Goya portraits -an exhibition at the National Gallery

Another very expensive exhibition. We paid £14 concession price. Seeing that this was sponsored by Credit Suisse, the Giacometti exhibition by Merrill Lynch and that the Ai Wei Wei show was not only supported by jeweller-to-the-utterly-wealthy David Morris and by the mighty Lisson Gallery but also by a Kickstarter campaign that raised £123,000 just to bring the tree sculpture to London, you would think that some consideration could be given to making the ticket prices more affordable.

Entering the Sainsbury Wing at the National Gallery has the feel of an airport check-in point – large hanger like space, bag search, big, big shop to one side and a long desk with queues to check in – your coats.

After that the descent to the exhibition was something magical, with a very large print of one of the portraits hanging at the bottom of the majestic grey and dark grey staircase. It made a spectacular and enticing first view. At the bottom of the stairs and on turning right the scene changed into one of a kind of genteel mayhem. Lots of middle aged to ancient people shuffling around, with staff amongst them waving audio guide equipment in the air. If they went for the audio guide they had to fork out another £4 (£3.50 concessions). That’s a disgrace but a lot of people went for them.

It got a lot worse. In the first room the crowd looked as if they were part of the rush hour scene on the underground. Or a sort of third-age rugby scrum. This was at 10.30am. You could see some people stretching their necks trying to see the bottom half of the paintings.  One plunges in and gently nudges neighbours out of the way and by body language suggests it might be ones turn to stand nearer the art. This is most infuriating when the person or people in question are standing there reading the catalogue and/or listening to the audio guide and not looking up at the painting. This situation eases as you go round but the initial impression does not set one up psychologically for contemplating some great paintings.

And there are great paintings here. There are quite a few that are not great paintings. Goya seems to have struggled a great deal with drawing the human figure. In many of these earlier court paintings there is a stiffness, an unreality and wooden doll-like feel to the people depicted. I do not believe this was intentional. There is also a sense of some of them being cartoons – in the sense of comic drawings, with the attempt at reality tried and ditched. They have the feel of diagrams of reality, not the thing itself. There seems to be no light in these paintings. I can see Goya at this time as a professional artist doing his level best to treat the clients to wonderful images of themselves but in many cases it seems too much for him. He gets away with some by the skin of his teeth. The large commissions suffer most from this, especially those of the aristocrats and royalty. When he gets to lesser mortals the pressure seems to be off and the paintings start to live. Even in some of these the drawing is awful. One man sits with what look like a pair of legs from another, smaller painting.

Hidden among these images are intimations of what is to come in other kinds of works – there are terrifying cats and there are landscapes, seemingly innocent enough with a daft king in front of them, but which will transform into the nightmare country that witches fly over.

There are a lot of these pictures which I admit are of great interest, but no more than that. But as we go on, some of the smaller more intimate paintings catch ones eye and take ones breath away.

The portrait of Bernardo de Iriarte suddenly looks out at the viewer with a look of both intelligence but also somewhere of deep fear, even terror. He seems to have something to say but is stuck in this terrible black silence. The contrast between his figure and the blank black background is highly dramatic and deeply mysterious. This one made me feel, as other great paintings do, slightly dizzy and off balance. Looking closely, the painting is surprisingly crude (as are others in these later images). His wig has no form at all, just a slab of grey paint. But it doesn’t need anything more, it is all the image requires.

Then they come. Peral,1798, Villaneuve 1805, Vilella 1815, de Rojas 1800-15, Zarata 1805. These simple images from around 1798 onwards are extremely powerful. The painting is again just much as is needed, no more. They look like some kind of dark playing cards where the people at first glance look flat but then they wink at you, move and come to life, emerging from densely applied oil paint. He manages the magical trick of making an image look painted, leaving one aware of the physical paint, but also utterly real at the same time, so one keeps shifting ones perception from the abstract to the reality. It discombobulates one and opens ones perceptions to another entire, created world. And what indefinable magic they have. These images seem to contain a high tension. It is not only the implied existential situation of the sitters but the amazing shift that comes from this feeling of oil paint transforming itself before ones eyes into an illusion of complete and profound reality. And in spite of all this life there is a silence in these images which would lead one to them to look again and again and never get to the bottom of their mystery.

The late portraits carry on this to the end. There is one at the very end – of Morotin from 1824 – which looks astonishingly as if it had been painted by Picasso in his blue period around 80 years later. The same colour and tones, the same kind of application, the same kind of drawing. The same mood.

On exiting from this dream world we found that they had gone cheap on the souvenirs. Only a few postcards, nearly all from the NG’s existing stock of Duke of Wellingtons and a witch scene that wasn’t in the show. And the expected weighty catalogue was available, going for £35 hardback, £19 paperback. The free handout was very poorly illustrated with black and white pictures of paintings and drawings not in the exhibition. Surely a good catalogue can be produced at half these prices.

Apart from the crowded rooms, I also felt that in some rooms they had rather crowed the images (as they did in the Rembrandt exhibition of a year or so ago). They insist on putting four paintings on a wall when three would have worked much better. Three is always better – it’s a mystery, but there it is. The rooms were well painted in sombre colours that changed subtly as one went round. The lighting very good.  It was obviously not possible to do anything about the frames. These were often appropriately over-the-top, but in many cases quite subdued and one could ignore them, which is what we should be able to do with frames.

It’s hard to know what to do about the crowds at these shows (of which one is a part of course). They make it quite impossible to give the work the attention it deserves. Playing with the timing doesn’t seem to work these days. So one comes out with a set of fleeting sensations as if the pictures had been presented in some flickering slide show. But even with that said, it was worth going to see this tremendous collection of some of Goya;s finest paintings.