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This Week’s Top Picks: Berlin (26 Aug. 2005)

By Daniel Mufson
Originally published in The Wall Street Journal Europe, 26 Aug. 2005.

An exhibition on Goya is no easy project. The Prado Museum in Madrid has over 130 of his works—the largest collection in the world—and lends them to other museums only sparingly. Many of Goya’s other works are in private collections that rarely leave Spain. That explains how the Alte Nationalgalerie can congratulate itself for putting together an exhibition without including the “Disasters of War” series, the “May 3, 1808” painting of Spaniards being executed by Napoleon’s army, or “Saturn Devouring his Sons,” to name just a few of the famous, vividly nightmarish works whose absences are made all the more salient by titling the show “Goya: Prophet der Moderne.”

Despite those omissions, the show gathers an impressive collection together and organizes it provocatively. The artist’s sunnier, Rococo-influenced, commissioned pictures hang in a row of large rooms; a network of smaller galleries, bracketing the large rooms like parentheses, features the more darkly imaginative, usually non-commissioned, images. Quietly compelling are the works that fuse these two aspects of Goya, as in the melancholy beauty of “Prison Interior,” where figures with indistinct  faces sit chained in an archway that seems to bridge pure light and shadow, or in two other works from the time of France’s occupation of Spain, “The Manufacture of Bullets” and “The Manufacture of Powder,” which offer pastoral idylls in the background while rebels in the foreground go about their deadly business. Thanks to the range of work presented here, one sees how Goya depicts the demonic even when he isn’t drawing literal representations of demons.

Unfortunately, the Alte Nationalgalerie has tried to use the Goya exhibit as an occasion to refashion its permanent collection as a showcase for numerous “precursors to modernism,” a title to which the museum has a less than sturdy claim. On the first floor, under the banner of “French Precursors to Modernism,” the museum offers works by modern German artists such as Max Beckmann and Franz von Stuck; on the third floor,under “German Precursors to Modernism,” we have rooms with Biedermeier art, a movement peripheral—at  best—to the avant-gardes of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The museum does have a wonderful collection of works by Adolph Menzel, a German artist who can legitimately be said to have helped pave the way to modern art; you can find his work, bafflingly, on the floor for “French Precursors to Modernism.”

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