Two centuries of resistance in European art

In the history of Western art, Francisco de Goya is placed among the highest ranks of artistic genius and imagination. This is partly due to the fact that he was one of the first artists to challenge the old status quo, to scrutinize its doctrines and traditions and to express the humanitarian reforms of the Enlightenment in Spain. However, the political and social angle of his work has often led to anachronistic interpretations of his art and sweeping generalizations that ignore the complex historical circumstances of the time and Goya’s intricate position in them. Nikos Hadjinicolaou’s four essays on Goya, contained in his book «From Moliere to Goya» recently published by Crete University Press, help redress such simplifications by providing a wonderfully insightful, lucidly written and intellectually rigorous approach to Goya. Each on a different theme pertaining to Goya’s art, the four essays make up half the book; the rest – some lectures at conferences and articles – address other specialized subjects, ranging from an approach to Goethe’s «Sorrows of Young Werther» or Moliere’s «Le Misanthrope.» The time covered is the mid-17th century, when Moliere’s play was first staged, to the mid-19th century, a period which, as the author explains in the book’s introduction, was typified, in varying degrees, by the gradual fall of the ancien regime, the challenging of the monarchy as well as aristocratic privileges by an emerging bourgeois social class. This continuous challenge – which the author examines with respect to the period of the Enlightenment, either anticipating, coinciding with or following it – is the common theme that Hadjinicolaou traces in each subject he addresses and one of the reasons that led him to compile these nine essays in a single publication. An astute intellectual, Hadjinicolaou offers a wealth of information on each period and makes interesting, interdisciplinary comparisons across different periods. But rather than isolate himself in a historical capsule, he also helps the contemporary reader become more aware of how evaluations of art are subject to art historical approaches and differing ideologies. Although this is not a book on the theories of art, the clear analysis it offers has the additional value of making the reader become more cautious in matters of art history. The essay «Goya: A Modern,» for example, provides a well-argued analysis of the term «modern,» the various meanings, often contrasting elements and different ideologies that are ascribed to it. Using Goya as an example, Hadjinicolaou examines the notion of originality, disproves the definition of modern art in terms of abstraction, and unravels the complexity of the term. His penetrating formal analysis of particular paintings helps support his argument. Hadjinicolaou treats Goya as a pioneer of modern art and explains that he was one of the first artists to make the transition from a god-centered world to a world in which religious values were adapted to the emerging bourgeois norms. This explains Goya’s tenuous relationship with Greek mythology as the expression of collective, social ideals. Indeed, in the essay on «Goya and Greek Mythology» Hadjinicolaou shows that even though figures from Greek mythology appear in Goya’s art, particularly in his latest period, it is mostly to describe a nightmarish vision of the world, a world that reflects a reality rather than any utopia. Throughout the book, Hadjinicolaou offers a grounded, solid perspective on his subject and clears stereotypical conceptions of art. In his essay on Moliere (his response to various reviews written on the occasion of the play’s staging by Lefteris Voyiatzis in the late 1990s), he guides the viewer beyond the stereotypical notion of «Le Misanthrope» as a comedy and argues that comical elements are used by Moliere as a disguise for his more harsh criticism of the court. Another stereotypical notion that Hadjinicolaou overturns is that of the Enlightenment as exclusively associated with reason. This is one of the points that the author makes in his essay on Goethe’s «Sorrows of Young Werther» in which he also draws an insightful comparative analysis between literature and art. Offering a cogent and sophisticated analysis on a variety of issues and written in a flowing style that is rare in Greek writers in the humanities, «From Moliere to Goya» is a convincing and intellectually stimulating collection of essays.

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