Innocents abroad

Art - Tom Rosenthal on the different legacies of two of Spain's greatest artists

London is lucky to have two such important, contrasting and complementary exhibitions of Spanish art on at the same time - Goya's drawings from his private albums are at the Hayward Gallery in London and "Murillo: scenes from childhood" is at Dulwich Picture Gallery.

That the two are so different in both taste and content makes their juxtaposition particularly striking. Both were virtuosi artists, but genius and nationality was all they really had in common. Goya is all truth and, the divine Duchess of Alba apart, precious little beauty. Murillo is all beauty and rather less truth. His children have always struck me as too good to be true, unlike the ragged, snaggle-toothed, malnourished children still seen on the streets of Seville today. Apart from the odd grubby foot, they are perfectly clean, have excellent teeth, rosy and unblemished complexions, and round, well-fed limbs. Perhaps they are idealised versions of his own offspring; he had, according to different scholars, either nine or 11 children, most of whom died young. They seem to be fantasy images of happy childhood in an ideal world where the fruit they sell has a flawless bloom and where faces are always smiling. Good for business, of course. After all, what bourgeois collector wants paintings of filthy starvelings?

But one should never underestimate the dazzling quality of the painting. One need only look at the adjacent copies of his own paintings on display at Dulwich, or the roomful of work by his friend Pedro Nunez de Villavicencio, whose jolly crudity highlights Murillo's skill, to see that he is a worthy member of the great Sevillian trio.

Murillo is also, in several of his less deliberately charming works (and one should surely avoid the oleaginous Madonna of the Rosary), well aware of the darker side of Seville's street life. His beautiful children may be painted in all their innocence, but once he moves on to adolescence and adulthood he plunges deep into the lowlife of the 17th- century city with a cynicism reminiscent of Goya.

Four Figures on a Step is shocking. Even if, in this paedophilia-aware age, one can skate over the rear view of a boy with torn trousers, there is no mistaking the older woman, with her cold, appraising gaze, for anything other than a "Celestina", a bawd and procuress. The adolescent boy on the left, elaborately and expensively dressed, is, at the very least, an embryonic pimp; the young woman raising her shawl and giving us a wickedly skewed grin is indubitably a tart inviting our custom. The impeccably scholarly catalogue informs us that this provocative work was once known as Family Group.

Two Women at a Window is worth the price of admission, and is probably Murillo's masterpiece. The smiling girl is beautiful, seductive and, superficially, as innocent as one of his "pretty" pictures - until you look at the cold, dark eyes of a woman offering herself for sale, and observe that her companion is another Celestina.

If Murillo delved into the darker aspects of eroticism, Goya, in every sense the darkest of all Spanish artists, dealt with eroticism in a much lighter manner, as several of the drawings at the Hayward demonstrate. It is tempting, particularly in the small but remarkably complete sketches of the Sanlucar Album to see in the erotic poses of the women the figure of the Duchess of Alba, whom Goya had accompanied to her family residence at Sanlucar de Barrameda. It is certainly difficult to study some of Goya's paintings of this fascinatingly alluring woman without coming to the conclusion that they were lovers.

Goya was used to sparking contention, and much of his work had to be suppressed, not least because he was Alfrancescado, a French sympathiser. Prompted by a combination of personal observation and political conviction, he set down his devastating view of the follies of the Peninsular war in Los Desastres de la Guerra between 1810 and 1820, but the power of the Inquisition ensured that they were not published until 1863, some 35 years after his death.

Seeing these drawings today is to recognise in miniature so much of the subject matter of both the etchings and the paintings, and the spirit that animated them. So often he excoriates rural peasant and urban middle-class mores alike. Violence and hypocrisy loom large, as in Two Men Wrestling or in Naked Savage About to Cudgel Another or, in a marginally more sophisticated world, Young Man Caning a Girl Caught With a Letter.

The most powerful drawings and the most unforgettable images are his attacks on the Inquisition. These go beyond the vigorous anti-clericalism of his paintings. The Inquisition Album dates from Spain's war against Napoleon to the 1812 promulgation of the Constitution of Cadiz by the (relatively) liberal Spanish government. In it, Goya let loose at the old enemy with enormous firepower, underscoring the savagery of the drawings with bitterly ironic captions. One victim, wearing the coroza (a tall, pointy, elongated hat rather like a dunce's cap), bows penitently in front of his black-clad clerical oppressors. The caption reads: "For having Jewish ancestry".

Goya's gift as a caricaturist is not in the form of the ad hominem attacks of Cruickshank, Gilray and Rowlandson but, in his generic way, he was far more devastating because he always betrayed his own humanity.

"Goya: drawings from his private albums" is at the Hayward Gallery, London (020 7960 4242) and "Murillo: scenes from childhood" is at Dulwich Picture Gallery (020 8693 5254), both until 13 May

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Trapped in the human zoo