Editorial

Neil MacGregor and the British Museum

This month Neil MacGregor stands down as director of the British Museum, after almost thirteen years at its helm. News of this forthcoming event immediately drew widespread praise for his achievement. This Magazine initially intended to pursue the customary procedure of showing a selection of significant acquisitions which have entered the museum during the director’s term of office; but in MacGregor’s case it seemed more appropriate to do the opposite: to look not at what was brought in to the museum but at what has been sent out and shared with the wider world.

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Goya portraits

Madrid, around 1785, had a population of about 150,000 citizens, and it was said that because all the noble families were related, members of the aristocracy addressed each other as ‘cousin’. It is precisely this closely knit social network that provides the background to the splendid exhibition Goya. The Portraits at the National Gallery, London (to 10th January). About a third of Goya’s known works are portraits, and his astounding images span three generations of Spanish society. This was one of the most tumultuous and complex times in Spanish history, a period of forty years which saw the traditions of the ancien régime give way to a new world. In Spain, like in no other European nation, this shift was traumatic, creating a protracted combat between the dark forces that had their roots in the Middle Ages – religion, the Inquisition and absolute monarchy – and the Enlightenment – science and democracy – that was beginning to sweep through the Iberian peninsula. Goya was caught up in this world, an observer, participant and, more importantly for us, an outstanding witness. Arguably Goya’s greatest artistic achievements were not in the field of portraiture, and his absolute masterpieces are the Second of May and the Third of May 1808, the Caprichos and Disasters of war, the tapestry cartoons and the black paintings for the Quinta del Sordo. The exhibition in London, however, brings to the fore another important aspect of the painter’s art, and literally provides us with the faces of Goya’s age.

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