Sublime and Ridiculous – Art Exhibitions in London – Review


Francisco de Goya – The Family of the Infante Don Luis de Borbón – 1783-4 – Oil on canvas – 248 x 328 cm – Fondazione Magnani Rocca, Parma, Italy – 197 © Fondazione Magnani Rocca, Parma, Italy


Sublime and Ridiculous – Art Exhibitions in London – Review by Pat Levy

Goya: The Portraits – National Gallery London till January 10 2016.

The World Goes Pop – Tate Modern London till January 24 2016.

To those who recall Goya as the artist depicting the horrors of war and nightmarish visions this collection of portraits of the royals of 18th century Spain, his family and friends may come as a bit of a shock. Most artists considered portraits the bread-and-butter work which financed the grander stuff they really wanted to paint and this motive can be seen in the second portrait of the exhibition, The Count of Floridablanca (1783). Goya was finally elected to the Royal Academy in 1780 at the age of 34 and this painting is his first stab at impressing the royals, where the big money was. The count was the first minister of the Spanish government, the David Cameron of his day and Goya sucks up big time. The count dominates the canvas, shining out at us, surrounded by symbols of his power in the maps and charts and attendant flunkey behind him. In the background is a portrait of the king and the foreground shows a humbly dressed Goya waiting on Floridablanca’s approval.

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The Count of Floridablanca, 1783 by Goya. Photograph: © Colección Banco de España

But regard the face of the man. It seems empty, mannequin-like. Legend has it that Floridablanca never paid him for the work and you can perhaps see why. In the same room is The Family of the Infante Don Luis de Borbón (above) painted in the same period but displaying all the affection that the first painting lacked.

Instead of a formal posed portrait the family is shown gathered together and at leisure, the wife having her hair done, the kids up late, maidservants staring at the artist. Their faces show animation, interest, concern. It is almost as if Goya pulled out his smartphone and grabbed a shot in the middle of a family gathering. The work made Goya very successful, becoming court painter in 1789. In his letters he rejoices that he can now keep customers waiting rather than going cap in hand after commissions.

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Francisco de Goya – 1792-5 –  Self Portrait Before an Easel – Oil on canvas 42 x 28 cm
© Museo de la Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Madrid

There are 71 portraits in the exhibition, way too many for one viewing to take in. Placed among them are some penetrating self-portraits, selfies showing the artist in all his overweight, ageing normality. The early paintings focus on details, an embroidered cuff, a draped mantilla, a shoe buckle. His portrait of Charles III in hunting dress makes the unfortunate monarch look like one of Monty Python’s upper class twits. Unsettling at times are the bodies that don’t quite sit on their chairs but seem suspended in an impossible position or the legs and arms that are out of proportion to the rest of the body. His later portraits show his admiration of Rembrandt – dark backgrounds highlight the emotions of faces, natural postures make his paintings more immediate, Look at The Duke of Wellington (1812) looking exhausted, unsure, or Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos (1798) weighed down by the work he undertakes.

Goya 2

Francisco de Goya (1786-88) – Charles III in Hunting Dress – Oil on canvas 210 x  127cm
© Duquesa del Arco

As always with these seminal exhibitions the crowds make a close perusal difficult. Go early, locate the benches and take breaks, grab the free booklet and read it first, book tickets in advance.

In contrast to the crowds at the National Gallery The World Goes Pop at the Tate Modern draws a smaller, less intense set of viewers. People stroll by the exhibits rather than gaze at the brushwork which it has to be said is in rather short supply. The male dominated, Anglo American pop art we are familiar with in Lichtenstein or Warhol used mass culture and banal everyday objects to portray the power and influence of the new consumer culture. This exhibition which focusses on pop art from around the world shows it reinterpreting the mass production, colour technology and shopping culture that was emerging in the ‘60s to comment on political issues such as censorship, women’s rights, war, American imperialism and more. The curators sought out works in particular by women artists, some of which had to be reassembled or completed for this exhibition, being ignored by the world’s art critics at the time.

ValentineEve Lyne Axell – Valentine – 1966 – Collection of Philippe Axell – Photo: Paul Louis © Evelyne Axell/DACS 2015

There are some eye grabbing pieces here. Ushio Shinohara’s 1966 Doll Festival uses the bright cartoonish style of pop art and mixes it with Japanese traditional style and myth, a comment on the way American culture has invaded Japanese cultural values. In room 1 Valentine by Belgian artist Evelyne Axell uses plastic and found objects to conflate space exploration and the burgeoning sense of women’s sexual liberation. Judy Chicago’s car hoods painted in dayglow colours with cartoon female genitalia conflate the two male obsessions.

For me two artists in this exhibition stand out. Spanish artist Isabel Oliver’s Beauty Products, Happy Reunion and Surgery 1970-3, make simple statements about the social pressures on women but come close to the way classical art such as Goya’s can be returned to time and again for new insights. The more famous paintings American Interiors 1968 by Icelandic artist Erró bring a missing sense of humour to the gallery, depicting Viet Cong guerrillas invading complacent American domestic life.

American Interiors

Err Erro – American Interior #1 – 1968 – Museum moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien, Vienna – Photo: mumok © – Erró/Bildrecht Wien

The rest is a worthy set of ideas – the Vietnam war is really bad, women get exploited, men exist, nuclear bombs kill babies, dictatorships censor people’s lives, but it all seems dated somehow and a little simplistic in these days of international terror. One critic of the sixties describes pop art as disposable and it seems to me that some of the stuff here served its time and needs sticking in a cupboard somewhere. But what the exhibition did do for me was make me rethink all those Lichtensteins and Warhols and wonder really what all the fuss was about.



Goya The Portraits – Sainsbury Wing Exhibition, Daily 10.00-18.00, Fridays 10.00-21.00

Adult £16, Senior £14, unwaged, student under 12s £8


The World Goes Pop – The Eyal Ofer Galleries, Level 3 Tate Modern, Sunday-Thursday 10.00-18.00, Friday, Saturday 10.00-22.00

Adult £16.00 (without donation £14.50)

Concession £14.00 (without donation £12.



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