Scotland's Two Hidden Goya Masterpieces

For the second year in a row, the Scottish Nation Galleries’ major exhibition running during the Edinburgh Festival has been a patched up affair. It features a few interesting, borrowed works but is padded out with paintings that can be seen throughout the year, plus lots of mediocre pieces and copies, advertised as ‘as a spectacular celebration of Spanish culture seen through the eyes of British artists and art collectors.’ Probably a mixture of curator’s arrogance that believes that the public can be led by the nose to follow a narrative, and economic constraints is behind this hotchpotch. Two far more rewarding exhibitions were actually available during the festival period, one of them in the same complex: From Raphael to Renoir, drawings from the collection of Jean Bonna, needed no curator impute other than an alliterative title, simply because it was full of masterpieces; at the Queen’s Gallery an exhibition entitled The Conservation Piece, contained two further masterpieces, Stubbs’ The Prince of Wales’ Phaeton, surely his greatest work, and a large oval-shaped painting by Gainsborough where he returned to the Watteauesque style of his early work and anticipated Goya in the delicacy of his paint handling.

Goya was the under-represented presence in The Discovery of Spain exhibition. The Scottish National Gallery does possess a rare Goya and it was included in this show. But it is a very rare Goya because it is relatively uninteresting. This cannot be said of two other Goyas in a Scottish collection. I call them Scotland’s hidden masterpieces because I have never seen them reproduced in any monograph of the artist other than as thumbnails in a catalogue raisonné. I have spoken to several Scottish painters with a keen interest in the master who know nothing of them. Yet. I have checked with Pollok House, now looked after by the National Trust where the Maxwell Stirling Collection is housed and I am assured that they are currently on show.

They are part of a small series of paintings of children playing by the Spanish master, none of which seem to be in any major museum or art gallery and are thought to belong to the same period as the tapestry-cartoon paintings. There may be a tendency to dismiss these works, which can be described as rococo, a term thought by some to be derogatory, but it would be quite wrong to do so. It was in these paintings that Goya developed his strikingly original approach to composition. In Boys Playing at Seesaw, one of the two masterpieces, the seesaw figure in the air describes an ‘X’ shape while two groups of wrestling boys form tripods. Another of the five pairs of figures in the composition make one more novel composite with their silhouettes linked by the brims of their hats. All these combine in a lopsided pyramid that is balanced by a little monkey chained atop a high wall. It is a startlingly inventive performance as is the other work, Boys Playing at Soldiers that can be analysed in a similar fashion.

I do not know if any attempt was made to borrow these paintings which belong to the same collection as the Portrait of a Lady in a Fur Cape, supposedly by El Greco, part of the Spanish exhibition and chosen for the poster. The Pollok House Goyas would have raised the exhibition’s quality considerably. To anybody who has not seen these two great works, I can only make the suggestion that they hot foot it to Pollok House, Glasgow. They have a wonderful aesthetic experience awaiting them.

The Tickle Factor

There is a farm auberge in the area of France, which I visit frequently with my wife, which has often been recommended to us. Invariably the recommendation came with a strange suggestion. Do visit the loo when you go there, we were urged. Eventually, we did eat at the restaurant, where we were not disappointed, and duly inspected the facilities. Everybody is immensely tickled by the lavatory of this establishment. Above the porcelain there are a series of shelves filled with toilet rolls with their pastel shades arranged in a specific pattern. It has been described as a work of art.

Once upon a time avant garde art was the preserve of the cognoscenti or an elite. No longer. Today the Tate Modern is much more popular than Tate Britain. Where provincial cities have galleries providing programmes of contemporary visual art, they are generally well attended and the sort of people who formerly would have been stating that they didn’t know much about art but that they knew what they liked and weren’t finding it, are often enthusing about what they have seen. The tickle factor has a lot to do with this.

Some individual pieces have become immensely popular. Rachel Whiteread’s cast of the inside of a house and Richard Wilson’s work where he covered the floor space of various rooms with a shallow tray of oil which acted as a mirror and completely changed the spatial feel of the place, are just two examples of unconventional works which have greatly tickled the public.

Constructing objects from unusual materials, a little house made entirely of books for example, always provides a high tickle quotient. The Scottish artist David Mach has completed a whole series of works of this kind, a submarine and a Parthenon from old tyres (the latter with its maquette made from polo mints), a steam locomotive from bricks, heads from metal coat hangers or match heads. The most internationally famous work of this kind is Jeff Koon's puppy dog constructed from growing plants, outside Frank Gery’s Guggenheim museum in Bilbao.

Now, there is nothing wrong with amusing the public in this way. Obviously, it adds to the gaiety of nations. It could be said, as D. J. Enright said of pieces from another art (quoted in The Movement Reconsidered, edited by Zachary Leader), ‘the effects may be striking but they don’t strike very deep.’ But at least these works give the lie to the notion that contemporary visual art has nothing to give the general public.