If it's a truism that art reflects the surroundings and the time that it's made, there's another accompanying truth equally durable: All artists have to navigate in the surroundings they work in. Da Vinci could schmooze wealthy patrons, and Michelangelo had no talent for it. Pollock's exposed-nerve personality kept him from the public eye, but Warhol — ever-present yet supremely aloof — attracted the glitterati and the curious like moths to a flame.
The new show at the Norton Simon Museum by Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, "Unflinching Vision: Goya's Rare Prints," shows Spain's art colossus to be a supreme technician with an appetite for exploring different media, but reminds us that he walked a very fine civic line.
Goya (1746-1828) was the favored court painter to no less than three different Spanish kings and many other royals. Yet he could mock and poke fun of them in his work — even to the point of making one monarch look like a baker who'd just won the lottery. Were he around in 20th century America, Goya surely would have excelled at the schoolyard game of "the dozens," where successive insults become successively more personal. The trick, of course, is to verbally wound — but just short of physical provocation.
The seven groupings of 80 pieces (dry points, etchings and lithographs) range from tentative character studies to keen-eyed commentary to raucous depictions. They include working proofs, trial proofs and published prints. Some of Goya's most incisive series are partially represented: "The Caprichios" and "The Disasters of War." The former skewer the follies and failings of his fellow Spaniards, while the latter decry the savage nature of war — presaging by a century the horrific drawings of Weimar Germany's famine by Käthe Kollwitz.
The show's curator, Leah Lembeck, sees Goya's unwillingness to idealize his subjects and life around him as groundbreaking. "For me," she says, "modernism begins with Goya. Manet and the later French Impressionists all studied him closely because they appreciated the way he looked at the world; he was a realist. He was very attuned to his society."
"He was born at the twilight of the Enlightenment," she continues. "Goya lived through the Napoleonic War and the Spanish Inquisition: He saw a lot of greed, superstition, and government overreach. But there's very little superficiality in his subject matter and his style is very straightforward."
A suite of Goya's bullfight etchings illustrates his divergent viewpoints: A brave torero faces a charging beast while sitting on a chair in one, and an enraged bull jumps over the ring, goring a dignitary in another. "His view of life was very complex," Lembeck says. "A new king had reinstated bullfighting and Goya saw in it a uniquely Spanish tradition, yet it was never far from danger or tragedy. That's his modern sensibility: He was very sincere and honest about his time."
An accompanying painted portrait is on loan from New York's Frick Collection in the Simon's permanent gallery. "Don Pedro, Duque de Osuna" is of a patron and friend of Goya. His slightly doughy face is well modulated and he has a satisfied gaze. Narrow of shoulder and expansive of waist, his figure is rendered in forgiving, softer brushwork. Goya painted him several times, as well as his wife; he clearly liked Osuna and it shows. But the grotesques who inhabit his "Family of Charles IV" (1800) portrait (not at the Simon), show that it just as easily could have gone the other way.
Our own society is so permissive that we sometimes lose historic and world perspective. In another time and place, Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ" (a photograph of a crucifix drenched in urine) would have earned him a date with a firing squad. Instead, he was hailed by the art establishment as a bold innovator. Goya received a summons from the Spanish Inquisition for his shockingly candid "Naked Maja" painting, but that's as far as it went. One artist works with no fear of reprisal, while the other put his life on the line. It's clear who had more guts.
Where: Norton Simon Museum, 411 W. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena
When: Through March 3, 2014. Closed Tuesdays.
More info: (626) 449-6840, www.nortonsimon.org
KIRK SILSBEE writes about jazz and culture for Marquee.