Francisco Goya and the Unremitting Violence of the Human Condition

Often referred to as the last of the old masters, Francisco Goya’s artistic vision was a few hundred years ahead of his time.

<em>Summer, or The Harvest</em> by Francisco Goya. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Summer, or The Harvest by Francisco Goya. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

I had planned to spend my first evening in Madrid at the Prado. But what I could not have anticipated is that close to my entire time at the museum would be taken up with the Goya rooms. It had taken me a little while to find my bearings: I had landed in Madrid late that afternoon, checked into my hotel, brewed myself a cup of tea and come out to find evening settling over Madrid. A short walk along the the Calle de Cervantes took me to the Plaza de los Cortes, a beautifully-lit square where coloured fountains criss-crossed one another in charming patterns, and to the Passeo del Prado, the majestic avenue on which, behind a line of poplars, stands Spain’s most-visited museum. I walked across to the other side, past a few curio shops and cafes lining the park, and in a few minutes the magnificent Doric columns of the raised platform leading to the Prado’s main exhibition hall came into view.

Once at the museum, I picked up a museum guidebook and located the Goya rooms in it, but lost my way in one of the many wide corridors lined with sculptures from the Renaissance. I have seen some great museums, and in its size and range the Prado belongs with the best among them. It gives you a sense of space, with a wide, open veranda running all around the galleries and tall exhibition rooms in which the exhibits never look cluttered, unlike, say, the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, which seems to be choking from a surfeit of treasures. Even the great Accademia, Florence’s crown jewel, looks a little cramped in comparison. It did not surprise me, therefore, that I lost my way inside the Prado: I am capable of going in the exact opposite direction to my home when returning from the neighbourhood grocery store in Bangalore.

Francisco Goya's 1795 self portrait. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Francisco Goya’s 1795 self portrait. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

To cut a long story short, by the time I was where I wanted to be, I had lost some precious time. And once I had reached the Goya paintings, I lost count of time. Here were paintings I had seen many times over in print, but the thrill of standing before the originals is not easily matched. Besides, the prints do not often give you an idea of the size of the canvas, or of the exact shades of the artist’s palette. The prints I had seen of The Drowning Dog – with more than four-fifths of the vertically-aligned canvas dominated by a lifeless grey sky as a puny dog is sucked into the quagmire – never told me that the whole picture was actually done in shades of brown and rusty red, the colour of Earth in most parts of Spain, and not a visually-neutral ashen grey.

Even The Third of May, the painting most widely associated with the name Goya, suffers badly in print. I had never imagined that the man being executed wore a shirt and a pair of trousers the exact shades of whose white (the shirt) and yellow (the pants) mirrored the white and yellow of the only source of light in the night canvas, the case in which the lantern stood. I also saw some altogether new Goyas, like Boys with Mastiffs, The Meadow of San Isidro, Judith and Holofernes and his Self-Portrait of 1795-96, which is so unlike the better-known self-portrait of 1815.

But the Prado’s pride is Goya’s ‘Quinta del Sordo’ paintings (1820-22), if a word such as pride may be associated with these truly dark paintings. These adorned the painter’s house at Carabanchel, the house he purchased for himself  away from Madrid when he had already gone deaf (and, incidentally, from an owner who was deaf himself, hence the name ‘La Quinta del Sordo’, the house of the deaf man). The paintings open the door to a whole new macabre world where unmixed, raw animality has banished the ideals of the Enlightenment: reason, tolerance and progress.

<em>Two Old Men Eating</em> by Francisco Goya. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Two Old Men Eating by Francisco Goya. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Works such as Two Old Men Eating, The Great He-Goat, The San Isidro Pilgrimage and The Fight to the Death with Clubs, not to mention the bone-chilling Saturn Devouring one of his Children, are perhaps more deeply disquieting than anything else anywhere in art. Many of these paintings are in sinister shades of dark grey and black, the sky in them is like the opaque eyes of a monster dead fish. But there are also a few where terrifying shades of red make their appearance, no doubt to enhance a sense of bloody violence. You are reminded of the apocalyptic horror of Holocaust victims, lying in nauseating mountains of corpses in the wilds of one of Adolf Hitler’s camps, as you look at the grotesquely distorted faces of the pilgrims in the San Isidro canvas, or at the two old men eating their soup (some Goya albums across the world list this item as Two Old Women Eating Soup – and, indeed, the ghost-like figures look more like two withered females – although the Prado caption is Two Old Men Eating). Man has stopped being human here. In fact he has shed all pretensions to humanness, and even physically he is no more than a starved, flesh-eating beast. The twisted grimace on his face turns your stomach. His eyes are no more eyes: they are hollow, terrifying eye sockets of animals that have been long dead. One imagines the Russian poet Andrei Voznesensky wrote about these apparitions in his poem called I am Goya:

I am Goya
of the bare field, by the  enemy’s beak gouged
till the craters of my eyes gape
I am grief
…I am the gullet
of a woman hanged whose body like a bell
tolled over a blank square
I am Goya

<em>The Dream of Reason Brings Forth Monsters</em> by Francisco Goya. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Dream of Reason Brings Forth Monsters by Francisco Goya. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In fact, these paintings, which the ageing (he was almost 75 when he started working on the ‘La Quinta del Sordo’ series) and nearly-deaf Goya had originally done as murals on the walls of his house in a quiet, sequestered quarter quite far outside Madrid even as he continued to be the court painter, were, in all likelihood, not meant for others’ eyes. He was a deeply disillusioned man. Faith in the possibility of progress, or even in reason holding its own against the flood tides of barbarism and brutality, had very nearly left him. Even a nodding acquaintance with the history of Spain during and immediately succeeding the Napoleonic wars would indicate that he, a true liberal in spirit and a deeply sensitive man, could react to the prevailing moral and intellectual gloom only in this manner. Add to this his artistic vision, in which naturalism was never a dominant presence, not even in his early, youthful phase, and you will know why to one print from the album of 80 aquatint prints together called ‘Los Caprichos’ (1797-98), Goya had given the title The Dream of Reason Brings Forth Monsters.

It is not surprising that his work from this period was widely misunderstood – a crazy man ranting against human nature, as it was to be described at times – or simply ignored. In fact, it took the labours of another great artist – not, however, a painter – to present to subsequent generations the work of Goya in its true perspective. “In him we find the love of the inexpressible, a feeling for the most violent contrasts, for terrors shared by everybody and for faces which life has moulded into a thousand weird animal shapes. Goya’s great strength lies in having created credible monsters. His monsters are alive, they strike a chord. Nobody more than he has dared to make the absurd possible. All his distortions, his bestial and diabolical faces, are filled with humanity.” This was Charles Baudelaire writing in 1857, nearly 30 years after Goya’s death.

Our world has lived through the two world wars and has known the Nazi death camps. The monsters that Baudelaire talks about are eminently credible to us today –  for we have seen them.

Anjan Basu is a literary critic and translator living in Bangalore. He has published a book of translations from the work of the noted Bengali poet Subhash Mukhopadhyay.

  • Anjan Basu

    Will it be possible to restore the image of the aquatint print with the caption ‘ The Dream of Reason Brings Forth Monsters’? (The empty box does not look nice.) Thank you!

    • Ashok Akbar Gonsalves

      Mr Basu, very informative article, and beautifully written. Thanks for it.

      • Anjan Basu

        Glad that you liked it. It helps to know that one’s friends are following one’s work. You may, if you like, look up 2 more pieces that The Wire carried recently: one on Lorca and the other a review of Eric Hobsbawm’s autobiography. Thanks!

        • Ashok Akbar Gonsalves

          Yep, will. Missed reading those.

      • Anjan Basu

        Glad that you liked it. It helps to know that one’s friends are following one’s work. You may, if you like, look up 2 more pieces that The Wire carried recently: one on Lorca and the other a review of Eric Hobsbawm’s autobiography. Thanks!

  • kujur bachchan

    Please don’t get me wrong, I am not at all a connoisseur of art in any form. However, I have always been fascinated by and attracted to the art from the European Renaissance. I do possess a couple of annotated guides on the subject.
    And so when, while greedily devouring the succulent article, I noticed the painting captioned ‘The Third of May’ being mentioned, I reached for one of the annotated guides published some years ago by Dorling Kindersley. The guide has, among other marginal annotations, one on the source of light. It says, ‘Nominally the light comes from the huge lantern, but in effect it radiates symbolically from the white shirt of the victim. The eerie shadows intensify the terrified faces’.
    According to this guide, Goya’s work has a depth of humanity rarely encountered, and that it transcends its specific historical setting and displays two principal features of his art: his ability to produce images that are strikingly direct, and his questioning but ultimately detached morality.

    • Anjan Basu

      Thank you for the information! I haven’t had the good fortune of reading the Dorling Kindersley guide, but the comment on the nature of the light suffusing the painting is very perceptive. Indeed, the white shirt closely parallels the light source, while the man’s ragged yellow pants are an exact match in shade to the lantern holder. So, the victim, who dares the the line of soldiers ( who are firing at him) to do their worst, embodies the light illuminating the otherwise dark night.

  • windwheel

    Extraordinary. Is this faux naif or is it confessional in too monstrous a manner- one which defeats its own intuition of the sublime- to register with readers here?
    Basu says he ‘could not have anticipated’ something we already anticipate because he makes a point of telling us that he only picked up the museum guide to locate the Goya rooms. Furthermore, he invokes the Kantian ‘colossal’ by referring to the great size of the canvasses he sought for. Time slows in this gravitational field of this merely colossal sublime. Yet, since we are speaking of Goya, we know that this Socrates’s Ariadne’s thread terminates in the monstrosity of the God-Man or Man-God, the bull headed devourer or the goat headed pharmakos.
    Like Socrates, descendant of Daedalus, Basu’s labyrinth is genealogical. We already see before our mind’s eye, Shantiniketan’s various detrournments on Goya. Due to I iz a Madrasi shithead, I’m going with A. Ramachandran. But Basu’s palette of references is richer. Yet, he suddenly starts babbling of the Shoah as if Bengal had not one but two such Holodomor horrors of its own- both arising out of the Transition to Democracy and the reign of great Muslim League leaders like Shurawardy and Sheikh Mujib- nightmares given flesh, in Calcutta’s Circular Ruins, by dreaming Kayasthas who exchanged Navadvipa for, if not Kant, then cant.

    Is Basu playing with us? Surely mention of Voznesensky is a little on the nose? The disciple of Pasternak burnt out of Architecture into a genteel form of compradorship; the professionalisation of vacuous dissent as ‘sensibility’; this is the diminuendo of a minatour devouring its own youthful promise in a labyrinth of but shabby genteel lies and Preference Falsification.

    On balance, Basu must be playing with us. He lives in Bangalore, he is of a certain age, yet he writes- ‘Our world has lived through the two world wars and has known the Nazi death camps. The monsters that Baudelaire talks about are eminently credible to us today – for we have seen them.’
    Dear reader, is Basu’s world- where only the two world wars and the Nazi Death camps count as tribulations of the human spirit-
    indeed, your world?
    If not, who is Basu addressing? Clearly it is nobody of his own caste or place of origin. Plenty of them suffered horrors equal to those of proper White folk. Indeed, a lot of them were actually quite fair and had sharp features and spoke an ‘Aryan’ language. Still, they don’t count because the lived amongst darkies. Worse, Hindu darkies. It is good to know that Basu could get his frisson at the Prado. How dreadful if he’d have had to witness its merely Desi equivalent.

  • Anjan Basu

    Thank you! Coming from an ‘insider’, your words of encouragement mean a lot to me, an outsider who, when younger,
    used to consider himself spiritually a Spaniard. While I have outlived that fantasy, my admiration for Spain remains undiminished.