Goya: The Portraits

Clar05_3722_02T.J. Clark at the London Review of Books:

The longer I looked at the painting the more I was drawn to the dialogue taking place, sotto voce, between the over-coloured count and his shadowy double hung high on the wall above him – a faintly preposterous rehash of the mirror in Las Meninas, where king and queen make their necessary appearance. The dialogue in Goya – the shadow play, the hovering between repetition and caricature – seemed to me to drain both parties (I presumed that the figure on the wall was an ancestor, or maybe the monarch himself) of reality. The second man staring at me – again, a version of a great moment in Las Meninas, where Velázquez in the background fixes his royal sitters with a predatory gaze – seemed to peer from the picture with an expression compounded of alarm, disbelief and sheer uncomfortable consciousness of his place in a game of looking. Looking and being looked at and thereby ‘brought to life’. He’d be damned if he’d occupy the place he’d been allotted. I found myself staring back at the painting in much the same frame of mind. The more I responded to Floridablanca’s local (stunning) reality effects – the silver shimmer on the count’s sash, the light through the glass on the clock face, the spectacles clutched in his fingers, the Zurbarán notebook glowing on the floor – the more it seemed to me they didn’t matter. What mattered – what made the painting Goya’s – was the pervasive unreality of the set-up, swallowing the world of objects and persons no sooner than it conjured them up.

I realise that I haven’t put my finger on what produced the feeling of unreality, and I’m not sure I can. I know there are dangers in trusting the feeling at all. Anyone looking at Goya’s portraits can’t avoid seeing them against the background of the Caprichos and Black Paintings and the unbearable private albums, some drawn, some etched and aquatinted, dwelling on torment and degeneracy.

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