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March 28 2012

Season of revolution: Goya's The Third of May, 1808

In Jonathan Jones's latest daily selection of artworks that capture the essence of spring, Goya reminds us that it's a season of rebirth not only for flowers but for nations

December 19 2011

Dashing through the snow: Francisco de Goya's Snowstorm (La Nevada)

In the latest of his series of favourite wintry artworks, Jonathan Jones admires the compassion and elegance of Goya's Snowstorm, an oil-painted paean to Spain's heroic underclass

September 20 2011

X-ray vision reveals secret Goya

Earlier work found under artist's 1823 portrait of Madrid judge Don Ramón Satué may depict Napoleon Bonaparte's brother

• Interactive: see how one portrait covered the other

Beneath a Goya masterpiece, a second, hidden painting by the Spanish painter has been discovered, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has announced.

New technology has brought the image to light for the first time since Goya painted over it, apparently for political reasons.

Curators were aware of something beneath the surface of Goya's powerful 1823 portrait of Don Ramón Satué, a judge in the supreme court in Madrid, but it was so faint they could not decipher details, let alone the composition.

High-intensity x-ray technology developed by Joris Dik of Delft University and Koen Janssens of Antwerp University means that the painting can be seen for the first time in great detail. It is thought to be of a French general or even Joseph Bonaparte, who was briefly king of Spain and brother of Napoleon. Everything from the brushwork to the precise medals worn on the sitter's uniform can be seen.

Dik told the Guardian the technology allowed his team "to visualise" a Goya painting that had not been seen before: "It is exciting." Scanning macro x-ray fluorescence spectrometry technology – in which fluorescent x-rays map the picture's pigments to create a colour image of it – was first tried out two years ago on a Van Gogh painting. It revealed his previously unknown portrait of a peasant woman, which the artist painted over with the 1887 work Patch of Grass.

This time, however, thetechnology has been developed further in a mobile version that can be used in museums on paintings that are too delicate to be moved.

The potential for uncovering unknown works of art is enormous as so many artists reused canvases, usually to save money or to conceal an earlier work with which they were dissatisfied.

Dik said the medals worn by the sitter can be identified as linked to an order created by Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon's brother, during his short reign as king of Spain, from 1808 to 1813.

The portrait probably dates from between 1809 and 1813. However, having a painting associated with Bonaparte after the Napoleonic forces had withdrawn from Spain would not have gone down well. Dik said: "Goya, we know, managed to survive both political situations – the transfer of Spain to the French and back to Spain … After 1820, [such a portrait] could have been dangerous. That's when we believe the portrait was overpainted with the figure we can see now, as that painting dates from 1823."

It was during the Napoleonic wars that Francisco de Goya (1746-1828) created masterpieces such as his Disasters of War etchings, in which he responded to the occupying French army's atrocities. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

February 14 2011

Awash with inspiration

Tate Britain's new show proves there's more to watercolours than pallid sunsets, but where are the happy amateurs?

Paint is basically coloured mud mixed with some sort of binder. Like cooking, it feels basic but the chemistry is complex. And like cooks, artists have very different attitudes to the stuff they use. Raid the fridge and make it up as you go along. Bung it on, straight out of the tube or the tin. Keep it fresh or cook it slow, get all fancy like Auguste Escoffier with lashings of cream, go molecular like Heston Blumenthal; play wild and counterintuitive, and be as magical as Ferran Adrià of El Bulli. Beware those artists too much into painting as fine dining.

You can make art out of anything. In the end you've either got it or you haven't. Technique will only get you so far, and Marshall McLuhan got it wrong: the medium is not the message. Watercolour, the subject of a new show at Tate Britain, is a great medium, but hey – compared to pokerwork or macramé, what isn't?

"Just add water," quips the catalogue. Just add an idea, and talent, is more like it. Watercolour – let's call it WC for short – is undoubtedly going to be a popular show. It is populist, at least. Prince Charles does it, Queen Victoria did it, medieval monks did it, botanists and naturalists do it, cartographers and war artists and thousands upon thousands – perhaps millions – of amateur artists are at it, too.

But watercolour has connotations: pallid things hanging in the parlour, amateur-hour sunsets, wintry reed-beds in a fenland dawn. As well as being relatively mess-free (unless you are me), it doesn't require much space or expense, and you can even do it outdoors. People like the paraphernalia too: the tin boxes with their shallow pans for mixing colour, the dinky tubes and little blocks of paint, the sable brushes and the nice papers, and a handy satchel and a stool to sit on. The Tate Britain show has lots of vitrines filled with watercolour materials, mullers for grinding your own, splattery old rusty paintboxes, JMW Turner's lucky painting towel (or somesuch), Queen Victoria's monogrammed tote bag. And some quite flagrant product-placement from artists' materials manufacturer Winsor & Newton. They are even selling watercolour kits in the gallery shop. Is this the shape of exhibitions to come, in these straitened times? Much of the art, too, comes from the Tate, the V&A, and other national collections. We are paying to see a lot of stuff we already own but, of course, you would never see it all together, and watercolours, in any case, are fragile things, and demand strict lighting conditions and controlled humidity levels. So, dear reader, do I.

But as soon as you start it can all get horribly painful. That isn't some nifty new wet-into-wet technique you're looking at, they're tears. You've got all the gear, but no idea. And this is why TV programmes such as Watercolour Challenge are so popular: it wasn't the joys of the medium that viewers loved to watch, it was the angst.

For all its associations in the British mind, watercolour can be as full-on, as detailed, as direct, as controlled and as free as any other medium. At its best it can be like painting with nothing, with vapour, with the body's secretions. My joke about tears was really no joke. There are Turners here that look like nothing more than a few casual brush-wipings as much as they do boats and weather, and others – a battle in an Alpine pass, for example – so detailed they must have taken weeks.

But time, effort and serious subject matter are no guarantee of anything. All those wretched Burne-Jones pictures, all those works illustrating method, all those old mills and Kentish hop gardens. The Tate show plays fast and loose with definitions of what watercolour is. Is a tempera and gold, 13th-century illuminated manuscript on vellum really a watercolour? Or a tinted, coloured-in map of the British Isles? When we come to recent art, things go completely out of whack. Twigs painted in enamel and gouache by Hayley Tompkins? An opaque, clotted canvas by Neal Tait? Watercolour here is the last thing on my mind. But the show does end wonderfully with Karla Black's Opportunities for Girls, a great crumpled swag of cellophane slung like a mad hammock from thread. It looks like a housepainter's discarded polythene sheet, covered with pink emulsion, slathered with Vaseline, shampoo, hair gel and toothpaste, some of which resists the paint applied over it. The whole thing is reminiscent of watercolour's effects – the translucency, the broken brushstrokes, the way that light passes through it.

The late Sandra Blow's canvas is a ghastly minor painting done big. If the show intended to nod at the kinds of abstraction influenced by American painting of the 1960s (Morris Louis, Helen Frankenthaler and others painted on canvas with acrylics in a way that seemed to up the ante of the watercolour tradition), why not chose a late 60s John Hoyland, a 70s Bert Irvin or a recent John McLean rather than this dreary thing? I am sure Tracey Emin is here because of her name, but there is a great group of watercolour and ink drawings by Lucia Nogueira – who understood how to use tentativeness as a positive quality, as well as full-on emphatic colour against the whiteness of the paper – and a group of Callum Innes works that are to do with veiling, and the way layering of colour affects the luminosity of watercolours, which all depend on how light passes through the paint and is reflected back at us.

A macaque, drawn by an anonymous 19th-century Cantonese artist, is one of the most beautiful and alive things here. The wide-eyed monkey stares back at us, as puzzled and curious as we are of it. William MacGillivray's osprey is an ornithological marvel (the artist collaborated with wildlife artist John James Audubon), but lacks any of the liveliness of the monkey. There's a lot of boring botany, and Welsh landscapes that look like the Middle East, and topographic views of the Middle East that might as well be Wales. The whole show maunders on in fits and starts. It is good to see neo-romantic works by the likes of Eric Ravilious and John Piper, but they are not as good or individual as Edward Burra or Paul Nash.

Watercolour – for its portability, its speed, its range as a medium – was, and in part still is, a useful tool for the war artist. The camera doesn't always win. Royal Engineer and amateur artist Eric Taylor's watercolour Human Wreckage at Belsen Concentration Camp is unsettling not only because of what it depicts (piles of the dead and dying), but because it is such a wretched record of such a wretched subject. His little painting is very moving, in a way that says as much about the artist being overwhelmed by what he saw. You need to be a Goya, who wrote on one of his Disasters of War etchings "I saw this".

A French soldier eviscerated by a sabre at the battle of Waterloo, with a great ball of entrails seething from his stomach, by surgeon Charles Bell, who reworked a drawing after the battle in 1815 is a frightening, horrible image. The surgical portraits of soldiers with awful facial wounds incurred in the trenches of the first world war, recording their wounds and the pioneering attempts at facial reconstruction, never lose sight of the humanity of their subjects. Weirdly, the thinness of the paint really helps. None of these images are about the best way to do running water, or mist on the mountain, or fronds of weeping willow.

Celebrating a medium seems such an odd thing to do nowadays. What this show needed was someone like Jeremy Deller to investigate and compile a folk archive of the amateur watercolour, and how it relates to so-called serious art. Amateurs are serious, too. Some professionals are too serious for their own good.

Watercolour is at Tate Britain, London SW1, 16 February to 21 August. Details: 020-7887 8888. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 13 2010

EM Forster's work tailed off once he finally had sex. Better that than a life of despair | Sam Leith

Why didn't EM Forster write much of anything in the second half of his life? According to a new biographer, Wendy Moffat, who has had access to Forster's private papers, what knocked him off song was losing his virginity in his late 30s.

He slept with a wounded soldier in Egypt, in 1917 – "losing R [respectability]" he called it in his private diary. After that, he set about making up for lost time. "I should have been a more famous writer if I had written or rather published more," he later explained, "but sex prevented the latter."

Maurice – his one novel to deal head-on with homosexuality – was written some years previously, though it was published only after his death. It wasn't, if you ask me, much good: he was too much invested; the ironic distance of his voice collapsed and it ended up being Lawrentian in the worst way.

The suggestion is that loneliness and frustration were what made Forster productive. Once he had occasion to cheer up – to live, rather than make art out of his misery – he couldn't see the point. Grain of sand removed, in other words, he became a happy oyster.

The poet John Berryman once told an interviewer: "I do strongly feel that among the greatest pieces of luck for high achievement is ordeal. Certain great artists can make out without it, Titian and others, but mostly you need ordeal. My idea is this: the artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him. At that point, he's in business: Beethoven's deafness, Goya's deafness, Milton's blindness, that kind of thing."

For the future of his own poetry, Berryman said he counted on "being knocked in the face, and thrown flat, and given cancer, and all kinds of other things short of senile dementia. At that point, I'm out, but short of that, I don't know. I hope to be nearly crucified."

This is what Sylvia Plath was getting at, too, more concisely and with less ironic humour, when she wrote: "The blood jet is poetry." It's what Auden was getting at when he wrote of Yeats: "Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry." And it's what Yeats was getting at when he said: "The intellect of man is forced to choose/ Perfection of the life, or of the work/ And if it take the second must refuse/ A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark."

It rings through the ages, this idea: the old connection between art and torment. It's a poisonous creed. It's also bullshit. It may be true, but it's adolescent bullshit all the same. And yet its grip holds. The miserablists have Milton, Goya, Rimbaud, Van Gogh, Hart Crane, Fitzgerald, Pollock, Bishop, Woolf, Plath and on, ad infinitum. The happyists have PG Wodehouse and VS Pritchett. Case, apparently, closed.

But how much of an egomaniac must you be to choose distinction over happiness, fame over love, making your own monument over doing right here? I gave three cheers for the acclaimed Spanish chef Ferran Adrià when he recently announced he'd be closing his restaurant El Bulli; even if it is, by general consensus, the best restaurant on the face of the planet, he'd rather spend some time having a happy life.

Henry Green, author of Loving and Party Going, got it right. Asked what drove him to write, he said his motivation was to make enough money so that he would never have to leave his hometown, then eventually never have to leave his house, except perhaps to go to the pub. Once he was rich enough not to have to leave his bed, he'd give up.

Given a choice – and not all these artists had one – the decision between perfection of life or work should be no decision at all. Only an idiot would choose raging in the dark over, say, pottering around the garden in the light. If you think art is more important than life, you need your head read. The reason the best art is so moving is that its authors had no choice: they went howling to it. Berryman got what he wished for, and then some. He killed himself, jumping from a bridge in Minneapolis on to a frozen lake. He left a young daughter. Witnesses say he waved before he went.

Nobody should have to write, or paint, or sing from the depths of despair, no matter how exhilarating the results. I'm sorry we never got to read Forster's unwritten novels, but I'm much happier he got laid. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

May 14 2010

Royal Academy to exhibit Hungary's art treasures

Masterpieces that have never been loaned before to go on show in London this autumn

Masterpieces from one of central Europe's finest state collections – many of which have never before been on loan – are to fill a rather large hole in the Royal Academy's autumn schedule, it was announced yesterday. The works being lent by Hungary's Museum of Fine Arts and its National Gallery represent a who's who of art history.

The dazzling list of artists includes Claude, El Greco, Gauguin, Goya, Leonardo, Manet, Monet, Picasso, Pissarro, Raphael, Rembrandt, Rubens, Schiele and Veronese.

Details of the Treasures From Budapest show were revealed in London yesterday, five months after the Prince of Liechtenstein abruptly cancelled the planned RA autumn show because of a row with customs and excise. The academy's director of exhibitions, Kathleen Soriano, admitted she had been forced to bring forward plans for the Budapest show but said she believed audiences would be surprised and delighted by its unprecedented scale.

David Ekserdjian, one of the show's curators, said he and his colleagues had been like children in a sweet shop when they were selecting the works.

"It was a very collaborative process," he said. "What was quite amazing, having had slightly similar experiences in the past, was that when one said: 'Could I have one of those?' – and it might be a Leonardo drawing – the response was: 'Why don't you have two.' "

One Leonardo drawing in the show, Studies for the Heads of Two Soldiers in the Battle of Anghiari, was described by Ekserdjian as "one of the most important and spectacularly impressive Leonardo drawings in the world".

Curators say there will be a good mix of genres including religious, portraits, landscapes, impressionists and expressionists as well as strong representation from Hungarian artists such as Jacob Bogdani who, in his day, was extremely popular in England. His Still Life with Fruits, Parrots and White Cockatoo (c 1700-1724) features exotic birds he painted in an aviary owned by the Duke of Marlborough at Windsor.

The last ever portrait of Liszt, by Mihály Munkácsy, will also form part of the show ahead of the bicentennial of the composer's birth next year.

Other highlights include an evocative Goya painting of a female water carrier which for a long time was classed simply as a peasant genre painting but has, in fact, a far more important place in Spanish history. It was painted between 1808-1812, around the time of Napoleon's siege of Zaragoza, and represents sustenance for Spaniards fighting for their independence.

There will also be works that were once owned by the British. For example Cornelis van Poelenburgh's portrait of the children of the Elector Palatine Frederick V – known as the "winter king" – was owned by Charles I and has his crowned monogram on the reverse of the panel.

The show's opening work will be dramatic and monumental – the 4 metre high St Andrew Altarpiece, made in about 1512, which shows the outstanding levels of skill and sophistication in early Hungarian wood carving.

And the exhibition may finish with a rather racy Egon Schiele called Two Women Embracing. "It is a highly emotive and erotically charged drawing and a very powerful image," said co-curator Joanna Norman.

The autumn hole in the schedule was caused by the cancellation of a show of works owned by the Prince of Liechtenstein. It would have been one of the exhibitions of the year, with works by Rubens and Van Dyke, but it was pulled because the prince was upset that a Coello painting he bought three years ago was impounded by UK customs and excise.

The Budapest exhibition is not entirely without purpose from Hungary's perspective. The country takes up the EU presidency in 2011 and this show forms part of that drum-banging.

Hungary's state collection of international art was begun in the 17th century and expanded dramatically during the rule of Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy in the late 18th century.

Under communism, few westerners would have had any sort of access and even reproductions were rare, so many of the works on show will be new to British eyes.

Treasures from Budapest: European Masterpieces from Leonardo to Schiele at the RA, 25 September-12 December © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

April 14 2010

The bewitching of Salvator Rosa

The 17th-century master's painting seethes with demonic figures, but do they reflect his fear of witchcraft or simply a fascination with fear itself?

The first rays of morning touch distant clouds with orange and unfurl a pennant of blue sky above black hills. But that's it for light. In about 1646, the artist and poet Salvator Rosa made darkness visible. He gave physical form to the shadows of the night.

His painting Witches at Their Incantations, which hangs today in the National Gallery in London, portrays terrible things happening in the Italian countryside in the wee small hours. A skeletal monster that resembles a dinosaur skeleton (did he see fossilised giants in a cabinet of curiosities or embedded in a hillside?) rears up, animated, over horrid figures: a naked witch mixing vile soup, a knight with a flaming brand, a ghastly shrouded figure, a skeleton being made to sign a document, a hanged man.

Who are these people and why have they gathered here? It is a witches' sabbath, a black mass. This mythic event transfixed demonologists, prosecutors and witchfinders in 16th- and 17th-century Europe. It also haunted artists. Witchcraft is one of the great themes of Renaissance and baroque art, and even survives into the Romantic era in the works of Francisco de Goya. It's conventional and cosy to think of paintings by the old masters as glowing depictions of Greek and Roman myths. But European painting in its golden age was also alive to the coarser, nastier, more toxic literature of demonologists at a time when the continent was in the grip of a witch craze.

It seems that all the vile scenes emerging from the stygian gloom in Rosa's painting are materialisations of darkness itself. The work makes its emotional effect with colour – or rather, the denial of colour. It is a distillation of gloom. Apart from a few flashes of blue and red cloth and yellow flesh, the nocturnal revellers seem to be made of greyness. The deep dark of the night has taken them.

The painting is a thorough exploration of what the devil's followers supposedly got up to. And yet, it fascinates because it is so ambiguous. Is it really an expression of the belief in witches that still flourished in Europe in the 1640s, or is it a study of our imaginative faculty? If it's the latter – an acknowledgment of the power of the mind to produce monsters – then perhaps what we are seeing is the first rays of a more enlightened Europe. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

February 13 2010

'Less my hero than my love'

My hero is Goya – hard to explain when so little is known about him, his very few extant letters being so flat (like those of a cabinet-maker, someone said). And given a "fact", such as that he knew French, because he once signed a letter written in that language, it is promptly contradicted by an old friend of his who said he arrived in Bordeaux as an old man "without a word of French". But we do know that when near death he made the splendid statement: "And still I learn." And his work never ceases to demonstrate his loathing of cruelty and stupidity. Never does he romanticise horror, he is not frightened, he is disgusted almost (but, heroically, never quite) beyond expression. And when he loves – oh, the life quivering in his portraits of the doctor who saved him, his friends Sebastián Martínez and Tiburcio ­Pérez y Cuervo and, above all, in that exquisitely tender portrait of the young and pregnant Condesa de Chinchón, first caught by him as a charming child peeping out of a family group. When I think of that I have to say that perhaps he is less my hero than my love. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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