THE Prado Museum in Madrid holds a similarly ambiguous place in the affections and disaffections of the Spanish heart as the …

THE Prado Museum in Madrid holds a similarly ambiguous place in the affections and disaffections of the Spanish heart as the Abbey Theatre does in ours. It houses one of the greatest art collections in the world and, in the eyes of some influential critics, it rarely does anything right.

This year's celebration of Francisco de Goya's 250th birthday got off to a typically bad start. Goya stands high in the constellation of great Spanish artists, on a par with, Velasquez and Picasso. People here know his work intimately. The Prado commemorative show was under fire before it had even opened, for offering the Spanish public more of the same - there have been three Goya retrospectives in the past 10 years. Then things suddenly looked up in early March, when a "new" Goya was "discovered" in the old police headquarters in the Puerta del Sol.

It was just what the Prado needed as a centre piece for the show, and the museum's director, Jose Maria Luzon, could not resist a rush to judgment. He personally authenticated the attribution to Goya on the basis of a two day study by two of his curators. A week later, he was offering his resignation (subsequently rejected) to the Minister of Culture: not only was the painting not a Goya, but all the documentation which showed that it was painted by another artist was easily available in Madrid.

When the show itself opened two weeks ago, a former director of the Prado dismissed it as "not an exhibition at all, but a group of the museum's Goyas, with some outside additions of varying quality". Other voices echoed the view that it was a most inadequate gesture to celebrate such a great artist by showing 128 oil paintings usually on view in the Prado anyway, plus 42 from other sources. (These include the National Gallery of Ireland, which has loaned El Sueno - Sleep.)


It is undoubtedly disappointing that the Prado has chosen such a restrictive formula. It excludes such major Goya series as the Caprichos, his hallucinatory series of engravings satirising superstition, and Tauromaquia, his splendid reportage on the art of bullfighting. Nor can you see Disasters of. War, his graphic and sadly enduring indictment of cruelty and violence, nor the later satires in the Disparates series. (Some of these will be available shortly at the National Library, some are already on view elsewhere, and some, still unspecified, will be exhibited separately in the Prado in the autumn.)

Nevertheless, the current show does offer the visitor an unprecedented opportunity to experience an enormously rich body of work from an artist who speaks to our time as radically as he did to his own.

Goya is a key European artist in both aesthetic and political terms. Born in 1746 in Arago, he rose quickly to become the lead.ing painter at the courts of Charles III and Charles IV in Madrid. Like many leading figures of his generation, he endorsed the advent, of Enlightenment ideas from France, particularly where they challenged the power of the Catholic church, and the primitive, if fascinating, superstitions he seems to have associated with religious belief.

HOWEVER, the Enlightenment dream had a nightmare undershadow in the violence of the French Revolution, and particularly in the Napoleonic wars which followed it. Spain's - and Goya's - relationship with Napoleonic power was a deeply ambiguous lone. Napoleon's troops were first welcomed as allies against the old English enemy. By 1808, however, emerging Spanish nationalism combined with clerical reaction to oppose what was becoming a French occupation.

There was an uprising - more an armed riot - in Madrid on May 2nd, commemorated by Goya in one of his most powerful works. On May 3rd, the French carried out a series of retaliatory executions, which formed the subject of what is, perhaps, Goya's best known painting.

However, it is not quite so well known chat Goya did not actually paint these supposedly heroic works until after the French had safely been expelled with the help of the Duke of Wellington. It is still less well known that he enjoyed a friendly relationship with the Napoleonic court in Madrid in the intervening years, which very nearly cost him his neck when the Spanish monarchy was restored in 1814. The French writer Andre Malraux suggested that Goya's experience in this period was like that of a committed European Communist who saw his beloved country raped by Russian troops. His intellect would have been with the forces of "progress", his heart with the "patriotic" resistance. By the end of the bitter war, neither would offer much hope.

Nor were his troubles over when the court of Ferdinand VII took him back to its bosom. He was deeply uneasy at the "White Terror which swept the country, brutally reversing many of the reforms of his youth and middle age. He had already been entirely deaf for many years as a result of a mysterious illness, and when this recurred he retired to France, where he died in 1828.

Whatever his precise personal beliefs, which are not clearly recorded, Goya's lifetime saw a shift from religious certainties, through the brief optimism, of rational Enlightenment, to all the familiar anxieties of the modern age. It is not surprising, then, that this exhibition, grouped thematically in more or less chronological order, is a journey from light into darkness. The first scenes you see are pastoral idylls, picnics, rural party, games, weddings and hunting scenes. There is a sense of natural plenty, of ripe fruit, lusty bodies, rich red wine and sunshine.

With hindsight, however, it is possible to see hints of Goya's later bleak vision even in the brightest images. Look carefully at the wine drinker in the allegory of Summer (El Verano), and you see lunacy in his grin, and viciousness in the sly, conniving smiles of the spectators. Look again at the comic portrait of two cats fighting (Gatos rinendo), and you catch the shadow of the nightmares to come.

Then we move into his middle years as a court painter, where his classical portraits of kings, queens and cardinals have, to the modern eye, an almost cruel touch of realism. Vices are at least as visible as virtues, nor is there is any effort to beautify the far from classical features of Queen Maria Luisa. Aesthetically, Goya marks a transition from classical, Italianate painting to a whole range of styles which prefigure romanticism, impressionism, and even expressionism and abstract art. There is early evidence of this shift in these paintings, but it apparently caused little unease among his enthusiastic patrons.

The next room displays two of Goya's greatest treasures: the Maja Desnuda and the Maja Yestida. These full scale portraits of an unknown model, naked and clothed, mark a radical departure from the classical tradition, where the nude was always cloaked in divine references. The Maja is no perfectly proportioned Venus, but a sensual and deeply knowing flesh and blood woman of Goya's time, and arguably also of ours.

LEAVE plenty of time for the final rooms, which house Dos del Mayo, and the Tres de Mayo, images of war where realistic suffering constantly breaks through the patina of official commemoration. (Incidentally, the former painting has inspired a fine hommage by Robert Ballagh.)

Lastly, there are the so called "Black Pictures", painted by Goya directly on to the walls of his own house. Here, in portraits of unrelieved gloom and terror, we see the skull beneath the skin, the witches' sabbath shadowing the fiesta. Seamus Heaney, in the Ministry of Fear, transforms these works into another art:

. . . In the next room,

His nightmares, grafted to the palace wall -

Dark cyclones, hosting, breaking; Saturn

Jewelled in the blood of his own children,

Gigantic Chaos turning his brute hips

Over the world. Also, that holmgang

Where two berserks club each other to death

For honour's sake, greaved in a bog, and sinking.

He painted with his fists and elbows, flourished

The stained cape of his heart, as history charged.