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The nightmare world of Francisco de Goya.

No genius seems more spontaneous than his. His dreams, his reality, his style, even that break in the pencil-line by which his workmanship can be recognized at the first glance -- all were his own creation.' Thus began the essay on Goya by Andre Malraux, most famous of the effective twentieth century Ministers of Culture that France alone seems able to produce.

Until 12th June some eighty small paintings at the Royal Academy, London are exhibited under the title 'Goya: Truth and Fantasy'. It is the first exhibition of his works to be shown here for thirty years. How could this be? Goya is a titanic figure in art; the most powerful and original European artist of his time. He dared break with tradition by putting his private visions on paper which previously only poets had ventured to do.

Born near Saragossa in 1746 it took nearly forty years for his gifts to be recognized. When they were his images became more terrible and disturbing than anything seen before.

The first exhibits are of seemingly religious paintings. Goya had been in Italy in 1770 and they owe something to Italian rococo, especially to Tiepolo, last of the great Venetian decorators who worked for Charles III in Madrid from 1762 until his death. Yet when we look closer we see that Goya's cherubs that hover over his early 'Virgin of the Pillar' have nothing in common with Poussin's rosy-bottomed cherubs, but are evil little imps with sour faces and unattractive bodies. These works give an early intimation that Goya did not submit to the religious conventions so devoutly observed in the Spain of his day, but was simply responding to the artistic demands of his time.

An oil sketch of an obscure minor religious miracle, still celebrated annually in small towns all over Spain 'The Appearance of St. Isidore to St. Fernando', shows the saintly figure looming ridiculously through the air in a vast billowing yellow cloak to the astounded believers assembled below -- an example of Goya's fascination with irrationality.

But the image which intimates most clearly Goya's involvement with demons and terror is 'St. Francis Borgia Attending a Dying Impenitent'. The man lies in dishevelled bedclothes, his body arched in a spasm of terminal pain. He is screaming. From the shadows behind him a horned demon, a monster with the head of a goat and a red-eyed ghoul with bat's wings watch. Beside the bed stands a black-robed priest holding a crucifix aloft. Amazed and horrified he sees the tiny arm of the Christ figure raised to fling gobbets of blood onto the dying man.

Goya was able to express his anti-religious sentiments in a quite charming manner also. In 1795 he painted two exquisite vignettes; one of the graceful young Duchess of Alba teasing her elderly maidservant, 'La Beata', for her excessive piety, and the other of the Duchess's young daughter similarly taunting her.

When Goya was nearly thirty he was commissioned to paint tapestry cartoons for the royal manufactory. He produced sixty-three and they occupied him for sixteen years. Ravishingly painted and apparently light-hearted, they nonetheless hint at the ambiguity of human nature. 'The Parasol' has Goya's dressed-up lady carefully posed in an airy setting of feathery trees with a lightly ironic male servant holding a parasol to shade her, intimating that he understands the pretension of it all. Later in the series reality appears in the cartoon of a wounded mason fallen from some scaffolding being carried by two workmates, his whole slack body suggesting that he is fatally hurt. 'Autumn' seems a season of charming idleness with an elegant group about to enjoy the grapes, while behind them men toil among the vines; but in 'Winter' life becomes all too harsh and real with ill clad men straining against the wind in a snow-covered landscape.

The exhibition has one enchanting example of douceur de vivre. 'The Meadow of St. Isidro' shows a richly gowned society enjoying itself under a gloriously sunny sky on the banks of the Manzanares. They look across the river to the sunlit Madrid on the skyline, seemingly without a care in the world.

Ever alive to the blackness of his contemporary situation Goya painted scenes of witchcraft which was much in vogue at the end of the eighteenth century. 'The Witches' Sabbath' is a nightmare image of a number of old women seated round the devil in the guise of a garlanded horned goat, more horrible for assuming a human image with arms and legs outstretched before him. Under a moonlit sky alive with black bats human foetuses and new-born babies are being sacrificed to him.

Picasso observed that Spaniards are 'in love with violence and cruelty. They long to see blood flow -- the blood of horses, bulls, men- there is always the same pleasure in seeing the flow of blood'. No doubt he referred to his fascination with the bullfight, but Goya depicts the gleeful cannibal, self-flagellation and the gouging out of eyes with long metal spikes as well as his phantoms, winged monsters, bespectacled mules and other beasts. Pieter Bruegel and Hieronymous Bosch may outdo Goya: Max Ernst's surreal imaginings in our own day seem like fairytales by comparison.

Spaniards had witnessed human sacrifices and cannibalism since their conquests in Central America in the sixteenth century, so Goya's small painting of an exultant cannibal about to throw a man's head into the pot while holding a leg aloft ready to follow it should not surprise us. It is his painting of the inmates in 'The Madhouse', a cruel, more usually concealed aspect of society that shocks. Yet Goya is perhaps alone among painters able to bridge the gap between those naked, crazed wretches and the elegant sunlit figures in 'The Meadow of St. Isidro'.

Goya's scenes of the machinations of the Inquisition are no less disturbing. One painting here shows the helpless victims being sentenced to death, denoted by the red marks on top of their singular pointed headgear. The 'Procession of the Flagellants' parodies the lunacy of this supposed example of devoutness.

Goya himself was not unfamiliar with the Inquisition. He came before it to be reprimanded for the eroticism of his two famous portraits, 'The Naked Maja' and 'The Draped Maja', supposedly of the Duchess of Alba widely believed to be his mistress when he was fifty. In his own day Goya was celebrated for his portraits of which he painted more than two hundred. In recognition of this he was appointed Principal Painter to the King in 1799 and the following year painted the group portrait 'The Family of Charles IV'. It may astonish us that the Bourbons continued to employ him until he left for France in 1824, for he looked upon them with so pitiless and searching an eye. Their vanity, greed and ugliness are there for all to see. 'No Court Painter before or after has ever left such a record of his patrons', wrote Ernst Gombrich. Yet Michael Levey, sometime Slade Professor of Art at Cambridge, takes an altogether different stance. 'It is not a crime in art to be ugly', he writes, 'Queen Maria Luisa, so obtusely supposed by some critics to be caricatured by Goya, is treated with almost tender gravity...he is recording -- with ravishing delicacy -- a woman with attractive arms and tiny feet, a cloudy dream of crocus-yellow muslin'. The general view, however, is that this family look like prosperous grocers.

In 1792 Goya suffered a serious and mysterious illness which left him stone deaf, a disability he depicted as a man with padlocks for ears. The following year Charles IV, a dull and reactionary king, declared war on France's new Republic. Goya, articulate and well read, looked to France, home of Voltaire, as a place of modern civilization. Along with other liberal Spaniards he found himself in a dilemma. In 1808 French troops invaded Spain, drove out the new king, Ferdinand VII, and replaced him with Napoleon's brother, Joseph Bonaparte. His liberalism was not in question, but the French troops behaved with terrible savagery. Goya who abhorred the folly of all wars illustrated some of the barbarities in a series of etchings 'The Disasters of War!'. One, exhibited at the Academy, is of three naked corpses roped to a tree. One is suspended by his knees from a branch at one end of which his two arms, neatly tied, are suspended, while his head is impaled on the other end. So awful are some images that they were not published until some thirty years after Goya's death. No less terrible are some of Goya's private fantasies published as 'Los Caprichos' the purpose of which, he wrote was intended 'to banish harmful vulgar beliefs and to perpetuate...the solid testimony of truth'. He produced them from 1796-1798, savagely satirical attacks on manners and customs and on abuses in the church. Yet that same year, 1798, he painted the frescoes of the cupola of the church of St. Antonio de la Florida in Madrid.

With the aid of Wellington the French were driven out of Spain and Ferdinand VII was restored. Goya was pardoned for having worked for the French -- he painted portraits of Joseph Bonaparte and some of his generals -- and continued to work for the Court. Two years later he produced two paintings, the '2nd May, 1808' and the '3rd May, 1808'. The first shows half-crazed Spaniards attacking French cavalry mamelukes, and on the following day the forty-three Spanish patriots who faced the firing squad on the hill of Principe Pie outside Madrid. Some fifty-nine years later this painting inspired Edouard Manet's painting of the 'Execution of Maximilien'. Goya wrote of his 'burning desire to perpetuate by means of the brush the most notable and heroic actions of our glorious insurrection against the tyrant of Europe'. Goya apparently had no difficulty in running with the hare and hunting with the hounds.

Here was a man who could immortalize the beautiful Duchess of Alba on the one hand, and paint a frenzied image of 'Satan' in the act of devouring his own son to hang in his own dining room.

In 1824, realizing that a reaction against the despicable Ferdinand VII had begun, Goya resigned his Court appointment and begged leave to go to France for his health. He settled in Bordeaux where he died in 1828. He was eighty-two years old.

Considering his unending depictions of beastliness and horrors one wonders it Goya was not something of a monster himself. Certainly Sarah Jane Checkland in her spiritedly vitriolic review of this exhibition in The Times refutes his reputation as a tortured genius. For her he is 'a master of political opportunism, a misanthrope, a sadist and a priapic pursuer of other men's wives'. She raises the question of his sanity. She reminds us that in the Thirties a popular theory was that he had contracted syphilis which would explain the deaths of six of his seven children in infancy. In the Forties and Fifties the emerging view was that he was manic-depressive which explained his oral-aggressive and anal-sadistic fantasies.

Naturally so revealing an artist attracted the interest of psychiatrists. Francis Reitman suggests that 'The Proverbs', one of a number of print series published after Goya's death show 'a marked alienation from reality, representing a world of pure fantasy' with 'disturbed spatial relationships' and body parts 'cut off, multiplied and divided'. More succinctly Miss Checkland suggests that as 'an artistic psychopath, perhaps he was merely creating a smokescreen of ill-health, madness and eccentricity in order to skive from court duties to get on with what he considered his real work'.

What is indisputable is that mad or not, Goya projected European art from the eighteenth into the nineteenth century inspiring major art movements, Romanticism, Impressionism, Expressionism and Surrealism along the way. Not for nothing is he considered the first modern painter.

The exhibition at the Royal Academy, Burlington House, London ends on 12th June. There is a fully illustrated catalogue.

[Muriel Julius was formerly Art Critic of the London Evening News and columnist for Art News & Review.]
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Author:Julius, Muriel
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Jun 1, 1994
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