Exhibitions; Goya: un regard libre Lille Palais des Beaux-Arts

No Goya painting can fail to be exciting. So I recommend a visit to Lille and its Palais des Beaux-Arts, just a couple of hours by rail from Waterloo. Its new survey of the Spanish master strikes to the heart. I'm sorry that the show isn't coming across the channel.

And for any serious student of the artist, "Goya: un regard libre" is essential. It is not an enormous exhibition, since it contains only about 60 paintings. These pictures have been chosen with extreme care and there are some telling rarities. First among them is a painting I had not encountered before and had not seen in reproduction. La Marquesa de Santiago y San Adrin (1804) was in aristocratic Spanish hands. Then it disappeared for a century - just the century when Goya scholarship was codified - before reappearing in "a Swiss private collection" (in the art world, this phrase can mean many things) some 20 years ago. Now the painting belongs to the Getty Museum in Malibu. It's wonderful, a masterpiece of Goya's individuality and unique power to disturb.

On the whole, I prefer Goya's full-length portraits in a landscape to his half-length pictures of people within domestic surroundings. A landscape background allows him more scope for his personal metaphysics. With leaden greys, a touch of russet pink, wisps of umber and rose, Goya imbues Spanish skies with a satanic malevolence. No other painter has ever made pastoralism quite so threatening. The full-length portrait also helps Goya when he does his balancing act of belittling haughty subjects while also fulfilling his role as an obedient professional artist. The Marquesa was rich, independent, wore more make-up than some people thought proper, held advanced views, and in general was the queen of her own life. You can tell that Goya admired her. We can also sense that he knew more than she did about the futility of life and the nearness of death.

A wild, unhappy and silent respect for great women is a characteristic of Goya's portraiture. Another full-length contains evidence of his feelings for the Duchess of Alba. Actually, this is a copy of Goya's original by Augustin Marques (1753-?1830). Without being able to compare the two pictures, I would say that it's a very good copy. But perhaps, in that particular Goya painting, he was easier to follow because his application was relatively smooth and "correct". Goya is inimitable when there's a sort of bluntness in his brush, an immediacy that rides over the usual demands of taste. Sometimes I think that Goya knew as little about taste as an animal does.

This is not just a fanciful remark. If Goya had not possessed animal feelings, he would not have been able to create his monsters, nor able to give his paintings that feeling of fear of the monster which is man. There is a loathsome beauty in the two small paintings of naked cannibals who have dismembered their victims and are gleefully preparing for the feast of human flesh. Nobody has ever explained these pictures, nor ever will, but there's a plausible theory that Goya is telling us that the cannibals are innocent, since they do not know the rules of civilisation. Animals are innocent too.

In the first of these paintings, discarded black clothing suggests that the victims may have been priests. From Goya's day to our own, we thinking people have opposed the church with our capacity for rationalism. Like his countryman Picasso - who was born only half a century after Goya's death - this magnificent animal among painters opposed the church by irrationalism. Both artists aimed to prove that animal nature could sweep aside any moral precept of tradition. Although I work hard in front of Goya's religious pictures, they seldom convince me. They are, as it were, pictures. Goya's real art springs on you without any of the intermediary stages of piety or picture-making.

I did however find a true majesty in Goya's St Gregory, a vision rather like that of a lion reading the Bible. This is a rare example of Goya's intermittent interest in culture. The painter has not missed the point about St Gregory, which is that he was a historical (died 604) rather than a mythical figure, and that he was a scholar. Remarkably, Gregory is reading his good book - but is it a Bible? It might be some other text - with pen in hand and an expression of kindly knowledge, as though he were about to correct or annotate the sentences of long ago.

The general gravity and passages of golden glow in this painting inevitably make one think of Rembrandt, and of other artists too. From our vantage point at the end of the 20th century, Goya has a fraternal relationship with many old masters. Furthermore, he looks like a modern. Here is the meaning of the exhibition's subtitle, "un regard libre". It is suggested that Goya was more free from the constraints of a professional artist than any other painter of his time. Surely this is true. I don't think he had any vision of the future. Quite the reverse. Nowhere in Goya's art do we find a single sign of hope. Again like an animal, he lived totally in the present, surrounded by political monsters.

Goya's relations to later art interest Veronique Powell, the expert on the Goya paintings in the Louvre, who argues in the introduction to the Lille catalogue that his portraits, with the "brio de sa touche" and the absence "de tout formalise" ally him to later 19th-century painters. One keeps finding other artists, mainly French, in some of Goya's passages of paint or in his frank and loose compositions. Two pictures borrowed from Budapest, known in French as Le remouleur and La porteuse d'eau have something of the spirit of Courbet and Millet. The portrait of Goya's painter friend Asensio Juli is like a Manet. A picture we know well because it belongs to the National Gallery of Scotland, The Doctor, insistently suggests the young Picasso.

I add some remarks about the Palais des Beaux-Arts, now reopened after building work that has lasted for years. It is the largest museum in France outside Paris. The Goya show is in a new space for temporary exhibitions in which paintings are seen in daylight. Collections of medieval and renaissance art are in a refurbished set of galleries on a lower floor. Above, fine suites of high- ceilinged rooms house masterpieces of the French tradition, with an understandable emphasis on Flemish-influence art. Lille is a modern industrial city with an old-master picture collection. The quality of the work falls off after a magnificent (but bituminous) Courbet. The impressionist holdings are pleasant but not of much consequence. Twentieth-century art has been neglected.

Lille Palais Des Beaux-Arts (00 33 3 20 06 78 00), to 14 March; Philadelphia Museum of Art, 17 April-11 July.