In a burst of curatorial inspiration, the Academy Art Museum is presenting The Caprichos: Goya and Lombardo, on view through February 25. The exhibit not only inaugurates the Museum’s new Artist-in-Residence program with Brooklyn printmaker and sculptor Emily Lombardo but also offers the rare chance to see a complete set of “Los Caprichos” by the famed Spanish artist Francisco Goya.
Pointedly taking on the traditional role of apprentice to the master, Lombardo set herself the daunting task of creating a set of 80 etchings, “The Caprichos,” matched one-on-one with the 80 in Goya’s series. On loan from the Art Gallery of Ontario, “Los Caprichos” is a dark, acerbic commentary on the follies and depravities of Spanish society of Goya’s day. Late in the 18th century when most artists were busy pleasing their aristocratic patrons, Goya made the radical move of creating art as social commentary. The new genre, aimed at raising social awareness, smoldered along for a while, then from the 1960s onward spread like wildfire through all the arts.
In “Los Caprichos,” Goya explored every human foible from vanity and lust to abuse of power and the pitfalls of superstition. There are salacious bridegrooms and their avaricious brides, nannies terrorizing children with blood-curdling tales, vain and pretentious aristocrats, and strange animals and hobgoblins torturing people in their dreams.
Francisco de Goya, Fran[cis].co Goya y Lucientes, Pintor, Plate I from “Los Caprichos”, 1799, Art Gallery of Ontario, Gift of Joey and Toby Tanenbaum, 1999.
Emily Lombardo, Emily Lombardo Printer, Plate I from “The Caprichos,” 2013, Etching and aquatint, Academy Art Museum, 2016.
Lombardo’s version is equally as dark as she explores a dizzying variety of issues. Far from getting bogged down in this enormous task, she approached it as an opportunity to develop an extraordinary range of cultural and personal commentary. Basing her compositions more or less on Goya’s, she put a contemporary spin on some of the very same issues, including the cultural norms of marriage, child-rearing, fame, and politics (Trump appears three times). With others, she makes broader leaps referencing the ever-present dangers of long-range missiles and nuclear war, the aggrandizement of celebrities, the Ku Klux Klan, and specifics such as the use of animals in scientific experiments, the vacuous nature of the art market, and the politics of gender in restroom use.
Given that there are 160 etchings in the exhibit, each with its own caption, it takes quite a lot of work to view and digest this show, but the art is fascinating and highly entertaining. And it’s amusing (or telling) to realize partway into it that both artists are manipulating a favorite human pastime. By nature, we love to gossip and gripe about the failings of our fellow humans.
Francisco De Goya, Spanish, 1746–1828 Might not the pupil know more? Plate 37 from “Los Caprichos,” 1799, Art Gallery of Ontario, Gift of Joey and Toby Tanenbaum, 1999.
Emily Lombardo Does the pupil know more? Plate 37 from “The Caprichos,” Academy Art Museum, 2016.
We know perfectly well that gossiping is a bad habit, but these two artists turn this guilty pleasure on its ear with their unflinching cataloguing of the darkest and nastiest elements of human life. In the process, they force us to honestly confront the reality of human weakness.
It’s long been the role of the artist to step back and consider the human condition. Throughout the history of art, artists have sought to awaken understanding of it whether through celebrating the beauty and tragedies of life, the uplift of religious inspiration, or the complexity of human experience so compellingly revealed in such transcendent portraits as Rembrant’s paintings of his own face.
The Academy’s Artist-in-Residence program was designed as a time of concentrated “reflection, research, engagement and artistic production” free from the obligations and concerns of the artist’s everyday life. In awarding Lombardo this month-long opportunity, including the daily use of its printmaking studio, the Academy gave her the chance to focus her energies on her exploration of how art can shed light on the deep issues of the human condition. It was also a remarkable opportunity for visitors to get to know an engaged working artist both in her studio and through the printmaking workshops that she taught. In an era when artists are stereotyped as being aloof and disconnected, this kind of personal contact is especially valuable.
Almost as an antidote to the darkness of “The Caprichos,” Lombardo is also exhibiting “The Soothsayers,” a series of pale-hued, floating orbs spread across the walls and ceiling of the Museum’s atrium. Modeled on the 20-sided polyhedron that floats inside the familiar Magic 8 Ball toy used for divining the future at teenage sleepovers since the 1950s, these geometric orbs are made of folded marbled paper embossed with updated answers such as “Reset,” “Winter Is Coming,” “You Are Biased,” “You Are Needed,” and “The War Is Not Over.”
In these chaotic and discordant times, we could all use the wise advice of an oracle, but as none actually exists, we’d do well to follow Goya’s and Lombardo’s warnings. However we like to think of our time as enlightened, freed from racism, sexism and superstition, recent events prove that it may be every bit as corrupt, discriminatory, inequitable and fear-ridden as Goya’s more than two centuries ago.
Dark as both “Caprichos” are, both offer glimmers of hope. In Plate 43, where nightmare creatures taunt a sleeping figure, Goya’s caption reads, “Imagination abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters: united with her, she is the mother of the arts and the source of their wonders.” In a culture which insists, as most cultures do, that it’s heretical to question the status quo, it’s actually the most important thing to do. Knowing full well that we can’t rely on oracles or on politicians, it’s vital to use the arts and every other means to question, hone awareness and cultivate clear and honest understanding. This process is the only thing that will keep history from continually repeating itself, that is, the only thing that will save us from ourselves.
Mary McCoy is an artist and writer who has the good fortune to live beside an old steamboat wharf on the Chester River. She is a former art critic for the Washington Post and several art publications. She enjoys kayaking the river and walking her family farm where she collects ideas and materials for the environmental art she creates, often in collaboration with her husband Howard. They have exhibited their work in the U.S., Ireland, Wales and New Zealand.