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EXHIBITIONS / Something wicked this way comes: Two shows, one of small works by Goya, the other a series of religious paintings by Francisco de Zurbaran, reveal Spain's darkest artists in a new light

THE SPANISH Arts festival has been a popular enterprise and is certainly giving us some unforgettable exhibitions. After Picasso at the Tate and Dali at the Hayward here are two Old Master shows. 'Goya: Truth and Fantasy' fills the Sackler Galleries at the Royal Academy, and at the National Gallery there's a moving display of 13 paintings, collectively entitled Jacob and his Twelve Sons, by the 17th-century Sevillian artist Francisco de Zurbaran.

I urge readers not to miss this Zurbaran exhibition. It's only a short walk from the RA and in any case one wants to look at the National Gallery Goyas that haven't been lent to the 'Truth and Fantasy' show. It must be said that some of the RA's Goyas are less than exciting. The exhibition is a severely reduced version of the show that has been at the Prado this winter. Significant pictures have not come to London and there are too many of the early religious pictures. These may tell a lot about sacred art in provincial Spain in the late 1780s but they don't explain the essential Goya.

The thesis of the exhibition's organisers, Juliet Wilson-Bareau and Manuela Mena Marques, is that Goya's genius lies in small works as much as in the larger canvases and decorations. Maybe so, and I don't mind an exhibition consisting only of small paintings. But one would have liked to compare the etchings and lithographs, the Suenos prints, the Disasters of War, the bullfighting series and the Disparates etchings that are contemporary with Goya's 'black paintings', murals that cannot travel from their home in Madrid.

As things are, we approach Goya solely through painting. Works on canvas, mainly sketches for larger, official projects, lead up to the supreme creations of his imagination: the paintings that he christened caprichos. These concentrate the most powerful and personal aspects of Goya's art. They are fantastic, inexplicable, violent and haunting. One is tempted to say that they must have issued from a non-human mind. How else can a painting of cannibals playing with people's limbs and entrails be so beautiful? And yet we know - and this knowledge is underlined by the present exhibition - that Goya came to such visions when he reached his artistic maturity.

The caprichos really begin after a crisis in Goya's life, his physical and probably mental breakdown in 1792. He was 46, and thereafter deaf until his death in 1828. The caprichos, he wrote, were 'a set of cabinet pictures in which I have managed to make observations for which there is normally no opportunity in commissioned works which give no scope for fantasy and invention . . .'. I have the haunted impression that they were painted by a man who was not only deaf but dumb, or at least afflicted in a way that meant he could only express himself through art. The pictures are coarse and forward at one moment, retiring and private at the next. They elude understanding. Their precise subjects are never stated, though we know that terror is never far away.

Goya could never have painted triumph or deliverance. Strange that his commentators do not acknowledge how irreligious he became. Goya's abandonment of Christianity, which was completed with his deafness and the first caprichos, led not so much in the direction of enlightenment as of night. His routine pictures of sacred subjects suddenly flare into horrible life when Goya paints St Francis Borgia Attending a Dying Impenitent. From the saint's crucifix spurt drops of blood that land on the sinner's torso. Hellish monsters have surrounded the deathbed, but they are repelled by the miracle. These are the first monsters in Goya's painting but not, of course, the last. We conclude that Christianity could not repel Goya's deep belief in the inhuman.

Even when, in his earlier days, Goya sketched out designs to entertain princes and their children, he invented tense and menacing scenes. The pictures of the four seasons were done for a royal palace. Spring is represented by a man who has caught a live rabbit and is about to frighten a girl with it. Summer is the time for drunken taunts of the village idiot. Autumn is the season for social and sexual teasings, while winter is celebrated by the sight of the misery of peasants, struggling through a blizzard with a pig strapped to a donkey.

Historically, such pictures mark the end and inversion of the Rococo tradition. Goya was obviously much affected by the major Rococo artist, Tiepolo, who spent the last decade of his life in Madrid. But Goya makes Tiepolo's palette harsher, scorns his instinct for grace and decoration, and transforms his brushwork into something more personal. Goya's touch is a revelation. It has an ancestry in mural painting but is also capable of a miniaturist's exactitude. Goya is deft with his brush, whether he slurs paint or dots in little details. Characteristically he will do both in the same picture, though in his most frightening inventions the paint becomes more liquid and the handling almost tentative, as though Goya himself was reluctant to spell out the full horrors.

So it is with Yard with Lunatics, which Goya claimed to have observed in his Saragossa youth, and in the more evidently fanciful Flying Witches and The Witches' Sabbath. These are unique. It is noteworthy that great artists who admired Goya, Manet for instance, or Picasso, kept away from their example. They realised that such canvases were inimitable. Only minor artists try for Goyaesque subjects or effects, and they never succeed. Even the comparatively light and airy pictures, such as the consummate Sorting the Bulls or Attack by Robbers, have within them a Goyaesque fatalism that cannot be copied or reproduced by another hand. This fatalism is at the heart of both Goya's personal metaphysics and his pictorial style.

Nothing, he tells us, can be changed by rational volition. When he portrays himself at work, as in two compelling self-portraits, we see a grim and, above all, passive figure. It's as though he had been imprisoned by his capacity for making art. Goya's demons were of the sort that liberated his genius but not his mind. Thus they easily became the symbols of his country's political woes. These paintings make me think less and less of the theories that link Goya with progressive thought. But of course he is the Spaniard par excellence for those who feel that Spain's history is unremittingly tragic. It will be interesting to see whether, with the current rebirth of the Spanish nation, interpretations of Goya's art will be advanced.

The Zurbaran pictures represent the biblical patriarch Jacob and the founders of the tribes which formed the People of Israel. It's remarkable that they are so little known, for they have been in Britain since the 18th century (at Auckland and Grimsthorpe castles). Their temporary home in the National Gallery allows us to admire their calm and clear gravity. We normally think of Zurbaran as a dark and monkish artist, an impression no doubt enforced by the NG's own St Francis in Meditation. Now we see Zurbaran not as the arch- exponent of Spanish tenebrism but as a lighter colourist, as a painter of still-life and costume, and as a rather special portraitist.

The features of these mythical people are especially well done, for Zurbaran combined idealism with individual characterisation in just the right ways. The pictures were painted in the 1640s, so Zurbaran naturally used late-Renaissance and Baroque sources, but the faces and poses are mainly his own. These are all large and tall pictures, but within the similarity of their formats Zurbaran orchestrates many changes. We see the figures from below and they all stand before a low horizon. By this means the sons of Jacob appear more massive and imposing. We are of course meant to be impressed, but longer acquaintance brings us closer to the characters. My favourite is Asher, the peace-loving farmer who carries a crook and a basket of loaves, the produce of his wheat fields. These loaves are a triumph of still-life painting. From Zurbaran to Picasso, the Spaniards have been masters of still-life - but with one exception, Goya, for whom I suppose simple objects were just too simple and ordinary for the terrorism of his art.

Goya: Royal Academy, W1 (071-439 7438) to 12 Jun. Zurbaran: National Gallery, WC2 (071-839 3321) to 22 May.

(Photographs omitted)