This weekend Boston's Museum of Fine Arts opens an extensive retrospective featuring more than 160 works by the Spanish old master Francisco Goya. Ten of them have never been shown in North America — including one that’s been particularly elusive, even for devoted fans.
But, dare we say “divine intervention” helped bring this monumental painting from a small chapel in Madrid to Boston's big art museum:
MFA curator Stephanie Loeb Stepanek was awestruck by Goya’s 11-by-6 oil painting titled, “Last Communion of Saint Joseph of Calasanz.”
Standing in the gallery, with her face about an inch from the canvas, she marveled at the artist’s grasp of the human figures in the scene, including the elderly saint in the foreground receiving communion.
“The modeling of these faces, each one has a very individual personality,” Stepanek said. “Of course he’s a portrait painter, so he’s used to looking at people.”
Goya was an artist to King Charles III and other royalty, but he also created artworks reflecting life beyond the castle walls in the 18th and 19th centuries. He conjured some 1,800 paintings, frescoes, drawings, lithographs, etchings and miniatures in his day. Goya's subject matter was always diverse, incredibly human and highly provocative. He found beauty, tragedy and horror in the visages and lives of aristocrats and beggars, the bloody scenes from bullfights and war, the supple flesh of voluptuous women and vile auras of demonic witches.
So it’s easy to imagine that being charged with organizing a retrospective of Goya's prolific career could be exciting, but also pretty daunting.
And it has been for both Stepanek and her co-curator Frederick Ilchman, who chairs the MFA’s Art of Europe department. The duo started brainstorming and planning the Goya exhibition three years ago. Early on they put out calls and queries to collaborating scholars and curators at other museums.
“One of the things we wanted to do was avoid the perpetual problem in art exhibitions where it peters out in the end,” Ilchman said. “So the question was, ‘What would be something, or a grouping of works, that makes a great point and leaves people on an emotional high?' ”
Their peers had an answer, but the work they suggested seemed unattainable. The artist painted “The Last Communion" late in life (1819) and Ilchman says it's something of a Holy Grail for Goya fans and art historians.
“It’s about life and death and the boundary between them,” Ilchman explained, “and it’s normally on the altar of a church, in an out-of-the-way part of Madrid, in a school, and it’s owned by the same order of teaching friars that were founded by St. Joseph and may even have taught Goya himself.”
It’s believed that Goya gave his painting to the school as a partial donation. It rarely leaves its place above that altar in Madrid, but Stepanek had the chance to bask in its presence once before.
“I had seen it in 2008 when the Prado mounted an exhibition called, ‘Goya in time of War,' " she recalled, "and I was bowled over by it.”
In 1988 Stepanek says she tried to borrow the painting for another show, but had no luck. She and Ilchman admit they were well aware that getting it to Boston for this 2014 exhibition would be a challenge.
“In order to get something this large — it’s very imposing, and not well-known except to Goya specialists — we needed to martial our forces,” Ilchman said.
Curators from the Prado Museum in Madrid — which has lent 21 Goyas for the Boston retrospective — helped out by setting up meetings between the MFA and the priest at the church. But Ilchman and Stepanek felt a little fortification could help their case.
“You can put on your good suit, you can bring your binder of images and explain what you want to do,” Ilchman recalled, “but when you bring your director with you it’s much more persuasive.”
But as it turns out MFA director Malcolm Rogers needed some convincing himself.
“He wasn’t intrigued by the picture,” Stepanek said, “but then, when he saw it, he was totally turned around.”
“I’d only seen it before in a black and white photograph,” Rogers said, “and nothing prepared me for its scale, extraordinary drama and above all the sheer intensity of its religious, spiritual feeling.”
Rogers said he knew the priests at the Madrid church would be making a huge sacrifice if they loaned the "Last Communion" to the MFA.
“One of the things that first struck me when I first saw it was, in a way it tells the story of human life. And one of my colleagues in Spain said, ‘Oh, no one’s ever said that before,' ” Rogers recounted.
Roger’s stature, insight and passion helped persuade the priests, but Ilchman says a little “higher help” probably sealed the deal.
“Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston, wrote a very beautiful and moving letter about how bringing this painting to Boston would be not just a service to this exhibition, but a gift — theologically, let’s say — to the people of New England,” the curator said with a smile.
Rogers admits he didn’t believe the fabled Goya would actually make it to Boston.
“A great work like this that’s never been seen here before really does contribute so much to our sense of the drama that was going on in Goya’s imagination," he said. "He’s one of the most intense artists who ever painted. But for me, above all, he created intensely memorable images that you can look at again and again and never quite understand them.”
And for Rogers and the curators behind the retrospective, "Goya: Order & Disorder," seeing this painting on at the MFA — hanging among the scores of other Goyas on the walls — feels like the end of a pilgrimage.