist is ashen, his eyes barely open. He's clutching his bed clothes and leaning back as the doctor cradles him, offering him a glass of medicine or wine, as several mysterious dark figures look on. It's a pose familiar from religious art - the image of an angel supporting the dead Christ.
Once this heart-breaking painting returns to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, you won't be to see it right next to Goya's last altar piece, a 10-foot high canvas from Madrid, never seen in this country before. In it, a priest in a dark, cavernous church bends over to offer last communion to the frail St. Joseph of Calasanz, who founded an order dedicated to the education of poor children, who are among the onlookers. It was an inspired idea to hang next to each other these two powerful and moving late images of succor and humility.
Some of Goya's most iconic paintings - "The Naked Maja," "Third Of May," "The Royal Family" - remain at the Prado Museum in Madrid, but the Prado has lent 21 other pieces. The most familiar painting in the Boston show is from the Met in New York. It's the young boy in a red jumper holding a magpie on a leash. The magpie has Goya's calling card in its beak. In the dark, three steely-eyed cats are eyeing the magpie. It's a picture of threatened innocence in a world of cats. On a nearby wall is a penetrating portrait of the child's knowing grandmother, painted just three years after the early death of her too fragile grandchild.
The subtitle of this show is "Order And Disorder." One of my favorite stopping points includes a group of drawings - one showing people ice-skating, another with a man on roller-skates trying desperately to keep his balance. Nearby is a priest trying to walk a tight rope and an etching of a bullfighter in the bullring, pole-vaulting over a bull. Some of us, Goya seems to say, can keep our equilibrium better than others. This extraordinary exhibit shows that it's just what Goya himself tried to do his entire life.
GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz reviewed Goya: Order and Disorder, which is on view at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts through January 19. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.