Goya & Gillray – etchings exhibition

by Margaux Williamson

Francisco Goya

On most mornings, for the last few months, I’ve had the good fortune of having to walk through an exhibit of Goya etchings to get to where I was working. As I pass through, I think, “Goya”.

There are no other painters that I’ve been so consistently sympathetically in love with (or in love with at all). If anyone ever asks what painters I like, I think “Goya” while thinking to remember, before I speak, if I’ve learned anything more about the world since I was 15.

I finally took the exhibition in more carefully and slowly last week before it closed. It was at The Art Gallery of Ontario and was curated by Brenda Rix. The exhibit combined prints of Goya’s with prints of Gillray (who was doing similar political etchings around the same time in England while Goya was in Spain). I had somehow managed to completely ignore the Gillray prints for two months.

As I walked around the exhibition last week, after my lunch, lingering over the nightmarish Goya etchings with warm feelings, I was pretty surprised that I had trouble looking at the Gillray prints without wanting to throw up.

Art (and its very often revolting subject matter) very rarely makes me want to throw up so I was pretty curious about my genuine physical trouble focusing on Gillray’s prints. It was interesting to think of these two artists together, drawing such different feelings in the way-future audience, these two artists who were both sort of doing the same thing – using humour and metaphors and satire to talk about those who abuse power, probably both with earnest intentions.

It’s been in my head since last week – what was so different between these two men from similar times with similar subject matter and medium. It reduced me to thinking about the differences between the different kinds of lines they made – something I never think about. I thought of Goya’s lines – the consistency of regret and empathy that maybe he couldn’t help but to include (or wouldn’t know why not to) in every mark he made. Is that possible? these empathetic and regretful lines that make up both the villains and victims of the usual human tragedies? the impossibly frustrating (therefore hopeful) harmony between Goya, villain and victim.

Maybe it’s the opposite in the Gillray prints that made me feel sick – a thousand times sicker than the nightmares that came out of Goya’s time and imagination. Is there really such a remove and hatred inherent in Gillray’s marks? A cloud of his vision that he intended (or couldn’t help) – a remove and hatred for the villains and victims he depicted in his etchings? The characters that are more like lunatics from the other side of the moon – etched with professional consistency from the left side of the page to the right with no space in between.

It made me think more about why Goya’s nightmares (or daily perspective) are so strangely comforting. Nightmares can last for a surprisingly long time and it is always a little bit of a confusion what our horrible role in them is – the audience, the artist, the victim, the villain. I guess it is reassuring to think that someone like Goya would be there (is there), alongside, trying earnestly to make some gentle sense of it.


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Filed under comedy, margaux williamson, visual art