Goya: Visions of Flesh and Blood

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In my last review on Goya: The Portraits, I wished that I could visit these portraits again due to the sense of familiarity and intimacy that they provoked. Of course, I was lucky enough to do so in the first place in London, but not everyone is able to see the exhibition at least physically, whether this is due to geographical location, means or physical access. These are issues that are very close to me as a curating student: an exhibition, for me, should not feel menaced by the digital alternatives that we can use to reproduce it and open it up to an international audience. On the contrary, the exhibition space should provide as many opportunities as possible to collaborate with digital, immaterial initiatives that will not usurp the museum experience but democratize it. Many museums have already done so online. Recently, for example, the Musée du Luxembourg organized a live-stream of its exhibition on Fragonard for would-be visitors who could not see it in Paris. Other museums such as the Musée d’art moderne have created Google Streetview-like virtual walk-throughs of their displays once they closed for good. A third option is to think bigger – the cinema screen.

The initiative of Exhibition on Screen’s production “Goya: Visions of Flesh and Blood”, directed by Phil Grabsky, is to create a pendant to the Goya exhibition, without neccessarily seeing it as either a substitute. It seeks to avoid a methodical walk-through, and is its own standalone documentary on Goya as well as a guide to the temporary display currently on in London. This film launches the production’s third season, after successful previous projects with The National Gallery but also institutions such as The Royal Academy, The Van Gogh Museum and the Mauritshuis. The emphasis is usually on painterly, Old Master and Impressionist exhibitions that usually have great popular appeal. Their tagline itself is “EXHIBITION ON SCREEN brings blockbuster art exhibitions from galleries around the world to a cinema near you, in stunning high definition.” Exhibition on Screen is itself part of a larger scheme, Arts Alliance, which collaborates with venues such as the Royal Opera House to create live re-transmissions of ballet and opera. The masterful way in which the shows were filmed to create an intense and privileged experience for cinema viewers really stuck with me – and was part of the reason I was glad to become an ambassador for Arts Alliance to promote these events online but also react to future events and projects, such as the Goya film.

My previous review will give you an idea of just how enthralled I was by this exhibition so I was obviously excited for a chance to see it in a different format. Talking with spectators waiting with me in the Curzon Chelsea venue gave me a small idea of what their expectations were: it turns out that many were not seeing the film as an alternative but rather as a preview to seeing the real thing…or not. My seat neighbor already knew the Arts Alliance screenings well and preferred to trust what she knew before venturing out to Central London.

The film starts with a definite biographical feeling infused with the particular focus on portraiture and, above all else, Goya’s relation with people in general. It provided for me the exact same sense of what I found in the exhibition: the feeling that I was looking at a different side of Goya. The documentary mingles a variety of techniques to convey this and although they may sometimes clash strangely, the end result is successful. An actor for Goya looks out silently or writes while Goya’s voice reads out extracts from only a few of the letters in his extensive correspondence. However, Goya himself never speaks directly nor is there a sense of historical reconstruction…more of historical retracing. For instance, in order to address his childhood and personality as a countryman enjoying hunting, food and the simple things in life, easy to talk to and confide in, we are given shots of present-day Fuentetodos, his home town, complete with hunters, townfolk and street life. I’d argue that sometimes this visual illustration is a bit too literal and slightly confusing as it oscillates between contemporary Spain and Goya. Then again, it seems to emphasize the sense of authenticity and sincerity pervading the portraits and the feeling they not only encapsulate the character of Goya’s fellow citizens but also of current Spaniards – many people visiting the display with me found some uncanny resemblance with people they knew. Something that could have ended up as a bit contrived and stilted if it had been pushed too far became truly enjoyable and entertaining in revealing Goya’s bon vivant personality and his ambitious drive. Coming out of the exhibition, I felt as though I knew the portraits and their sitters. Coming out of the screening, I felt as though I knew Goya.

The interventions from scholars, curators and Xavier Bray, curator of the exhibition were well paced and managed to keep a very good rythm going, mingling passion and incisiveness by alternating voices and viewpoints. However, even though I enjoyed their interventions as an art historian I feel as though little visual touches in the film would have made some elements just a bit more accessible – for instance, when mentioning artists such as Velasquez, actually showing them on screen for people less acquainted with art history in general. However, their insight allowed for glimpses into gems that could never have been shown in the exhibition, such as a look at some on-site paintings in churches and a beautifully preserved sketchbook of Goya’s travelling in Italy. This was all the more heightened in juxtaposition with close-ups and presentation of the paintings which was very skillfully operated to allow more of this ‘intimate’ feeling you get when leaning in to take a closer look at an image in an exhibition.

Maybe the fact that some presentations of the portraits were so strong made me slightly frustrated that there were not more. I felt that the film slightly veered away from what had struck me so much in the exhibition, despite capturing its spirit of intimacy and sincerity. Although an emphasis was placed upon certain highlights in each room, and some of the display was shown, the actual sequence of works and succession of key points of the display was not very clear. I had particularly enjoyed the way in which the narrative went from regal portrayals to more intimate renditions of friends and family and would have liked that to be clearer. More of an emphasis was placed upon a comprehensive whole concerning the artist, which also included some of Goya’s darker works (The Black Paintings he executed at the end of his life for instance) but it was not clear in the film that these were definitely not a part of the exhibition. So I would have preferred a bit more substance related to the show – not only on more of the works themselves beyond the highlights but also how they came to be. A great example of this was the exploration of Goya’s passionate friendship with his best friend Martin Zapater explored in relation to his portrait of him, and I would have loved to see more of that same context and insight.

The film was a beautiful way of discovering another side to Goya. I would view it as a strong and vibrant companion and pendant to the exhibition, even though it could have benefited  a lot from showing some of the curatorial display and intent – maybe even some behind-the-scenes shots on conservation and installation. Obviously it’s always difficult to know to which extent that is possible: exhibition installations happen in a relatively short timespan and perhaps this would have been impossible to pull off time wise. Portraying an exhibition virtually is still in the realm of experimental and personal taste, and this was definitely a very interesting take on it. I should add that although I did not have any issue with the length, a few people had fidgety children and had to leave before the end – a sad loss in a room that already had a very small percentage of young children or even young adults. A few senior spectators also found the screening a bit long – yet their enthusiasm to go and see the exhibition was far from untarnished.

The film has been released in the UK since the 1st of December and its international release is due for the 9th of February. If you go and see it, wherever you are in the world, let me know what you think!

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