Telling Moments

The first in a series of Francisco de Goya etchings arrives at the UA Museum of Art

On June 15, 1801, a bull leaped out of the ring in Madrid.

The beast landed in the front bleachers, which were crowded with spectators out for a jolly day at the bullfight. At least a half-dozen were wounded, and they tumbled down over the seats. But the bull was fine, triumphant even. He stood holding aloft the body of the mayor of Torrejon, who hung limply over the animal's head. The unfortunate politician was dead, gored by the horns of the bull.

Francisco de Goya, one of the greatest Spanish artists, was an eyewitness to this murderous drama. He re-created it in one of the most compelling etchings in his bullfighting series, La Tauromaquia. In "Desgracias Acaecidas en el tendido de la plaza de Madrid (Dreadful Events in the Front Rows of the Ring at Madrid)," Goya stripped the scene of its color and pageantry. He rendered it in black and white, in a stark modernist composition with all the action compressed into the right side of the page. It's an eerily subversive work that upends the usual hierarchy of the ring--the bull lives, and the man dies.

A master of etching--a printmaking technique that allows an artist to make fluid line drawings into a coated metal plate, while adding painterly tones with aquatint--Goya made four major etching series in his long career. In a rare treat for Tucson, all four will be making stops at the University of Arizona Museum of Art in the next year, lent by the Meadows Museum at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

When the 33 bullfighting prints depart the UAMA, they'll be followed by the nightmare visions of "Los Disparates," the savagery of "Los Desastres de la Guerra (Disasters of War)" and the satire of "Los Caprichos." In contrast to these more tormented works, Goya's bullfighting etchings are part reportage, part celebration, with magnificently drawn figures and animals writhing, charging, leaping--and dying. Despite Goya's obvious love for the sport, the bullfight is a dance of death, full of ceremonial violence.

A lifelong fan of tauromaquia, Goya published this black-and-white suite in 1816, when he was 70 years old. The etchings are intended partly as a chronology of the blood ritual's long history in Spain, and the artist relied on a historical text by Nicolás Fernández de Moratín.

The earliest prints picture los antiguos españoles--the ancient Spaniards--hunting bulls on horseback in open country, or spearing them on foot. Goya goes painterly in these landscapes, capturing the rolling mountains in the distance in multiple tones of gray, evoking clouds with white passages. Later, these distractions will disappear, giving way to the spare bullfighting arena, and to a tighter focus on the animal and human combatants.

The Moors lived in Spain until their expulsion in 1492, and apparently helped develop some of the now de rigueur traditions of the ring. A "spirited Moor" named Gazul lances a bull from a horse in one picture; Goya admiringly notes in the title (all his titles are long and informative) that Gazul was "the first to spear bulls according to rules." Elsewhere, a Moor is shown thrusting a banderilla--a barbed, decorated dart--into a bull's side. Meant to provoke the animal, this act, too, has become part of the repertoire.

Only gradually did bullfighting become professionalized. Goya shows why it did, in a picture of a savage mob he denounces as the rabble. A crowd of sneering young men surround a magnificent bull, taunting him with banderillas and lances; they're about to cripple the bull by slicing into the tendons of his rear legs. There's no art to their barbarity. By the 18th century, an official elite of matadors and picadors monopolized bullfighting, and they played by elaborate rules meant to uphold the dignity of both bull and fighter.

Bullfighting eventually became a symbol of Spain, and a marker of Spanish identity. Carlos V was a king of Spain born abroad, and in Goya's hands, the monarch is a figure of strength on horseback, towering above the charging bull. By fighting the bull, he proved he was as Spanish as his subjects.

Interestingly, Goya the historian often collides with Goya the artist, and the artist invariably wins. The garments his Moors wear are historically inaccurate, a museum note tells us. Their white turbans and balloon pants are exotic, to be sure, but they were not of the distant past. Instead, Goya borrowed these picturesque garments from the Mamluks, slave soldiers brought to Spain in 1808 by Napoleon's invading troops. Likewise, one etching depicts a Spanish knight of old riding gallantly into the ring dressed in Renaissance-era array, a plumed hat atop his regal head. But the spectators in the bleachers look like visitors from the 19th century, wearing the workday clothes of Goya's own time.

The later prints, picturing famed bullfighters Goya had actually seen in the ring, are like the best photojournalism. These eyewitness images pulse with life and death, and Goya revels in the stylized choreography of the ring. Daring matadors leap over the bulls, ride on their backs or challenge the beasts with their own legs shackled.

One matador uses a pole--just like a vaulter--to leap over a charging bull in a picture Goya admiringly titles "The Agility and Audacity of Juanito Apiñani in (the ring) at Madrid." Apiñani and the bull are two dark figures in a pool of sunlight at the center of the picture, and the pole glistens in the light. In the distance, Goya has deftly sketched the crowd and their parasols, using only short, quick lines.

The artist is particularly skilled at gesture and expression of both man and beast. One etching evokes the pause just before combat. The bull is at attention, his whole body alert and focused on the picador on horseback confronting him. (The picador lances the bull before the toreador goes in for the kill.) Fernando del Toro, the picador, gazes right back at the bull as he slowly pulls his lance to the ready. It's a moment of charged understanding.

Goya's talent for capturing the telling moments is uncanny. The images strike a modern audience as photographic, but Goya lived before the invention of the camera: His visual memory for movement was evidently acute. And his pictures are wonderfully composed, stripped down in the printing studio into austere studies of sun and shadow. "The Very Skillful Student of Falces," for one, reduces the bullfighter to a swathe of black cape and hat, and bull to a patchwork of light and dark. The two figures are arranged in a large V, diagonal to each other, and their joined shadows slant down across the paper.

Grotesque and cruel as bullfighting seems to outsiders, to its aficionados, the stylized combat pairs two equal, and equally noble, combatants. The director of the Meadows Museum, Mark Roglán, writes that "men and animals are all victims and heroes inside the bullring."

Most of the time, it's the bull that dies, but sometimes, it's the man. The last etching in the series shows the death of Pepe Illo, the most celebrated toreador of Goya's day. Just weeks before the demise of the mayor of Torrejon, Illo lay on the ground beneath the lowering bull, a crumpled figure impaled on the bull's horns. His death came moments later.