To look a courtier in the mouth: how to see beyond the stiff upper lips in Goya’s portraits

Goya’s sketched faces are haunting islands of humanity in a sea of guarded aristocrats.

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Maybe we can start (and end) with mouths. Karl Kraus, the Viennese gadfly, said that a portrait was a painting in which the mouth was wrong. If you look at Goya’s portrait of Antonia Zárate (1805-06, above), you see a beautiful woman whose mantilla lace is expertly rendered. There is something, however, not exactly wrong but not quite right with the mouth. The eye’s instinct to auto-correct makes it right but if you override this reflex, you can see that her mouth is faintly odd, like a brilliantly repaired harelip, almost perfect. The portrait of Andrés del Peral (before 1798) presents a man with unintimidated fuck-you eyes, his hand inside a flowered waistcoat and a mouth dragged down to the right – possibly palsied, perhaps poorly painted. It is hard to know.

Mouths in nature are often wrong. Laurence Olivier hated his upper lip. Kenneth Branagh was on The Graham Norton Show the other day, hiding his thin upper lip behind a beard. Years ago, as I took his photograph in New Zealand, David Lodge ruefully remarked, “The mouth that has defeated a hundred photographers.” Think of the bottom lip bestowed on Bourbon kings: a jut like the lip of a jug. Think of Damien Hirst’s mouth.

One of the best things in “Goya: the Portraits” is a red chalk drawing of Juan Agustín Ceán Bermúdez (1798-99). It is the spitting image of Hirst, with that tough, terse, lipless shrewdness – the mouth of a market stallholder in Leeds – inadequately disguised in a wig like an inverted empire sofa with scroll arms. There is a Self-Portrait (1815) later in the show, in which it looks as if the Botox went wrong in the right of the mouth.

All of this reminds me of Lucian Freud’s etchings, which render noses like Jan van Calcar’s anatomical drawings for Vesalius – a webbing of muscles. It’s as if the noses have been working out like bodybuilders; an attempt, you might think, to reproduce the brushstroke on the etching plate, resulting in the unrealistic cable-knit nose. But check it out and you will discover that this is how many noses are in reality, slightly deformed but assimilated to a mean by the eye.

There are many brilliant mouths on show here – for example, the vacant, open mouth of the Infante Don Luis de Borbón (1783). You can almost hear him trying to breathe through his blocked nose. Or take a look at Ferdinand VII in Court Dress (1814-15, above), an impostor who has pillaged the dressing-up box. Even the clothes look ersatz. But the face is authentic and calls to mind Rigaud in Dickens’s Little Dorrit. When Rigaud laughs, a change comes over his face, “more remarkable than prepossessing. His moustache went up under his nose, and his nose came down over his moustache, in a very sinister and cruel manner.”

Goya’s aristocrats (and there are a great many in this show, as you would expect from a court painter) divide into two types. There are the kings and queens, who look plain and implausible, like farmers in fancy dress, sharing a good deal of facial DNA with the mangel-wurzel. And there are the satellite aristocrats, the courtiers, whose mien is expressionless, whose default blankness is that of Henleigh Grandcourt in George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, men for whom emotion is vulgar, whose eyes impose distance between their person and the suppliant viewer. Neither you nor the artist is permitted intimacy. There are a great many of these frozen types in this exhibition and sometimes their unseasonably adult children, already adept at putting the viewer in his place. You can’t come in. No admittance.

This brings us to a crux in the theory of portrait painting. In Sartre’s La nausée, the protagonist Roquentin visits the museum at Bouville and reads into the portraits the potted, exemplary lives of the sitters. The most notorious instance of this is Walter Pater’s rhapsody on the Mona Lisa. Oscar Wilde didn’t care if Pater had invented the backstory of Leonardo’s painting: the passage was an example of the critic as artist. Most are still buying into the sentimental idea that portraits allow the viewer access to the soul and the intricate psychology of the sitter. Alas. In the catalogue, Manuela B Mena Marqués tells us: “Goya’s later portraits not only expressed his sitters’ psychology and the hidden shadows of their personalities (as did his early ones) but they now also conveyed changing emotions. He achieved this with heavily charged brushstrokes . . .” With heavily charged brushstrokes. Well, now you say it, it seems obvious.

You have to remember that between October 1792 and February 1793, Goya suffered a kind of apoplexy that left him deaf: rather a disadvantage if you are to capture the essence of the sitter in a few sittings, sometimes only a single sitting. The truth is that painting is as disadvantaged with regard to psychology as ballet is when it comes to efficient plot narration. Francis Bacon, when asked about this creaking commonplace, was characteristically to the point: it was an example of overreach but faces often reflected the lives lived by their owners. As George Orwell put it, by the age of 50, everyone has the face he deserves. It is a half-truth. Shakespeare is truer when he says, “There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face.” A three-quarter truth.

Nevertheless, Marqués has this to say about Goya’s portrait of The Duke of Wellington (1812, above) and the artist’s “exceptional degree of both conscious and intuitive empathy”: “The duke still seems to see and be overwhelmed by the terrible scenes of the Battle of Arapiles, which had taken place a few days before Goya painted him . . .” The cliché reaches its climax by the end of the paragraph: “Goya penetrated to the very heart of his models, and in this case did not see the satisfaction of a victorious soldier but a sensitive human being, a lover of art and women, shocked by the savagery he had witnessed.” Is that all? The art critic as clairvoyant. I can just make out the encrypted names of his mistresses.

Yet there is a scintilla of truth in these spurious claims. The portrait of Wellington is a surprise, especially if you compare it to Ferdinand Guillemardet (1798), France’s ambassador to Spain and a member of the convention who voted for the execution of Louis XVI. Guillemardet’s bicorne hat on the table is a great combustion of feathers. His sash and sword are another cascade of red, white and blue. He is in black. His face is calm and fearless – whereas the sashed and bemedalled Wellington shows us a slightly alarmed face and an apprehensive rabbit mouth. You wouldn’t take an order from this person unless you were a waiter. There are three stars on his chest, which seems right. This isn’t a five-star general: with so much gold braid, he looks like a corn dolly. For a five-star specimen, see General Nicolas Philippe Guye (1810), who looks as if he was kitted out by Fort Knox.

As well as the oil of Wellington, there is a little sanguine portrait, in red chalk over black chalk – a study that comprehensively outstrips the official portrait. Lucian Freud always sidestepped questions about portraits and psychology, usually diverting the question to what viewers thought, how relatives regarded the portraits, and so on. Pressed, he would only say that the portrait was a painting like any other, by which he meant the internal logic of intrinsic form. The Wellington drawing is a total dark-pink harmony, a chord of colour, and it is all suggestion – especially the mouth, which is completely successful. It is intimate and it is private, completely unofficial.

The best things in this show are the drawings. There is, in the final room, a black chalk drawing of Goya’s son Javier Goya y Bayeu (1824), the only one of his children to survive into adulthood. It is brilliant and unsparing – father and son were not on good terms – so we see the plump under-chin, the poached eyes on ghost (as Joyce has it in Ulysses), the greying Stewart Granger sideburns, the heaped hair, the suggestion of full, sulky lips. Goya has caught depression in all its obliterating singleness. It is a tiny drawing but as good as Freud’s portrait of the Duke of Devonshire at his most alcoholically troubled, where we see more than usual amounts of the top of his bowed head. Here, too, is Francisco Otín (1825), another tiny drawing, black chalk on paper, of a man with swept-forward hair and bilious, hungover eyes, who looks as if he has just crawled, unwashed, out of bed and into his clothes. Even his dishevelled moustache looks rackety.

One of the most intriguing drawings is Friar Juan Fernández de Rojas (1817-19, above), done in black chalk and graphite. It depicts a head whose eyes are slits, opened a fraction to show only the whites. The mouth is open. It might be singing, dying, experiencing religious ecstasy, or coming. The open mouth is like a Francis Bacon. What it is expressing is an enigma, an enigma that holds us. Painters know that faces are in reality action paintings, just as much as they are settled in repose. Rembrandt’s etchings and drawn self-portraits are his record of attempts to capture fleeting expressions. They all touch on caricature and overstatement, like someone signing for the deaf at a theatre performance. Bacon’s solution is to settle on the scream, on an extreme that doesn’t seem rhetorical. You can’t rehearse a scream. It is prima facie sincere. With Friar Juan Fernández de Rojas, Goya is there before Bacon. At a stroke, vistas of expressionless aristocrats are cancelled.

But there are too many of them in this exhibition for it to be a success. They aren’t bad. Some of them are passable. You feel too often like Konstantin in Chekhov’s The Seagull, when he points out that the older writer Trigorin, his mother’s companion, has his methods worked out. There is something practised, something automatic, something too easily satisfied. I found myself longing for Goya’s French contemporary Ingres – Ingres, in love with his own incomparable virtuosity.

Goya: the Portraits runs at the National Gallery, London WC2 until 10 January 2016. For details visit: nationalgallery.org.uk

This article appears in the 14 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn supremacy