Painter Michael Armitage: “Goya is a haunting presence”

Francisco de Goya shook the artistic life of Michael Armitage more than once. Armitage first met the Spanish veteran on a trip to Madrid in his late teens. Knowing nothing of his dates or his work, he assumed that Goya’s “Black Paintings” – a visceral cycle of frescoes the artist made in his seventies – might be contemporary minimalism. “I was completely blown away,” he says.

The Kenyan-British Armitage, 38, is known for large-scale, multi-layered, often dreamlike paintings that dissect the foibles of Kenyan society and draw on the work of both East African modernists and the old masters of Western art, notably Goya (1746-1828) . This makes Madrid’s Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, where Goya became director in 1795 and which today houses 13 of his paintings as well as original plates and first editions of his etchings, the perfect place to organize an exhibition exploring the connections between the two artists .

Presented by the Spanish branch of the Turin-based Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo and curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist, the distinguished artistic director of London’s Serpentine Gallery, Michael Armitage in the museum’s Calcografía Nacional (its center for etchings) includes five oil paintings by the artist and 14 ink drawings. More of a clever intervention than a full-blown exhibition, the show serves as a master class that deepens our understanding of both artists.

Michael Armitage’s “Mydas” (2019)

Goya was court painter for most of his life, first making rococo tapestry caricatures and later particularly unflattering royal portraits. Today, Goya is best known for works from his fifties: Los Caprichos (1797-98) and Los disparates (1815-23), two series of etchings that harshly criticize human folly; The Disasters of War (1810-20), written in response to the brutality of the Peninsular War of 1808-14 but not published until 35 years after the artist’s death; the “Black Paintings”, which included “Atropos” (“The Fates”) and “Witches’ Sabbath”. Filled with strange, fantastical creatures, Goya’s work explores madness, superstition, crowd behavior, religion and political corruption.

“Goya is a haunting presence,” says Armitage via Zoom from his London studio. “He’s there for me, both in terms of what he technically does with a painting and conceptually, in terms of the ideas he chooses for his painting and the way he interacts with society reflected.”

Born to a British father and a Kenyan mother, Armitage grew up in Nairobi. In 2000, at the age of 16, he attended boarding school in the UK and then studied painting at the Slade School of Fine Art and the Royal Academy Schools. Today, with a studio behind his parents’ home in Nairobi and another in London, he splits his time between the two cities – although Kenya is his home.

Michael Armitage, “Mkokoteni” (2019)

‘Anthill’ (2017)

There is a dark sense of humor in Goya’s work that Armitage finds compelling – and easily understandable for Kenyans, he finds. “I’ve always found him very funny! Even the darkest of his paintings is often satire.”

Armitage’s own paintings are inspired by political events, social media and pop culture. Weaving together folklore, myth and personal memories, the five works shown here are a Goya-esque interpretation of Kenyan society. In “Anthill” (2017), three exorcised women evoke the aerial figures of “Atropos” flying towards us on hyenas. In Mkokoteni (2019), two Goya-esque cartoons capture the chaos of the 2017 Kenyan elections. With a nod to Los Caprichos, in which obnoxious old men court beautiful young women, Armitage skewers the Kenyan coast‘s sex tourism industry in Mangroves Dip (2015).

Invoking the feisty Greek heroine, “Antigone” (2018) features Goya-esque irony in a nude woman seated in a semi-pornographic pose beneath the words “All she wants is to be married”. Intended as a critique of the slowly dying attitude in Kenyan society that a woman needs a husband to validate her existence, the complex issues surrounding the depiction of the female body nonetheless make the painting uncomfortable to look at.

Francisco de Goya’s “I’m Still Learning” (1828) © Alamy

In 1793 Goya was stricken with a mysterious illness that left him deaf, and much has been written about the darker mood that followed. Armitage does not equate darkness with pessimism or cynicism. “What I get from Goya is phenomenal empathy and philanthropy. . . One of Goya’s very last drawings shows an old man with crutches saying, “I’m still learning.” It’s hard to see that coming from someone who hated being part of society.”

Intensive scrutiny of Goya’s work has changed the way Armitage – recently elected Royal Academician – draws. “The sparsity of the image implies rapid production, but when you look at the actual drawings you see that the lines are made up of brushstrokes that are often quite gentle,” he says.

Using Prout’s ink, which “can be remoistened and reworked,” the 14 ink drawings in the exhibition are from the last three years: a “strong man” balancing three figures on his back; a hooded man holds a decapitated head in his hands; A soldier’s head hovers over him as he dies. These drawings have a sense of the absurd which, along with their sparse composition, is traceable to Goya.

Michael Armitage’s “Strong Man: Crate” (2020)

‘Ghost’ (2020)

At the end of the exhibition, Obrist has included five etchings of Los caprichos and Los disparates, a taster for the Goyas that you can find elsewhere in the museum. The theatrically lit Goya Cabinet displays a selection of the 228 panels that the Real Academia owns, and the main part of the museum houses the 13 Goya paintings, including the wonderfully named ‘Burial of the Sardine’ (c. 1812-14), whose Mardi Gras banner Armitage “stole” for his 2017 work The Fourth Estate and turned its smiling face into a frog.

The exhibition not only connects Armitage with Goya and teaches us both: Armitage is in dialogue with Goya, yes, but also with Manet, Velázquez and Gauguin. And I can’t think of Antigone or Mangroves Dip without thinking of Jak Katarikawe and Asaph Ng’ethe Macua, two East African artists I first met on Armitage shows. Perhaps counterintuitively, the exhibition’s narrow focus on Goya refreshes our sense of the depth and breadth of allusions in Armitage’s work.

Until March 1st, Calcografía Nacional, Madrid, rabasf.com

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