The Spanish artist Francisco de Goya (1746–1828) was fascinated with bullfighting, so much so that he once painted himself as a matador. Gazing at one of his bullfighting prints on display at the Milwaukee Art Museum, I imagine him sitting at a wooden table, enthusiastically scratching lines into a small copper plate through a black-painted background. When finished with the etching, he would have submerged the plate into an acid bath, burning his lines into the metal. Then the plate would be inked and used to create prints.
The set of 33 Goya prints included in the 1816 series La Tauromaquia (Bullfighting) is the highlight of MAM’s current exhibit, which is titled Daring Technique: Goya and the Art of Etching. Hung chronologically in a red room, the works begin with two prints whose titles leave little need for further description: “The Way in Which Ancient Spaniards Hunted Bulls on Horseback in the Open Country” and “Another Way of Hunting on Foot.”
Following those is an array of prints depicting scenes from the history of bullfighting. The matadors’ various tricks and stunts are depicted in illuminating detail. Each captures the moments before the bull’s death, yet none of the prints show a dead bull. In most of them, the bull has an expression of surprise. The works capture the dance of life and death.
While the focus of each print is finely observed, the spectators in the background are drawn more loosely. As I near the last few prints, I notice that the bull is fighting back. Print 32, “Two Groups of Picadors Pinned Down by a Single Bull,” typifies Goya’s style of dramatic composition. In the last print, “The Unfortunate Death of Pepe Illo in Madrid’s Plaza,” the bull wins, and we see the matador pinned and lifeless under the weight of two piercing horns.
In the adjoining gallery, painted a dark blue-green, are selections from two other series of prints, Los Caprichos (The Caprices) and Los Disparates (The Follies), both of which tiptoe the tightrope of sanity. Goya withdrew Los Caprichos — which he described as depicting “the common prejudices and deceitful practices which custom, ignorance or self-interest have made usual” — due to fear of the Inquisition. For the same reason, Los Disparates was not printed in Goya’s lifetime.
If La Tauromaquia is Goya as historical reporter, then the other two series are Goya as politically engaged and self-reflective. In a time when our society is grappling with the overlap of politics into our personal lives, works like “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” and “Simpleton” seem strikingly relevant.
Among the great artists, Goya is known as the extreme image-maker. Before going deaf at 47, he created scenes of peasant life, religious images and court paintings which, I would argue, were based mainly on observations. After losing his hearing, Goya seems to have developed the ability to conjure images in his mind. His painstaking efforts at learning to depict anatomy and personality by copying the great masters (especially Velázquez) informed his hand and imagination.
The Goya rooms at MAM are flanked by two galleries. The first shows the art of etching in Goya’s time, with examples from such artists as Rembrandt and Delacroix. The last gallery features prints by two artists greatly influenced by Goya, Manet and Picasso.
All of Goya’s prints in this show used a new aquatint/etching combo, except for two. One is an earlier work created when Goya was 32, copied after the Velazquez painting “Aesop.” It’s a pure etching — only lines were used to create form and value. The other, “Because She was Susceptible,” is a pure aquatint, which employs acid to etch tonal areas of gradation on the plate. It’s wonderful to see these two works, giving us a view into how — by adding aquatint to etching — Goya went from mono to stereo recording.
Thus MAM offers a rare glimpse into how new and daring techniques allowed Goya to achieve another level of visual and psychological intensity.
Daring Technique: Goya and the Art of Etching is on display through Sept. 9 at the Milwaukee Art Museum's Bradley Family Gallery.