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The Glory and Gore of Goya: Sketches of Spain at the Frick Collection in NYC, Review

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Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, Peasant Carrying a Woman (1814–20)Henry Clay Frick was a businessman and millionaire. As an elderly man, in 1914, he retired to his newly constructed home–a NYC manor–on One 70th Street and 5th Avenue (right off Central Park); a year later, he drafted his will, bequeathing his home and everything in it–antique furnishings and, most notably, his art collection–to the city of New York, as a museum; four years later Frick died, his wife twelve years after. On December 16, 1935, The Frick Collection opened to the public.

Famous paintings from artists such as Holbein, Rembrandt, El Greco, Renoir, among others, including sculptures and furniture, remain as Frick kept them. So grandiose is the collection and its arrangement that Frick’s sense of design and obsession with ornamentation, quite frankly, borders on kitsch. Granted, additional paintings have been acquired and added over the years, mainly to the hallways; so it’s not all Frick’s fault. Regardless, the sprawling mansion–and its garden oases–is a spectacle unto itself, and the artwork is captivating in its domestic setting–what the ill-fated Barnes Foundation strove to preserve.

The artwork include no informational plaques–only seemingly random, inconspicuous reference numbers in random places which, when identified, are meant for punching into the clunky audio guide hanging clumsily around your neck. It isn’t as bad it sounds, though. It’s actually quite pleasant, being told about the art, as opposed to squinting and fighting for a minute or two of personal time with the informational plaque next to a Picasso at MoMA. The Frick Collection is the appropriate size and setting for a full-length audio tour.

But, the audio guide won’t help you downstairs where “The Spanish Manner: Drawings from Ribera to Goya” is on display until January 9th.

Jusepe de Ribera, Bat and Two Ears (c. 1620–25)Sketches from Jusepe de Ribera (1591-1652), Francisco de Herrera the Elder (c.1576-1656), Francisco Pancheca (1564-1644), and Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828)–you get all that?–reveals the subtle genius, in aftermath, of the Renaissance. Take the brilliance of Leonardo da Vinci’s sketchbooks and fuse it with the mannerism and guile of comic book art. Ribera, Herrera, and Pancheca scratch the surface with their fantastic sketches. For example: Ribera’s Bat and Two Ears (c.1620–25) is a striking piece of seemingly modern taste, and his Head of a Satyr, (c.1625–30) is a portrayal of a pagan faun, horns and all; both of which were heretical in their un-Christ-like-ness. A hundred years later, Goya seems to have taken it to the next level, and, rather than stick to fantasy, he achieved a brutal, emotional reality with the raw poignancy of a fine tip pen or pencil.

It’s no surprise Goya’s sketches enjoy their own room, whereas Ribera, Herrera, and Pancheca altogether share the other.

Goya’s subjects are fearful; their movement is fluid, true to form; you can almost see the next frame (of the “would be” comic strip). Each of Goya’s sketches, independently, tells a story, and that is the beauty of the “Spanish manner.” It expresses humor and movement strikingly, in celebration, and without the help of text. It would appear that Goya and his forebears–Ribera, Herrera, and Pancheca–had laid the precious groundwork for the modern day comic book: the graphic novel. It’s a sight to behold and is the first time that such work is on display in New York City.

On Thursday, December 16, 2010, The Frick Collection will open it doors yet again, as always; only this time, seventy-five years after its grand opening, with free admission.

–Spencer Winans is a Contributor to The Free George.

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