In the 174 years since Francisco Jose de Goya y Lucientes died, he has been celebrated, explicated, copied, collected and feared by everyone who matters. Painters from Delacroix to the YBAs (Young British Artists) have looked to him for inspiration. Writers from Baudelaire to Robert Hughes have sung his praises. Strongmen (e.g., Franco) and weakmen (Napoleon's kin) and reformers (King Juan Carlos) and oil barons (Algur H. Meadows) alike have claimed him as their own.

And yet, for all the ink and artists' pigments spilled on the subject, Goya remains in many ways a mystery. His life and his politics are, as ever, the subject of intense disagreement, and his works still present seemingly insoluble koans. Many of these riddles now line the walls of the Meadows Museum of Art, which is displaying the complete set of Goya's two late, great series of etchings, La Tauromaquia and Los Disparates.

By and large, the Meadows show takes an agnostic approach, championing neither Goya, man-of-the-people, nor Goya, elitist snob. The curators take no stand on the relationship between the Spaniard's enlightenment beliefs and his dark, irrational nightmares. Instead, they throw the work out there, offering little in the way of new scholarship or theory, attempting no catalog and sidestepping even the questions presented by work in their permanent collection.

The Meadows begins the story in 1816, when the 70-year-old Goya, ill, isolated, out of royal favor and (the curators suggest) in need of wampum, published his Tauromaquia, 33 copperplates illustrating the history and contemporary practice of bullfighting in Spain. There is some evidence in the etchings themselves to support this view; several seem hastily executed and even unfinished. Unfortunately, the curators make no effort to explore Goya's seemingly contradictory attitudes, the tension between his admiration for blood and machismo and his enlightenment credentials, ignoring bullfighting's already controversial nature and its political uses during the years of the Peninsular War. Was Goya, as they suggest, simply a fan? In the wake of his 1815 scrape with the Inquisition, was he trying to mend relations with the church and the aristocracy, playing propagandist? Was he shilling for his friend Moratin, author of a book about bullfighting, or just plain pandering to the public? If the latter, what to make of his bitingly cynical views of the riffraff, displayed in several captions?

Alas, the Meadows makes no effort to reconcile these Goyas, and the result is a show that presents the Spaniard chiefly as an ironic figure. For if ever there was proof of the biblical saw that the race is not to the strong or the swift, that time and circumstance happeneth to all men, the life of Francisco Jose de Goya y Lucientes, who inveighed against the church and religious superstition, was that proof. Burning with ambition and talent, not to mention a genius for social climbing and political maneuvering, Goya negotiated his way up Spain's social food chain with ease. By the time he was 40, Goya had risen from humble origins to the very apex of success. He had fame (appointments as court painter to Charles III, the most enlightened of Spain's monarchs, as well as first painter to his son Charles IV). He had fortune (a generous royal salary, plus commissions). He had important patrons and influential friends (men like Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos, the crème of the Spanish Enlightenment). He had a politically connected wife, a son, beautiful and impetuous mistresses, fancy carriages and a small estate outside Madrid. As Goya liked to brag, "the king [Charles IV] and queen are crazy about yours truly."

Scholars have long sparred over whether Goya's startlingly modern portraits of pompous personages are straight-up bootlicking or subtly subversive. Certainly, Goya could fawn when it suited him. At the same time, though, Goya was the most complex and contradictory of characters, with a contrarian streak that intensified as he aged; even as he painted self-important fops like the queen's lover, Prime Minister Manuel Godoy, Goya commented to a friend that, "I could never be servile."

In 1792, Goya came down with the most serious of several sicknesses that plagued him during his life. Though the exact nature of his illness is unknown--suggestions range from polio to syphilis--it rendered him temporarily paralyzed, near death and delirious. When he finally recovered, Goya was deaf. The scholarly line, which the Meadows largely parrots, is that this brush with the hereafter left Goya depressed and inwardly focused, leading to the politically charged work that followed. But whether Goya was depressed, or really believed in reformation ideals, or misread the political situation, or became too arrogant, or simply could not contain his obstinate nature, he began to produce work that threatened his privileged niche in Spanish society. He produced the series known as "the cabinet paintings," a number of smallish canvases filled with social criticism. (The Meadows' 1793-94 "Yard With Madmen," perhaps the most important painting in its collection, is from this series.) In 1797 he began engraving the copperplates for perhaps his most famous work, Los Caprichos, a series of 80 etchings ridiculing the aristocracy, the Inquisition, the church and Spanish social customs. When they were published in 1799, not even Goya's royal connections could protect him from the backlash, and he was forced to withdraw the series after selling only 27 sets. In 1803, to avoid being hauled before the Inquisition, Goya agreed to surrender the copperplates. (He did, it appears, secretly keep and sell a few copies.)

Los Caprichos was Goya's liberal manifesto, allying him with the enlightenment ideals of the Spanish reformation. But the next few decades of Spanish history would go badly for the liberal team. In 1807, the new king, Ferdinand VII, invited Bonaparte in to invade Portugal; the crafty Corsican double-crossed Ferdinand, occupying Spain, installing his brother Joseph as ruler and launching the Peninsular War.

Goya appears to have hedged his bets. Although he served as court painter to Joseph Bonaparte, he also turned out work criticizing French atrocities. (The greatest of these works, Goya's Disasters of War, were not published during Goya's lifetime.) Many scholars attribute Goya's increasingly dark views of human nature to his wartime disillusionment, his inability to reconcile the actions of Napoleon's armies with fancy French notions of liberalism. In any event, by the time Ferdinand was restored to the throne in 1814, Goya had some explaining to do. He did his explaining to Ferdinand by way of producing his two most famous paintings, "The Second of May" and "The Third of May," depicting a Spanish revolt against the French and its aftermath. (Ferdinand was somewhat less than impressed; both paintings sat in royal storage for 40 years.) He did his explaining to the Grand Inquisitor in 1815, during his trial on obscenity charges. (Goya was acquitted.)

The Tauromaquia plates date from this period, when Goya, by then a widower, was estranged from his son and out of political favor. Although long overshadowed by Goya's more famous Caprichos and the Disasters of War series, the Tauromaquia seem to have gone a long way toward rehabilitating Goya with the Spanish people. But they also show that Goya did not return the people's regard. The plates depict bloodthirsty crowds thrilling to feats of great cruelty and bravery. Taken together, they show Goya's conception of mankind as a base creature, who can nevertheless rise to noble feats through the imperatives of chivalry and in defiance of death.

Goya's misanthropic streak is even more pronounced in the Disparates, a series of 18 etchings executed sometime between 1815 and 1824. Created for Goya's private amusement, these Bosch-like images are closely related to the famous Black Paintings, a series that Goya painted directly on the walls of his house outside Madrid.

Artistically, Los Disparates are Goya's most accomplished etchings, displaying his mastery of engraving techniques, his control of shadow and light, his command of nuance and movement. They are also, of course, among Goya's most difficult works. The visual equivalent of Twain's "Mysterious Stranger" manuscript, the Disparates go beyond the dark observations contained in Goya's Disasters of War, constituting comments on human depravity. Even Robert Hughes, in a brilliant essay on Goya's politics and personality, claims they "resist all interpretation."

Alas, the Meadows offers little to remedy this state of affairs. Some can be read as satires on religion, on male-female relations, on egghead and upper-class pretensions, even on growing old. Others seem to present moral allegories. But what is the meaning of, say, No. 6, with its masturbating or urinating man turned from view and its decapitated body still standing, with its third figure carrying the missing head on a lance? Despite the preponderance of black backgrounds, some plates, such as the flying men, seem to be innocuous dreams; still others can only be understood as Goya's attempt to exorcise the bleakness and unrelenting darkness he saw in the human soul.

The Meadows' etchings date from the first Disparates edition, published some 36 years after Goya's death. It is a rare opportunity to view one of the most famous and enigmatic series of old masters' etchings in existence, and it is too bad that the Meadows offers so little by way of a key.

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Christine Biederman