Goya’s New Language

Goya’s Black Paintings, which he painted on the walls of his house for no one but himself, show a world so ugly and frightening you might conclude he was crazy.

He painted this one all across the wall of his living room:

La Romería (Wikimedia public domain photo

Here’s the one he did for the kitchen:

Two Old People Having Soup (Wikipedia public domain photo

No one knows just what to make of them. Goya didn’t even give them ambiguous titles as he had done with his etchings. He may have painted them in a mood of depression but even that’s not sure.

He had bought an old farmhouse outside of Madrid and went there with his cleaning lady to live. The property included a run-down garden with a well and a whole acre of land, which he just let go. The downstairs was divided into three big rooms and the upstairs was one great hall. Goya got very sick while living there—no one knows what illness it was. Perhaps it was then that he filled all the walls with “crazy” pictures. Afterwards he painted this one on canvas to show his gratitude to the doctor who had brought him through.

Self-portrait with Dr. Arrieta (Wikipedia public domain photo)

Few people were ever so delighted and then troubled and then overwhelmed by the world as Goya; and when he became disappointed he could show it better than anyone else. And few people in all of history have left such a full and original record of what they saw. The conventions of language and society are enough for most. They think and speak in conventions. Before he became deaf Goya too wrote like everyone else, and his paintings would never have won him world fame. At thirty he still sounded like just another village bumpkin, ignorant and fun-loving.

He came up with his own way to record what he found. He had to. One mysterious day, when he was 47, he was struck down with deafness and had to stop chatting. He could no longer talk with people. He could no longer hear them, only watch their faces. The world inside him became bigger than the one outside and he began describing it in pictures. He left the conventions of daily language and thought. He needed another way to explain and analyze his world. When he did, it was like Alice discovering Wonderland and it was a place just as unintelligible. It was fascinating but often shocking, sometimes maddening. Thank God it happened to a man who was a genius with a brush and a stylus because no one else would have been able to record for us what he found.

This is one of his Caprichos—a collection of etchings:

TThe Dream of Reason Produces Monsters (Wikipedia public domain photo)

He didn’t do it for anyone. His sketches and paintings were attempts at stating the doubts he had or the conclusions he came to, like paragraphs in a philosopher’s notebook. Some were finished truths; some were only questions or impressions.

And what truths: the beauty of lines and color? No.  Goya invented a way to show the wonder of his world, both the good and the bad. He was able to keep the color and the “proper” shape out when it contributed nothing. His vision is larger than the politics and tragic events of his time. It is about human nature then and always.

Neither more nor less Capricho No. 41 (released by the Museo del Prado, Madrid)

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525-1569)

Bruegel was a fore-runner. He showed a whole world, not just pretty takes on it, one where God is absent while ignorant and instinct-directed men copulate and play and fight and die like animals. The only beauty is the landscape and nature, beautiful in its unintelligibility and bruteness.

Bruegel sees the world just as an indifferent God does. There is an old man’s lack of delight and expectation—there was never any young man’s. The myths are no different from the truths—they add up to the same (god-damned) thing.

The Fall of Icarus by Bruegel the Elder (Wikipedia public domain photo)

Icarus falls into the sea—not worth all the fuss; the ploughman in the picture is more important.

Magi in the snow by Pieter Bruegel (Wikiart public domain photo)

Jesus is born in a ruined shed while three kings come trudging painfully through the snow, which is the great protagonist (can’t call it the hero) of the painting: the snow, the cold, the ice.

The Procession to Calvary by Pieter Bruegel (Wikipedia public domain photo)

No fan-fare on the greatest day since Creation. The crowd on Hanging Day follows the Savior to the sort of baseball field execution ground. They don’t know about or take an interest in the Convicts or the event, only the entertainment the going there all together affords. What would they do at home, the poor, silly things? Christ will save them but what for? In a picture by Bruegel heaven would look the same way. Joy? Even human joy is almost disgusting to behold.

Bruegel is the scientist in the laboratory. He is not one of the crowd of humanoids.

Wedding Dance in the Open Air by Pieter Bruegel (Wikipedia public domain photo)

Goya, however, is himself one of the poor fools he paints, he is one of Bruegel’s pig-people, one of the crowd. He did what they all did in the village; he liked to dress up and go out for a picnic on a Feast Day; he liked to drink, he liked to shoot quail; he liked to dance, to hear the old coplas, and to hug the village maid tight as the devil. In his letters to his old school buddy Zapater he ain’t no intellectual.

Bruegel has already made up his mind about the world when he paints. Goya, the more passionate man, is forever surprised, shocked, delighted, confused.

La Novillada (a country bullfight, probably a Goya self-portrait) Wikipedia public domain photo)

Take the bullfight. Goya loved it. It is more than a show. It is the real thing: danger, fear, death, courage, cruelty, animal behavior, people as a crowd…it is life itself and can be watched from the ring with a bota of wine and your girlfriend nudging beside you. One is horrified, scared, relieved, angered, exhiliarated, delighted—all the feelings come out as nowhere else.

The awful war

And Goya is one of the rebels in the war with the French, and one of the fusilados (executed). He is all these and yet he doesn’t paint them merely because they are him.

Executions of the Third of May (Wikipedia public domain photo)

A sort of journalist in pictures?

His pictures are not journalism. Some see his Desastres de la Guerra as proto war photos, as though he were a kind of Robert Capa.

What courage! from the Disasters of War etchings (Wikipedia public domain photo)

But he was no war correspondent—he worked on the etchings the way a poet composes his poem (powerful emotion recollected in tranquillity) and those etchings told more about the events than any photo ever could. Good as Capa’s photos are, because they are photos they immediately dull with realism, with the familiar.  And anyway, as snapshots, they cannot make use of any of the resources of art for concentrating, dramatizing, insisting…

Capa’s photos have the attraction of “the real thing”.  But art is the represented thing. It puts together all the parts of a scene and the significance of the scene in the most dramatic and suggestive way.

Deafness– the last straw

Deafness pushed Goya into doing his own thing. But already as soon as he got to Madrid from Zaragoza at 39 he was bothered by the way things were. He met smart, rich, well-informed men and women—the Enlightenment intellectuals who wanted to bring Spain out of the Dark Ages. He became unhappy with his endless commissions of placid scenes for the royal palaces. That was no way to use up his great energy and powers of creation. Slowly, even in those, bits of criticism had already turned up, where, for instance, a rich dotard marries a girl still a child.

The Wedding (Wikipedia public domain photo)

But after deafness struck him Goya began trying to find other ways to draw and paint the world. While he was recovering he painted some small scenes on tin. They weren’t all tragic. Some were funny like this show by travelling comedians:

A travelling troupe of comics (Wikipedia public domain photo)

Though now he is often remembered for his sartirical works, those were largely unknown to his customers, who were delighted with his brilliant portraits. He painted hundreds.

Ferdinand Guilletmardet, Napoleon’s ambassador (Wikipedia public domain photo)

And there was no sign of social criticism in his other large commissions. He was the King’s painter and always showed himself a humble subject, greatly honored by the audiences he was granted. In fact, it is remarkable the way Goya was able to please clients who were hostile to one another. Probably, because he was deaf, he spoke little as he worked and no one saw much of his mind.

Goya in his studio (Wikipedia public domain photo)

Even so he got into trouble. After Wellington drove Napoleon’s troops out of Spain, King Fernando returned and started settling old scores with the Republicans. Goya was called before the Inquisition. He was acquitted (or pardoned) for painting the Naked Maja but afterwards never felt safe, primarily because he had been friends with important Constitutionalists, many of whom were imprisoned. After some hiding and even an attempt to sneak out of the country, he reached an agreement with the authorities to hand over his etchings and travel to France to take “the medicinal baths”. He left the farm with the Black Paintings to his son. Though he made two short trips back to Spain, he lived the rest of his old age near Bordeaux and kept painting and drawing right up to the end. This is one of his last drawings:

Old man on a swing (Prado Museum, Madrid)






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