The Easel

Goya: Bearing true witness

We have probably all seen images from Goya’s so-called Black Paintings whether we realize it or not. The image known as Saturn Devouring His Son (Goya did not title these works, the titles came from later art historians) is especially ubiquitous. The painting depicts the ancient Greek and Roman mythological story in which Saturn (Kronos in the Greek) eats his own children. You’ll remember that there was a prophecy. One of the children of Saturn would overthrow him. Saturn’s solution to this problem was to eat all the children. This worked for a time, until, inevitably, it did not. But that is another story.

In this painting by Goya we see Saturn in all his horrifying, polyphagous glory. The scene is rendered in muddy colors: ochre, brown, black and gray. The figure of Saturn emerges from the darkness and murk, grasping the torso of his son with clenching hands. Saturn has already bitten off the head and is gnawing now on the left arm. There is a certain stringiness of bloody flesh and sinew as Saturn chews and pulls. The scene is awful. And what makes it worse is the look on Saturn’s face. He, too, looks terrified. Wide-eyed, wild-eyed, Saturn gazes directly at the viewer of the scene, as if begging us to intervene in some way, or, perhaps, simply to go away.

Saturn Devouring His Son is one of fourteen paintings that Goya made in the last decade of his life, sometime probably in the early 1820s (He was born in 1746). Goya was living in a house outside Madrid. The house was called Quinta del Sordo, Villa of the Deaf Man. It had already been named that before Goya got there. But Goya was himself, coincidentally, almost completely or completely deaf by that point in his life. He’d had at least two illnesses that nearly killed him. He was an old man. He’d seen all of his own children die, save one. He’d witnessed, and made art about, the awful violence and cruelty that had come with Napoleon’s invasion of Spain in 1808.

For some reason, a reason that is lost to history and, perhaps, that had never been clear even to Goya himself, he started making murals on the walls of Quinta del Sordo. These paintings portray things like witches gathering for a black sabbath, broken-down old men eating soup, Judith beheading Holofernes, a pilgrimage of screaming and grotesque persons traveling to San Isidro, and two men beating one another to death with heavy cudgels. As far as we know, Goya painted these murals solely for his own edification. Later, he willed the house to his grandson. Eventually, the murals made their way into the collection of the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid. The museum organized a transfer of the paintings from the villa to a special display room in the Prado, where they can be seen to this day.

Francisco Goya, A Pilgrimage To San Isidro [Black Paintings] (1819-23)

There is nothing in the history of European art quite like the Black Paintings. There are other grotesque and dark paintings, of course. There are other paintings that explore violence and alienation and terror. But there is something about the Black Paintings that also resists any direct interpretation, any sense of a clear message.

The standard interpretation, such as there is one, is that Goya had become disillusioned with almost everything by the time he painted the Black Paintings. Goya came of age in the latter part of the 18th century. He was alive during what we now call The Enlightenment, which was sweeping across Europe in this time. Political, social, scientific, and religious revolutions and reforms were being enacted across the continent in different ways and to varying degrees of success. A young Goya, talented as a draftsman and painter from an early age, made his way into the graces of the Spanish court in Madrid during this time of general optimism. There he began a steady rise. In 1789, he was appointed court painter to Charles IV. For the rest of his life, Goya enjoyed the privileges and patronage of kings and queens and the rest of the Spanish elite of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. He knew nothing but worldly success his entire life.

Francisco Goya, The Parasol (c. 1777)

Goya’s early paintings are a graphic demonstration of this general sense of hope and prosperity. Take, for instance, The Parasol (El Quitasol) painted about 1777. The painting was made with oil on linen and produced as a study for a series of tapestries for the Royal Palace of El Pardo in Madrid. According to Robert Hughes, The Parasol and other pictures Goya made for the tapestry series were all more or less modeled after Watteau, the French Rococo artist who chronicled the pleasant comings and goings of the French nobility a generation or so earlier than Goya. In his biography of Goya, Hughes wrote, “Since Goya’s task was to provide decor for the rooms of a royal family of moderately ilustrado tastes, Watteau was an ideal model, for his vision of a world of charming social harmony and exquisite manners, in which all social classes were united in the pursuit of harmonious pleasure, dancing, and listening to music, was bound to appeal.”

One can see what Hughes means by looking at the scene Goya captured in The Parasol. The colors are a pleasant journey from goldish yellow to light blue, in sky and dress, and the various shades in between. The light is bright. The faces are shiny. The woman is dressed in what any contemporary would have recognized as a fashionable and cosmopolitan French style. The young man behind her seems only too pleased to hold the parasol over her face. A lap dog snoozes contentedly. The overall structure of the painting is pyramidal and one of solidity, harmony, balance.

This harmonious vision, so the argument goes, was to collapse in the following decades. Spain was to fall into a bitter and brutal civil war after the Napoleonic invasions and Charles IV would be succeeded by the much more reactionary, Enlightenment-suspicious Ferdinand VII. In addition, Goya himself would be hit multiple times with personal illness and tragedy. It was these later events that gave rise to works like Goya’s famous series of eighty-two prints known as Los desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War). These prints are unforgettable and harrowing. Plate 37, titled Esto es peor (This is Worse), is one of the most disturbing images of the atrocities of war ever recorded. An armless and naked human body is completely impaled on a broken tree-trunk as, in the background, a soldier hacks away, saber raised to slice down into the bodies we can only vaguely see beneath him.

Francisco Goya, Plate 37 of The Disasters of War (1810)

It was the Goya of The Disasters of War who would also paint The Third of May 1808 (El tres de mayo de 1808 en Madrid) in 1814. It is not hard to say why this painting is so deeply affecting. The claustrophobia of it, the pity. The young man on his knees with his hands thrown up. The gruesome pile of bodies of those who’ve just been executed. It is impossible to look at this painting without feeling a clenching in the breast, a tightening at the pit of one’s stomach. The brightness at the center of the painting is not the brightness of hope; it is the flash of recognition, the shocking illumination of that which we can barely look at, that which the spirit would otherwise shield itself from. And this flash of light will soon be extinguished when the killing is done. The light will fade into the gloom and darkness that otherwise dominates the painting.

Francisco Goya, The Third of May 1808 (1814)

It is but a short trip from the Disasters of War and The Third of May to the Black Paintings. In the Black Paintings, the terror and pessimism has simply become less specific and more mythological. The violence has become abstract, as with the two peasants clubbing one another to death in an arid and empty landscape. Or the teeming and wretched mass of humans making their way through the murk and gloom toward the pilgrimage site at San Isidro. Or the terrifying group of people sitting before the dark lord in the form of a giant black goat overseeing this witches’ sabbath. Or just the wretched venality and decrepitude of the two old men, one of them essentially a corpse, scraping spoons at a meager meal of soup. Or the dog, the famous and lonely little dog peeking his head over a dingy hill and staring into the vast expanse of yellowish, dispiriting, and seemingly infinite gloom.

This is an artist, so the story goes, who experienced a life of such unrelenting disappointment in humanity that his final statements, these Black Paintings, amount to an almost total indictment of humankind. Scary, selfish, violent, superstitious, and frail: that is humanity.

There is truth in this story. There is truth, also, in the claim that Goya’s life was at least partly the story of dashed hopes and crushed optimism. Goya did live through a kind of collapse of the society of his time. He did see horrors of war and he had the courage not only to look at those horrors, really look, but he also went so far as to record those horrors in art. It is also true that the mysterious illness that Goya suffered in his middle age seems to have been truly terrifying and to have given him a lifelong fear of losing his sanity completely.

And yet, there seems to be something not quite right in the claim that Goya simply represents the dashed hopes of The Enlightenment. That’s because it is not actually so clear that Goya himself ever belonged to the cult of Reason to which his early career is often relegated. Let’s go back to the tapestry studies that Goya made for the Royal Palace of El Pardo. One of these has come to be known as The Kite.

Francisco Goya, The Kite (1777-8)

There’s no doubt that this picture is brighter in terms of color and tone than most of Goya’s later works and certainly than the Black Paintings. There is a certain sense of play and fun. But there is a sense of danger, something wild as well. The oft-found people-pyramid that underlies the structure of so many of Goya’s pictures is, here, a tottering kind of pyramid. The man sitting on the ground and smoking a cigarillo looks less than fully sober. And he’s serving as the base of the pyramid! The two men on the fallen tree trunk flying the kite are not exactly a model of stability either. The climbing fellow looks, in particular, like he could take a tumble any second. There is balance in this picture, but it is a balance composed of individual acts of imbalance. It is tenuous and uncertain, as the startled dog in the far right corner appears to recognize.

To press this point, one need only look at The Manikin, another of Goya’s cartoons for the tapestries at The Palace. Here, again, Goya’s pyramidal structure is anything but solid. It is topped by the straw man, being flung up and down by four women around the edges of the blanket. The women are looking up with expectant eyes as are people around the kite in the previous cartoon. These looks of expectancy are based, I would say, on a certain not-knowing. Not knowing what the kite is going to do, exactly. Not knowing in what strange ways the manikin doll will twist and turn. There is an element of chaos in each painting. And the figures at the base of the pyramidal structures are the very cause of the potential chaos with which they are amusing themselves. The excitement around the kite and manikin is an unruly excitement, born of indistinct yearning and desire.

Francisco Goya, The Manikin (1791-2)

Or, in another example, look at Boys Picking Fruit. Another pyramid of humans. This time, the structure is even more teetering. The top boy is balanced precariously on the back of another boy and in the crook of a tree. He’s shaking a tree branch in the hopes of dislodging some fruit for the other two children below. But what may very well come down is the whole structure. The somewhat troubled countenance of the boy with his hand outstretched reflects this indeterminacy. The painting is tense with expectancy. But expectancy for what? For getting what one wants? Or for disaster? And isn’t getting what one wants always shot through with the possibility of disaster? Or maybe the disaster is the secret thing that one always wanted. What do any of these people out in the countryside ‘enjoying’ various activities in Goya’s tapestry cartoons really want? They tend to be engaged in acts of play and leisure. But this play and leisure seems to tickle at the edges of something dangerous and potentially violent.

Francisco Goya, Boy Picking Fruit (1778)

In a cartoon like A Fight at the Venta Nueva, this potential for chaos and violence is explicit. The little people-pyramid more or less at the center of the picture is topped by a gnarled tree branch held by a rather burly fellow who is about to smash it into the face of one the four men brawling beneath him. It was Goya’s genius to find a certain pleasing balance even in the structure of five human beings pulling, grappling and beating on one another. But that is exactly the logic of the picture, the same logic that holds The Kite and The Manikin together as scenes. Balance, in these pictures, is the product of countervailing forces and is temporary at best. Structural stability, such as it can be achieved, is achieved without conscious intention. The brawling men in Fight at the Venta Nueva aren’t trying to make a pyramid, they just happen to do so in the process of tearing one another to pieces. Notice, also, another little dog in the near center of this painting. The dog who bears witness. The dog who makes eye contact with the viewer of the picture. ‘This fight happened’, ‘this madness exists’, the little dog seems to be saying.

Francisco Goya, A Fight at The Venta Nueva (1777)

You could even go so far as to say that Goya, an intensely visual person, understood human behavior almost entirely in terms of space and structure. Human beings tend to clump together, whether they are reaching toward the skies in the act of flying a kite, or in order to kill one another. Both of these acts produce a kind of organization, generally some form of clumping, which creates a messy sort of people-pyramid. The organization is not stable, nor is it conscious. It just happens. It is born of randomness and yearning, of anger or of dreaming. It happens in drunkenness and play as well as in worship, in war or in acts of politics. This human clumping and impromptu pyramid-forming is neither good nor bad, as it can produce the experience of joy as well as the experience of horror, and everything in between. Goya was interested in this clumping, how it looks, how it feels. He was attracted to the extremes when it came to clumping. Because, in the extremes, the central tendency is revealed, the essence of the behavior. He was also interested in canvases that had a fair amount of empty space so that the moments of clumping would be the more emphasized.

Francisco Goya, Capricho No. 42, You Who Cannot (1797-8)

You can see this Goya-clumping in the etchings he made for his Caprichos (Human Follies) series in the late 18th century and in many of his famous paintings (like The Third of May) from the early 18th century. Goya continued to play with this structure throughout his Disaster series, which reflects on the horrors of the Napoleonic wars.

Francisco Goya, Plate 3 of The Disasters of War, [El mismo: The Same] (1810-20)

By the end of his life, Goya had mastered his clumping technique. He’d abandoned all the ‘realism’ that attends his pictures of human scenes from earlier in his career. By the time of the Black Paintings he was only interested in the look and feel of the clumping, the claustrophobic and overlapping human bodies that create everything from a domestic scene with a few old men reading together, to large gatherings of human beings clumped for religious purposes.

Goya perceived clumps and pyramids happening among the educated elite of the Spanish court before the Napoleonic wars, during, and after. He saw them happening in religious pilgrimages and in the daily activities of the common folk everywhere around him. In this sense, Goya was never a painter of The Enlightenment. He was a painter of tendencies and forces that are deeper and more fundamental. How Goya personally felt about these forces was never so much the point. The point was to see them, to record them, to be witness to their power. Clumping was, for Goya, a core truth not to be denied.

Francisco Goya, Men Reading [Black Paintings] (1819-23)

Even the famous dog painting is a kind of internal clumping picture. That’s to say, the structure of the dog’s face is a little pyramid. The dog himself is like a moment of structure suddenly there, self-aware, a witness to the vast emptiness that surrounds him. And dogs, as we have previously noted, often play this role in Goya’s pictures: the ultimate witness.

The true witness neither judges nor prescribes. The true witness simply marks the sanctity of the moment. This happened. A clumping occurred. I was here.

Francisco Goya, The Dog [Black Paintings], (1819-23)