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Today, April 16, 2022, is Goya’s 194th death anniversary.
When Francisco Goya briefly returned to Madrid in 1825 from Bordeaux, where he had exiled himself the previous year, a senior member of King Ferdinand’s court is believed to have told him: “You deserve to be garrotted, but the King has forgiven you, because you are a great artist”.
Nominally, Goya was still First Painter to the Spanish court, and the major reason why he was revisiting his homeland was to resign his position, hopefully without gravely displeasing the king. In the event, Ferdinand treated the painter kindly, accepting his resignation gracefully, and granting him a generous pension. Goya felt greatly relieved.
But was the Spanish court’s First Painter, the man justly recognised today as the greatest painter to have come out of that country between Velazquez and Picasso, really a candidate for royal strangulation? Or was the courtier being facetious at the aging, visibly ill, and stone-deaf Goya’s expense? And, if that worthy gentleman was speaking in earnest, what in Goya’s oeuvre did, in the courtier’s– and his king’s – reckoning, merit that chilling indictment? Did the painter himself have an inkling of this damning judgement?
Well, the fact that Goya had opted to exile himself should answer that last question adequately. Indeed, ever since Ferdinand had been re-anointed king, Goya had felt the need to insure his own safety and that of his family and his estate. And when, in 1823, Ferdinand swept constitutional government aside once again and enforced his brand of absolutism on Spain, Goya’s own country had become too hot for him. Ever the hard-nosed realist, Goya harboured few illusions, and none about his own immunity from royal rage.
Ferdinand may not have been astute enough to decrypt the withering commentary on the royal family implicit in the celebrated portrait (above) showing Ferdinand as a young man together with his parents, siblings and others. A very unflattering portrait, this masterpiece features a dull, weak and visibly inept King Carlos IV, his haughty, manipulative, promiscuous queen Louisa, and, among others, the young Ferdinand himself, arrogant and vain after his mother. The satirical slant of the picture is further pronounced by a masterly trick: Goya introduced, as a backdrop to the portrait, a ‘painting’ showing the Biblical character Lot, infamous for his incestuous proclivities, with his daughters – the interpolation suggesting moral degeneration and decay inside the royal family.
That this commissioned portrait yet passed muster with the first family must have been because neither the king nor the queen had any mind of their own in artistic matters, and relied entirely on their courtiers’ opinion in such cases. (Apparently, the latter’s obtuseness was no less spectacular than their regent’s, and they commended the portrait to the king with enthusiasm. But of course Goya knew just what he was doing.)
Be that as it may, no one in the king’s court could have had a shred of doubt about what Goya was getting at when he published, in February 1799, his Los Caprichos (‘Caprices’) series of 80 etchings/aquatint prints. The notice/advertisement announcing the release of the series, appearing in the Diario de Madrid on 6 February, sounded innocuous enough: it talked about “the multitude of extravagances and follies which are common throughout civilised society” (emphasis added) which supposedly made up Goya’s subject-matter here.
The advert went on to assure potential collectors that the subjects chosen were all imaginary and that “in none of the compositions constituting this series has the artist proposed to ridicule the particular defects of this or that individual”. Even a cursory look at the prints, though, would tell any viewer why such an elaborate disclaimer had been considered necessary, as we will see presently.
But there were other giveaways, too. For example, the album was being sold by a store which dealt usually in liqueurs and perfumes, and not by any of the major bookstores of Madrid who should have been Goya’s obvious marketing choice. The price asked – at 320 reales for the set, equivalent to a mere ounce of gold – was also quite modest, considering the kind of price Goya’s work usually commanded. (In a slice of delicious irony, the address of the store, incredibly, was ‘# 1, Calle de Desengano’, or ‘Street of Disillusion, # 1’!)
Fact is, these prints encompass a more devastating critique of contemporary society than perhaps any other single work of art has essayed anywhere at any time. Consider the plate (no. 79) shown above. It depicts a gang of drunken clergymen making merry beside an enormous barrel of beer, and telling each other grandly: ‘‘No one has seen us.”.
Let’s recall this was late 18th century Spain where the Inquisition’s heavy hand still lay unyielding on society. Indeed, there are even more unedifying glimpses of the church and clerics to be found here.
In plate no. 18, a drunken priest pulls up his trousers after consummating an unspecified sexual act, even as Goya’s deadly punchline reads: “And the house is on fire.”
Plate 49, simply –and tellingly – captioned Hobgoblins, features some grotesquely-turned out, frolicking monks. In plate no. 52, captioned ‘What a tailor can do’, a reverential woman kneels in prayer in front of a towering figure dressed as a clergyman: a closer look, and one knows it is only a tree cloaked cleverly in a monk’s robes – a handy stratagem for deceiving an unsuspecting, gullible commoner.
The theme of deceit easily links up with that of blind faith: after all, it is blind faith that Goya sees the church playing on so as to fool ordinary people. And that blind faith often takes bizarre forms. Plate no. 12 – called Out hunting for teeth – shows a woman, her gaze averted and her face shielded so as to protect herself from evil spirits, pulling mightily at the teeth of a hanged man on a dark night. A dead man’s teeth, she has been told, can be put to good use in working a spell on someone.
There is no societal malaise that escapes Goya’s unrelenting scrutiny in the Caprichos: superstition, greed, hypocrisy, lechery, cruelty, insensitivity, vanity, self-deception, mendacity, cynicism – all these ills are excoriated and pilloried mercilessly.
Plate 69, succinctly titled Gust the wind, is a stomach-turning, terrifying image of a graphically flatulent child being molested by loathsome paedophiles. Capricho no. 21 – ‘How they pluck her!’ – shows three law-enforcement officers solemnly ‘plucking’ a young prostitute in custody much as one fleeces a chicken.
Plate 39, on the other hand, castigates the Spanish nobility’s manic obsession with ancestry and the genealogical tree and is appropriately captioned And so was his grandfather. The donkey as a proxy for aristocracy likely suggests that stupidity, rather than nobility, is what is really hereditary. Incidentally, the donkey standing in for Spanish nobility is a frequently-used image in Caprichos. Indeed, in plate no. 42, two donkey-nobles are seen riding two poor men whose backs are bent from hard labour and at whom the noblemen sneer, “Thou who cannot”.
To think that Goya was First Painter to King Carlos when he fashioned these prints gives one goosebumps.
A proper appreciation of Los Caprichos demands some familiarity with that period of Spain’s history as also with Goya’s personal history.
In 1798-99, Goya was struggling with a string of personal crises. A deadly but mysterious disease stretching over many months of 1792-93 had taken him nearly to death’s door. Painfully slowly, Goya came round, but not before he realised he had lost his hearing completely. It was a numbing blow. One vital link to the world outside was lost forever to an artist who soaked up sensory experience like a piece of blotting paper. Then there was the recent heartbreak from Goya’s failed relationship with the inimitable Duchess of Alba, the heartthrob of every Madrid sophisticate – an episode whose memory was especially galling because the artist could never figure out what had induced the lady to shake him off so abruptly.
And what greatly accentuated Goya’s anxieties and frustrations was the chain of events unfolding around him just then in Madrid, in Spain’s polity, in Spanish society. These events affected him quite as keenly as the troubles he faced in his personal life, because, to him, they signalled the death of a dream he had nursed in his heart for many years.
Passionately attached to the ideas of the European Enlightenment even as he lived in a country where the Enlightenment had made few inroads, Goya had watched with dismay as King Carlos IV went about undoing much of the good work his liberal father – Carlos III, who died in 1788 – had initiated in his lifetime. Even the admittedly modest ecclesiastical reforms set in motion in the 1760s were now being steadily rolled back. Executive efficiency, achieved in some measure by reorganising and rationalising the machinery of the government, the (as yet tentative) steps taken towards a somewhat wider distribution of cultivable land (in a country where giant latifundia ruled the roost), and, above all, the efforts undertaken in Carlos III’s time to stimulate economic growth, no longer engaged the administration’s attention. The liberals’ hopes of a transition, however slow, to a relatively progressive, more humane society were being dashed to the ground.
At the same time, corruption, ever the bane of Spanish society, returned to public life with a vengeance. Cynical self-seekers and thoroughly undistinguished, but privileged, boors began to crowd the king’s court once again. These were precisely the people whose company Goya, as the principal court painter, was obliged to suffer regularly, and his despondency and desperation could only deepen as a result.
These disappointments, anxieties, and frustrations were to be the building blocks of the Los Caprichos series. Goya’s formidable imagination – made still more acute by his physical disability – provided the glue, and soon enough, a phantasmagoria took shape where the ‘real’ world coalesced effortlessly with the fantastic, the bizarre, the absurd. Goya worked on the images with feverish energy, leaving behind his studio and renting “a kind of attic at the corner of the street of San Bernardino in which he put a table and some boards”, as one of his old friends wrote later.
To this garret he retreated often enough, trying his hand at what for him was an altogether new print-making technique – the aquatint, so called because its end-product resembled a watercolour or a wash painting. (Indeed, Goya happened to be the first ever major painter to work with aquatints.) The process involved etching a copper plate with nitric acid, and using resin and varnish to produce areas of tonal shading. It was a very arduous project, but Goya, on the wrong side of fifty, stone deaf and otherwise also in declining health, plunged into it with a youngster’s passion, eventually completing 300 sets of the album, a considerable undertaking in the circumstances.
To each plate – all 80 of them – Goya added a caption, a kind of paraphrase, or commentary in shorthand, which was laden with sarcasm and irony – at times also, contempt. These pungent captions show Goya at his acid best, but they failed to generate buyer interest in the albums. In all, only 27 copies were sold in the artist’s lifetime, and Goya was obliged to withdraw all the residual copies from the market in a hurry.
The Inquisition’s disquiet over the album can be easily guessed, and, equally, the discomfiture of the entire genteel society. It looked as though these magnificent chiaroscuros of end-of-18th-century Spanish society would lie in limbo for ever. However, Goya was later to find a way of turning a profit on the unsold lot: a brilliant brain-wave in 1803 prompted him to gift Carlos IV all the remaining albums of Los Caprichos. The grateful King, as always supremely oblivious to the perilous contents of the benefaction, granted Xavier, Goya’s only son, a pension in return, a gift that couldn’t but have pleased Goya greatly.
But he had learnt his lesson: in future, he would zealously keep his overtly non-conformist art – the Proverbs or the Disasters of War series of etchings/prints, or the startling ‘black’/Quinta del Sordo paintings – under wraps.
The great merit of Los Caprichos lies in that they are marvellous entertainment and searing social/cultural commentary at the same time. Remarkably, the commentary remains contemporary in tone a good two hundred years after, aided, no doubt, by the fact that, in most parts of the world, societies still remain greatly unequal, often culturally regressive, too.
In recent years, indeed, some societies have begun to look nearly as benighted as 18th century Spain. Indian society is one such. Plate 43 of the Caprichos – with its ineluctable message, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters – seems to define the state India finds herself in today. Our rationality, our reason, has been put to sleep, and misshapen, unsightly monsters are running riot. Had he lived in India today, Francisco Goya would likely not have escaped the garrotte.
Anjan Basu writes on culture and the politics of culture. He can be reached at basuanjan52@gmail.