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The Hughes report

Roberta sees a talk by writer Robert Hughes, author of "Goya," a new biography of the 18th Century master. Hughes calls Goya a modernist and says all artists today much know his work.

A dramatic painting by Francisco Goya shows a man wearing a white shirt and yellow paints with his hands up in the air as he is about to be killed by a firing squad that is all around him.
Francisco Goya, The Third of May, 1814, oil on canvas, 106” x 137”, Collection of Museo del Prado, Madrid. Public Domain image

If you’re wondering about the Robert Hughes lecture the other night, it was great.

Steve and I met Libby and our friends Ava, Ann and Ed and we all enjoyed it. Libby may weigh in on the talk. Here’s my take.

The critic, who speaks with dramatic pauses and orotund elocution like Rumpole of the Bailey, presented Goya as a genius modernist. His talk reflected the book quite closely.

(The book, called “Goya,” which I’m about half-way through, is full of wonderful small anecdotes and occasional fiery prose — it’s a good read.)

“All modern paintings must be compared to Goya,” Hughes said at one point. “He’s unlike any artist alive.” Hughes said the artist, who died 175 years ago, has “a tremendous sense of style…and seems close to us.”

Goya’s focus on war and man’s inhumanity seems particularly apt these days, and Hughes, who showed lots of slides (although I wished they’d been a little larger and crisper) zeroed in on aspects of the famous “Third of May” painting which he called the first modern war picture.

Notice the soldiers, whom Hughes characterized as “machine-like in their mechanical precision.”

Hughes said that Picasso was “obsessed with “Third of May” and that “Guernica” was influenced by it.

A black and white image of Picasso's Guernica painting, which shows an abstracted and chaotic view of the Spanish Civil War
Guernica by Pablo Picasso. 1937. Oil on canvas. 349 cm × 776 cm. Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid. Fair Use under copyright law

He pointed to the luminous shirt of the victim in “Third of May” (a kind of holy light soon to be snuffed out and compared it to Picasso’s lightbulb and figure (bottom images, left and right) in “Guernica.”

Hughes said “[Goya] wasn’t an enlightenment guy — he was more modern than we know.”

Turning to our times, Hughes, who has lived in this country for thirty years, freely shared his own views about the current state of the war in Iraq in little asides he sprinkled into his talk.

He shared it with the right audience. Everyone in the almost full Irvine auditorium clapped after this comment:

“People don’t look for life truths from painting any more. You get that from photography and the media. That’s why Bush and company want to control the media. That’s why we have embedded reporters. People believe photography tells the truth.”