by Linda Simon
Critic Robert Hughes tackles the protean work and tumultuous times of eighteenth-century Spanish painter Francisco de Goya.
n 1796, Francisco de Goya, in the midst of a successful career as a portraitist of royalty and, in his own way, chronicler of history, produced a
series of eighty prints that he titled Los caprichos. The word capricho--in English, caprice--implies whimsicality, playfulness, fancy. But Goya's prints were hardly that: as he himself explained them, their subject matter was selected from "the innumerable foibles and follies to be found in any civilized society, and from the common prejudices and deceitful practices which custom, ignorance, or self-interest have made usual. . . and which, at the same time, stimulate the artist's imagination."
New York: Knopf, 2003
429 pp., $40.00
Satirical, caustic, and disturbing, Los caprichos, Goya was quick to add, did not aim to mock anyone in particular--an offense, we learn, that would have cost him his career. In Goya, a new biography of the artist, critic Robert Hughes sees that the overall effect of Los caprichos was a merciless commentary on social, political, and religious hypocrisy. Marriage, as Goya depicted it, was a form of prostitution, and the Catholic Church was beset by greed. Priests extolled chastity and moderation but pursued boys and gorged themselves on meat and drink, while abstemious monks were as voracious as cannibals. Goya's most ferocious criticism was directed at the Inquisition, ruthlessly satirized in many prints.
Perhaps the most famous of Los caprichos is "El sueno de la razon produce monstruos": the sleep of reason brings forth monsters. Here, Goya shows a man asleep, his head resting on his folded arms. Owls and bats fly menacingly around his head; at his feet, a lynx sits motionless, alert and staring. Bats, bloodsucking creatures of the night, evoked associations with the devil; owls, Hughes tells us, were at the time symbols of "mindless stupidities," not, as we might suppose today, of wisdom. Yet there is an intimation of wisdom in this unsettling scene: the ability to see through darkness and perceive truth from error was the special talent of the lynx. The sleeper is none other than an artist himself, offered a piece of artist's chalk by one of the owls. If this is a self-portrait, Goya, at fifty, is a man exhausted; beset by demons that haunt him, assault him, but might, after all, serve to inspire him; a man seeking wisdom, yet subject to a swirling maelstrom of stupidities and evils.
Certainly this print encapsulates Hughes' understanding of Goya: a genius whose mind was capable of producing monstrous doubts and anxieties; who was exhausted by a mysterious and horrifying illness; who responded viscerally and emotionally to his country's continuing troubles, including poverty, barbaric oppression, and war. "El sueno de la razon produce monstruos" was the first print of
Goya's that Hughes ever owned, purchased when he was still a student. Though a second-
rate copy, to be sure, it tantalized him. "I realized to my astonishment," he says, "what extremity of the tragic sense the man could put onto little sheets of paper."
Goya in a self-portait, 1815. From the book
ragic, tormented, contradictory: Hughes' Goya is not the romantic hero created by his nineteenth-century French biographers, who so admired him, Hughes believes, "that they felt obliged to make Goya ... a revolutionary, an anti-monarchist, a turbulent and erotic figure with a wild youth behind him and a fiercely ingrained resistance to any sort of interference with his artistic autonomy." The truth is more complicated: although Goya happily identified with a kind of street dandy called a majo, he also enjoyed patronage by a succession of Bourbon royalty and the aristocracy that surrounded them. For thirty-nine years, he was a court painter. He luxuriated in weekends at country estates, produced portraits for the rich, and bragged about his earnings to friends and family. He coveted recognition and acclaim.
Born in 1746, Goya was brought up in Zaragoza, the provincial capital of Aragon, the fourth child of Jos‚ Goya, a gilder whose commissions included church sanctuaries and architectural decorations. Goya's mother belonged to the lowest order of nobility--a title bought, not inherited; still, his family had a certain status in the town. Goya emerged from schooling literate but hardly educated and was apprenticed at age thirteen to a painter, a friend of his father. Following his apprenticeship, like many aspiring artists, he took a sojourn to Italy. By the early 1770s, he was back in Zaragoza, where he married and began his professional career, winning several church commissions. Success might lie before him, he hoped, but his future would not be played out in the provinces. In 1775, at the age of twenty-nine, he set out for Madrid, where his brother-in-law already was established as a court artist.
Hughes, the author of Barcelona, The Shock of the New, and American Visions, creates here a sweeping and richly complex portrait of the social, political, and cultural context in which Goya lived and worked, evoking in gritty detail Spain's "mean, dirty" capital city, home to nearly 150,000 people and the court of Goya's first patron, Carlos III. A diligent, even obsessive, Catholic, Carlos, Hughes notes, was a man of unalterable habit and punctilious rigidity: "His favorite metaphor of political life was the clock, with its cogs and wheels tick-tocking along in a regulated, invariable pattern." Evenings at the court, Hughes tells us, "were said to induce a profound torpidity." The king's passion was aroused only by the hunt, in which he engaged whenever he possibly could. Goya's portrait of Carlos shows him decked out in a hunting costume, his favorite regalia. Within this world of intellectual provincialism, ardent Catholicism, and the Inquisition, Goya rose to prominence, awarded commissions to design tapestries, paint portraits, and adorn churches. "I am now Painter to the King with fifteen thousand reales," he boasted to a friend. By 1786, a decade after he arrived in Madrid, he had become an artist of repute.
Within this world of intellectual provincialism, ardent Catholicism, and the Inquisition, Goya rose to prominence, awarded commissions to design tapestries, paint portraits, and adorn churches.
Yet within a few years, Goya's exultations dimmed. He bristled at working within the circumscribed expectations of the court, with artists who believed their task was to imitate classical forms rather than celebrate nature. "What a scandal," he exclaimed, "to her nature deprecated in comparison to Greek statues ... without acknowledging that the smallest part of Nature confounds and amazes those who know most! What statue or cast of it might there be that is not copied from divine nature?" In 1792, he suddenly left Madrid and traveled south, apparently to find new sources for his art and revitalize his imagination.
Instead, he succumbed to an illness as devastating as it was mysterious. His symptoms were overwhelming: he heard a constant roaring and ringing in his head; he was dizzy and prone to fainting, nauseated, and, at times, nearly blind. Soon, he became totally deaf and remained so for the rest of his life. The symptoms, Hughes notes, have been attributed to M‚niŠre's syndrome, botulism, polio, hepatitis, meningitis, and even syphilis--a diagnosis that Hughes rejects because Goya, later, showed none of the expected signs of syphilitic degeneration. In any case, Hughes is more interested in the effects of illness than in its unknown cause. Because Goya's physicians could not explain his illness, nor offer any treatment, much less cure, Goya was beset with anxiety. How long, he worried, would the illness last? Would it become worse, ruin his career, separate him, forever, from social relationships; would he, in the end, become mad? Deafness was the worst affliction, condemning him to unremitting isolation.
Many months passed before he could paint again, and when he did, his fear of isolation and degradation formed the theme of several works, notably the dark and disturbing "Interior of a Prison" and "Yard With Lunatics." Even when his subjects seemed unrelated to his illness, Goya's work of the 1790s shows recurring evidence of his depression. Goya, Hughes writes, "had just been stricken down into the depressive's nightmare predicament: cut off from the world and from intimate contact with others ... ; alienated; lost within himself; desperately anxious ... to show that things were not as bad as they seemed, that nothing was deeply wrong, that he could still function as a man
and an artist." Paintings of bullfights, of strolling musicians, of street life were imbued with a sense of desperation and violent fears. Outstanding among these works were Los caprichos.
Author Robert Hughes
The first modernist
n the thirty years left of his career, however, Goya was fueled not only by his personal demons and monsters but by a conviction that he was forging new directions, both in technique and subject matter. In Los caprichos, he experimented with and furthered the technique of aquatint, which allowed him to create modulated, painterly tones--swathes of deep black, mysterious shadows--which were not possible merely through etching. "There are no rules in painting," he announced. "The tyranny that obliges everyone, as if they were slaves, to study in the same way or to follow the same method is a great impediment to the young who practice this very difficult art." Instead, he encouraged, and practiced, a spontaneity in technique and vision that made his work fresh, vibrant, and, in Hughes' eyes, prescient of modernism. His drawings, Hughes says, "exalt the scribble, the puddle, the blot, the smear, the suggestive beauty of the unfinished--and, above all, the primal struggle of light and dark, that flux from which all consciousness of shape is born."
But Goya's modernism, Hughes tells us, has less to do with technical innovation than "with a questioning, irreverent attitude to life; with a persistent skepticism that sees through the official structures of society and does not pay reflexive homage to authority, whether that of church, monarch, or aristocrat; that tends, above all, to take little for granted, and to seek a continuously realistic attitude towards its themes and subjects." Goya struck out against convention to render the sensational and the shocking: robbery and murder, adultery and rape, cannibalism. Nowhere is his rebellion more striking than in his portrayal of war. In The Second of May, The Third of May, and The Disasters of War, Goya created not paeans to patriotism and heroism but revelations of savage brutality. War destroys: "This was the irreducible fact," Hughes tells us, "that, in a time clogged and sugared with every kind of false promise about the chivalrous nobility of war, Goya brought back from the killing fields of Spain and put in the forefront of his work."
Those killing fields occurred between 1808 and 1814, when Napoleon's hundreds and thousands of trained militia took on Spain's bedraggled, underfunded, often starving soldiers and, more astonishing to the French, the guerillas--women among them--fighting for their country and their lives. Although Goya had voiced no protest when Joseph Bonaparte was proposed by his brother as Spain's new regent (although as a Spaniard he well understood his compatriots' celebration of their ser autentico, or true identity), he believed that war could have no victor, only degradation on all sides. Goya's Spanish farmers and peasants eviscerate the French with as much barbarity as the French cut the throats of their Spanish prisoners.
The eighty etchings comprised by Disasters of War are relentless in their depiction of violence, rotting cadavers, orphaned children, birds devouring bodies still half-alive: cruelty, pain, sorrow--and, Hughes writes, "a pessimism so vast and desolating that it can fairly be called Shakespearean." One plate is titled, tellingly, Nada: nothing. "It has all been for nothing," in Goya's dark view: "the countless deaths, the misery, the rape, the pillaging, the dismemberment of Spain." Nothing except the loss of identity when violence reduces humans to no more than beasts.
Fernando's paranoic vengeance against real and imagined enemies made Goya's life intolerable. In 1824, he applied for permission to take the waters in the south of France and went into self-imposed exile in Bordeaux.
Napoleon's defeat and Spain's restoration under Fernando VII confirmed Goya's pessimism about his country's future. Although again he rendered service as court portraitist, those paintings, Hughes says, reveal Goya's distaste for the repressive monarch. Fernando's paranoic vengeance against real and imagined enemies made Goya's life intolerable. In 1824, he applied for permission to take the waters in the south of France and went into self-imposed exile in Bordeaux. Deaf, ill, knowing no French, still Goya envisioned a creative future: he took up lithography, returned to portraiture, and reprised some Spanish themes in his paintings. But his health undermined whatever enthusiasms had revived: in 1825, physicians discovered a large tumor; early the next year he suffered a stroke that paralyzed half his body; and on April 16, 1826, with only a few friends at his bedside, he died.
Hughes brings to this biography more than his usual passion for art. Certainly, he says, no one writing about the visual arts, as he has done for more than four decades, can avoid considering Goya's work and impact. But Goya had proved an intimidating, even intransigent, subject, pushing Hughes to a writing block that lasted for years. Only after a near-fatal automobile accident that resulted in five weeks in a coma, a dozen operations, six months of hospitalization, and more than three years of therapy could Hughes return to the project. During his recovery, he had dreams about Goya: dreams that he had met the artist, dreams that Goya was manipulating the contraptions that kept Hughes' body rigid, and his bones healing. "One does not need to be Dr. Freud," Hughes says, "to recognize the meaning of this bizarre and obsessive vision. I had hoped to 'capture' Goya in writing, and he instead imprisoned me." Nevertheless, Hughes discovered that his suffering generated an empathy for his subject, a visceral understanding, that had eluded him before. "It may be," Hughes believes, "that the writer who does not know fear, despair, and pain cannot fully know Goya." Despite the regrettable cause, he has succeeded in capturing his subject with the trenchancy and wit that characterize all of his writing. For Hughes, Goya is a man of ferocious spirit and energy, an artist of astounding originality, an eighteenth century Spaniard at once isolated from and embroiled in his culture, inspired and repulsed by the terrifying temper of his times.
Linda Simon is professor of literature at Skidmore College and a frequent contributor to The World & I.