Royal portraitist, war documentarian, tireless connoisseur of sleeping women and rampaging bulls--Francisco Goya y Lucientes wore many hats during his illustrious artistic career, and none was dull. In light of that, it's a genuine shame that Evan S. Connell's A Life somehow manages to explore everything--and everyone--but Goya himself. With more invested in the activities and liaisons of Goya's distinguished portrait sitters than anything else, Connell skips haphazardly from topic to topic, frequently abandoning thoughts mid-sentence, with an annoying "but we'll get back to that" style. Without prior knowledge of Goya's extensive catalog, readers will gain little from Connell's opening characterization of Duchess la Alba, the artist's rumored paramour, or his tendency to digress about other collaborators and companions. Offering scant insight about Goya's personal history, and rarely shedding light on the painter's work, Connell's slim "biography" adds little to the artist's already massive mythos.
Luckily, Goya enthusiasts can get an infinitely more satisfying fix from Robert Hughes' Goya, out now from Knopf. By liberally snipping quotes from Goya's letters to Martín Zapater, the artist's friend since childhood, and juxtaposing narrative with insightful critiques, Hughes moves seamlessly between critical analysis, entertaining anecdotes, and Spanish flavor--a talent that Connell has yet to master. Beautiful, full-color reproductions of many works elegantly complement the text--a must, given Hughes' penetrating descriptions of the artistic developments, personal circumstances, and historical underpinnings that surround each piece.
A section in Hughes' text on still lifes, or bodegones, is particularly intriguing, given Goya's reputation for rendering human subjects. Hughes compares the artist's rigor mortis-ridden approach to dead chickens and turkeys to the "elaborated air" of his contemporary Luis Meléndez's work, and draws parallels to Goya's figural compositions. There's also a rich examination of Goya's fascination with that most Spanish of pastimes, bullfighting. Hughes' in-depth look at the multiplate masterpiece La Tauromaquia captures Goya's respect and admiration for the sport, while recognizing that bullfighting was Spain's pop culture during the 1800s, providing heroes who were just as iconic as the Beatles. Hughes shines here, discussing individual plates with a blow-by-blow attention to detail, and emphasizing Goya's uncanny talent for capturing kinetic energy, so rarely seen in his portraiture.
Upon reaching his subject's inevitable physical decline and death, Hughes sees Goya off with respect and scrupulous attention to the haunting black chalk drawings that dominated his final years--a sharp contrast to Connell's morbid fascination with the particulars of the will and cursory references to Goya's last artistic hurrahs. The hands-down winner in this bullfight, Hughes' Goya manages reverence without romanticism, combining fannish ardor and scholarly objectivity with a zest that Connell can only aspire to.