If you can’t make it to London to see Goya: The Portraits then Goya – Visions of flesh and blood brings the National Gallery’s exhibition to your local cinema. Of course it is not the same as studying the paintings yourself, but the feature length film brings some extra dimensions. It includes key masterpieces not included in the exhibition such as Goya’s chaotic Italian Sketchbook and and The Family of Carlos IV from the Prado. Experts and curators analyse the pictures and the artist’s life so the film is a valuable complementary experience to visiting the exhibition. It’s well worth watching before heading to the National Gallery to get an understanding of Goya’s life and artistic practice.
The film is part of the Exhibition on Screen series which brings the world’s biggest art exhibitions to global audiences. By the end of 2015, over 640,000 people will have seen one of their films, allowing viewers to enjoy top quality art from the comfort of their local cinema. The documentary doesn’t stay within the dark galleries of the National Gallery but also takes the viewer out on location in the UK, the USA and key Goya-related sites in Spain including the beautiful countryside of Seville and the grand chapels and royal palaces of Madrid. A helpful smattering of Spanish history is included, along with shots from within the Prado itself. A sequence of contemporary bull-fighting isn’t needed.
Reconstructions in documentaries are often suspect and here there are too many. An actor plays Goya, speaking his words in English with a heavy Spanish accent. Presumably this is supposed to add atmosphere, but actually it adds nothing but a difficulty to understand what is being said. Goya wouldn’t have spoken in perfect English, but he wouldn’t have spoken in English at all. The film makers should have used Spanish with English subtitles or straightforward English. We know Goya was Spanish, there is no need for accents and period costume. Get us to the facts! The best moments are the interviews with major players in the Goya world including Gabriele Finaldi, Director of The National Gallery and lead curator Xavier Bray, the Chief Curator of the Dulwich Picture Gallery. They and others bring insights to the paintings, although some of the opinions offered are frankly pure conjecture.
Goya’s first portrait is pooh-poohed slightly, but otherwise we are in hagiography territory. Be careful not to leave the cinema believing that Goya was the greatest artist who ever lived, or that he only painted portraits. Suffice to say he was an important Spanish artist and his oeuvre contains a lot more than just portraits of the wealthy.
Exhibition on Screen will follow this film with a documentary focusing on Renoir at the Barnes Collection in Philadelphia and coverage of Paintjng the Modern Garden from the Royal Academy. Both sound crackers (in the sense of a thing or person of notable qualities or abilities rather than afflicted with or exhibiting irrationality and mental unsoundness or even a thin crisp biscuit, usually unsweetened) so I’d advise two more trips to the cinema. Hopefully there will be fewer reconstructions of Renoir daydreaming and Monet planting water-lilies .