More Doubt over Goya's Colossus

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The inquiry is still ongoing into the authorship of the painting The Colossus, long attributed to Goya.

The Colossus has always figured as a masterwork among Francisco Goya's chronicle of human suffering during Spain's war of independence (1808-1812). But now Madrid's Prado museum, which long gave it pride of place, has come closer than ever to acknowledging that Goya didn't paint it. At a June 26 press conference, curators announced the museum would continue its inquiry into the work's authenticity after its investigative team identified the initials A. J. in the painting's lower left corner with the Valencian painter Asensio Juliá, a friend and collaborator of Goya. Though reserving final judgment, the museum had already signaled its doubts earlier this year by excluding The Colossus from its current Goya in Times of War exhibition.

Questions about the painting's attribution have been around for more than a decade, but voicing them has proven difficult. "At a certain point, an artist becomes a mythic national hero, and a painting takes on a life of it's own — it becomes sacred," says Manuela Mena, the Prado's chief curator of 18th-century painting and of Goya's work. "When you challenge that, you might as well be challenging religion — you're seen as a heretic, and you fall into the hands of the inquisition."

Never more so, perhaps, than when you're dealing with Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, seen by many as a founding figure of modern art, and by most Spaniards as an icon of nationalism and revolutionary politics. Mena speaks from personal experience. When she was asked to write the catalog description for The Colossus for a Prado's exhibition in 1989, she already had doubts, but she knew that the painting was an untouchable part of Goya's oeuvre. "Less was known about Goya then," says Mena, "and what was known was not to be questioned."

Four years later, while helping curate the Prado's Goya: Fact and Fantasy exhibition, Mena's doubts grew when the painting was cleaned. "When we looked at it closely, free of its lofty presentation in a museum," she says, "it was obvious — this painting could not have been done by Goya." Mena and her colleagues removed The Colossus from the 1993 exhibition, but they didn't dare raise the matter in public. "It was too soon," says Mena. "The Colossus was a mythic painting in the academic world, written about by established scholars. To challenge that you have to check out everything very carefully."

But in 2001 British expert Juliet Bareau-Wilson, who had also helped with the painting's restoration, reaped the whirlwind when she told an interviewer that "The Colossus was not Goya's work. "We were attacked by the press," says Mena, "by academics defending traditional interpretations, by nationalists for whom Goya was Spain's somber bullfighter, by political liberals for whom Goya was a revolutionary who stood against Napoleon. I understood something of what religious persecution is like."

Though the "A" and the "J" visible on "The Colossus canvas appear to be finally persuading more experts that Juliá is the painting's true author, some still allow for the possibility of Goya's authorship. "Over recent years there has been a veritable cult of a sort of 'Goya code' of looking at scratch marks, odd jottings, odd shapes in old paint and anything that might be hidden just below the surface and making a lot out of it," says University of Essex Goya scholar Sarah Symmons. "Who might have painted a bit of the picture, or all of it, or just doodled on the painting one day when bored — who knows?" Nor does Symmons necessarily embrace the argument that the painting's compositional style points to an artist other than Goya. "His prints, which are beyond doubt, often make similar unorthodox visual statements, and, of course one of his most famous prints is a colossus figure," she says.

Now most in the academic art world seem resigned to The Colossus being an inferior work by a Goya imitator. Not just the initials buttress that judgment, but also the coarse depiction of the giant's musculature, the less-than-careful rendition of the surrounding landscape, and the unnatural way in which a soldier is falling from his galloping horse. Symmons still isn't convinced. "Goya did create a number of highly unorthodox works in maturity," she says, "and these works do not always correspond to the way some scholars like to regard him — as a more decorous and orthodox artist."

If there is a lesson in the long controversy over The Colossus, says Mena, it's this: "There comes a point when you realize that adoration of art or artists is not good for the pursuit of knowledge. Those two initials on The Colossus have helped us understand better who Goya is and what his work means. That's what's important. You have to keep moving forward with new eyes, without prejudice. Then you see."

Goya is often said to have wondered if people would remember him. "Well," says Symmons, "he died in 1828, and he's even more controversial now than he was then." For geniuses worried about their legacies, controversy isn't always a bad thing.