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T. J. Clark on Goya's portraits


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In the current issue of the London Review of Books, T. J. Clark assess the portraiture of Goya, suggesting that his portraits evoke an “unreality” that is a “form of truth-telling.” Here’s a snippet:

Where does Goya stand in this? Obviously I’m going to argue (I have already) that in front of his finest portraits the tightrope of claims just outlined tends to unravel. An unreality creeps up on us, or sometimes – I think of The Countess of Fernán Núñez, or even The Duchess of Alba – it stares us down and stamps its pretty feet. But again, what do I take the word ‘unreal’ to apply to? Unreality, given what Berger tells us (and our background reverence for Barthes’s ‘reality effect’), must be an effect – it must be a fiction, a production, with a material and ideological base. And clearly I want to value the unreality when I encounter it – I want to see it as a form of truth-telling (in particular circumstances) and an aesthetic triumph.

Take The Countess of Fernán Núñez. I shall not try the reader’s patience by spelling out the obvious: that never has a painting worked so hard to de-realise the setting and stance of its sitter (all three words here double back on themselves as we look at Núñez, and the association of the first with jewellery and gilt frames seems fitting), and yet never has the resultant dream world appeared so much the condition of a terrible intimacy. (My final phrase is overheated, I grant, but I can’t come up with anything cooler that strikes me as doing justice to the countess’s trapped coquettishness.) Of course the setting is a fable. The great tree trunk glowering and growling over the ground at left like a gathering storm; the cottonwool glacier of cloud to the right; the pointing toe on the edge of the precipice; the Jezebel halo of red and black against the tree; the level after level of rock and scorched grass going down to darkness; and the stiff cantilevered arms: everything here is absurd and momentary and touching, a tableau, a stage set, a false confession. And the falsity is its truth. It is what convinces the viewer (and doubtless this too is an effect) that the picture was born from deep collusion, from a true mutual acknowledgment of distance – immense, unbridgeable, guarded by rampart after rampart – but also sympathy. I take it that after a while we come to notice the square miniature on the countess’s breast, and assume that it is of her husband. His pendant portrait, insufferably cool, is directly across the room in the National Gallery’s show. Xavier Bray tells us that the count loved another woman (whom he took to London instead of his wife when he was made ambassador) and that the countess answered in kind. But we’d guess as much from what Goya has given us.

Image: Goya’s “The Countess of Fernán Núñez” (1803).