Francisco de Goya
I’m tempted to state that anyone even remotely inclined towards artistic expression will know the pain of compromise, particularly if working with (and in) the media or on commercial commissions.
But this is perhaps less true now than it ever was, and here are two of the reasons why:
Firstly, to know compromise you must first of all be familiar with a technical and/or aesthetical (ethical or religious) high point: you must have strained to achieve some kind of pinnacle of both content and/or purpose. No high point, no low point… and no need for compromised middle ground.
Secondly, and related to the above, the notion that a high point is attainable (or that there should even be a high point), in both technique and aspiration, has been cynically eroded and ‘art’ downgraded to mere currency, to be minted at will and whim by those who already are.
This is particularly true at the highest gallery level, where the Gimmickists and their ruling patrons ensure that the new big gimmick is always the next big thing, and each batch comes wrapped in pseudo art-speak and fronted by some long-necked friend to celebrity.
In contrast to much contemporary market fodder (and the sugar-tongued shovellers that shift it), there are numerous qualities underpinning Francisco de Goya’s best work and he strained until the last to command every technical discipline that might serve his purpose. Although he undoubtedly knew the discomfort of having to offer up his brush to egos and blue bloods, Goya’s true legacy to the rest of us is not the work borne of compromise and money, but the work for which he chose the subject and—at the very least—rendered it as per his heart’s directives.
A print from one of Goya’s etchings was included in the Discovery of Spain exhibition in Edinburgh some years back. Entitled ‘Against the Common Good‘, the print shows an ugly legislative creature perched like a vulture, who is totting up accounts. Although insignificant in size, this timeless barb speaks volumes about all gargoyles of self-interest and it could easily be adopted as a totem of our own bankrupt society, with the accountants sitting atop the highest part of our lumbering vessel as it sinks into oblivion.
Goya’s etchings fall into three prime collections or sets: Los Caprichos (The Caprices), ‘Los Desastres’ de la Guerra (Disasters of War) and Los Disparates (The Follies).
Manchester City Art Gallery has a good collection of Goya prints from each set and when they were exhibited not long ago, the place was frequently mobbed with young art students. I hope they eventually find a permanent exhibition space for Goya’s glorious barbs at the Mosley Street art gallery, because in an artistic climate such as this, in which the supreme rule of mediocrity is rarely challenged, Goya’s work should be seen and heard.
Much has been written about the mind-boggling skill and invention of Goya. And even a layman’s understanding of how Goya mastered etching, and then burnished the subsequent aquatint process to tone his own cutting ends, leaves one sufficiently in awe of this visionary, and his uncompromising method of mastering every method known to his art.
Los Caprichos is made up of 82 satirical prints. The caprices were a kind of pictorial critic, and, in the Diario de Madrid, Goya announced that he had ‘selected from amongst the innumerable foibles and follies to be found in any civilised society, and from the common prejudices and deceitful practices which custom, ignorance or self-interest have made usual…’.
Goya had to tread more carefully than Hogarth, who under English law had greater freedom to caricature recognisable individuals. But this restriction may have better equipped Goya’s caprices to withstand time, because the power-hungry Godoys of this world come and go, but the failings by which they rise and fall from grace are very much our own.
Goya uses the ass in a number of Caprichos, as a symbol of human stupidity (a little unfair to the ass, methinks), and a personal favourite of mine is ‘Brabisimo’ (Bravo!), which portrays a monkey playing guitar for the art-patron ass, who nods like the appreciative donkey he is. Poetically, the guitar has no strings and could therefore be understood to be as naked as the modern emperor of art himself.
Another favourite is ‘Que pico de oro!’ (“What a golden beak!), which pitches open-mouthed, rotting humanity before a lecturing parrot. Seemingly blind to their own condition, the audience is mesmerised by the well-spun words of the parroting parrot: another timeless metaphor for well-schooled stupidity and parroted wisdom, which gathers greater relevance as it rolls down the years. Vanity, stupidity and superstition are recurring threads in the darkness and light of Goya’s etchings, and human barbarity rears its gruesome head in the Disasters of War, which were wrought when the French invaded Spain in 1807, and the ensuing war and famine.
In the set of 22 Los Disparates, Goya’s unfailing eye for life’s detail takes on more nightmarish qualities, and many people reared on Painter X and the fantasy art of the present would be staggered by the amount of work Goya put into dressing his dark visions.
My first meeting with Goya was on the bookshelves of the Library at the end of my Nan’s street, where I first set eyes on his Naked Maja. That visit was with my ma when I was at Primary School, and it was many years before I learned the lady with the boobies had a title and an author. Name or no name, the Naked Maja wasn’t for letting go and her naked fullness lured me back for many a sneaky peak whenever I was at Nan’s for tea: in a bygone age I might’ve fallen foul of the Inquisition for such yearning.
La Ultima Comunion de San Jose de Calasanz
Goya had little truck with the unholy marriage of worldly power, superstition and spiritual authority, out of which grew the Inquisition. Nor did he genuflect his skills to the Sanhedrin of his day, preferring instead to expose and ridicule the worldly inclinations that hid behind many a cassock. But anyone believing Goya was anti-Catholic should visit his quiet masterpiece La Ultima Comunion de San Jose de Calasanz (The Last Communion of Saint Joseph Calasanz), where due reverence is given to the power of Grace.
Goya had seeing eyes and could therefore tell a tree by it’s fruit, and in his Last Communion, the founder of the Pious Schools for the poor is dressed in the full glory of humility. The essence of this picture—the dignity born of brokenness; the dependency and determination of old age—reminds me of John Paul II’s last months, in which these conflicting elements were on view to the whole world.
The Black Paintings
My most significant encounter with Francisco de Goya also occurred at the Museo del Prado, in the room which houses the Black Paintings, when the buds of boyish curiosity had been uprated to a different type of mild euphoria.
I wrote in my notebook at the time: ‘Want to see talent? Go and see Goya’s Black Paintings. If you are alive where it matters, there’s a good chance you’ll be touched permanently. Walking into that room was like coming home. Exhilaration.’
My notebook also reminds me that the euphoria was short lived.
‘But stand still and note the movement around you. Everyone moving, moving, moving. Looking, yet seeing not. The Human Condition. Got your copy of HELLO magazine to hand?’
At one moment I felt privileged to be sharing a room with the efforts of the great Goya, and the next moment I was finding fulfilment of his dark prophecy all around. Goya’s eye pierced way beneath form and his mood is easily caught.
Converted to canvas in 1873, fifty years after Goya’s death, the Black Paintings were originally murals, painted onto the walls of Goya’s Madrid home, La Quinta del Sordo.
The Pilgrimage to San Isidro was given pride of place on one of the main downstairs walls, facing the similarly infected Witches Sabbath. The darkness Goya created would’ve surrounded him day and night, so this was no fleeting fancy. Unless the intellectual/commercial pretensions flutter to deceive—like any number of gamers in the hat for this year’s big new art deal—a work of art is not something that necessarily needs to be learnt, and much of the joy of looking is in interpreting it for yourself. And whilst Goya ridiculed human stupidity to spectacular effect, he knew there were people in every strata of life for whom the grand illusion was not enough, and who were prepared to scratch beyond surface gloss for their answers.
Fortunately for those of us inclined to project, Goya’s Black Paintings are famously vague and their desolation can be imbued with meaning by the eye of the beholder. Certainly a pessimistic view of humanity, The Pilgrimage to San Isidro may (or may not) have been a reflection on mechanical worship or the blind superstition than often follows. But viewed from the present, the work could be seen as far-reaching prophecy fulfilled, as the snaking length of humanity is led off by any number or malign and cynical Pied Pipers.
Are the crowds making their way to Waterstones, for a signed copy of Katie’s new (new) literary outpouring?
Or to the supermarket for some of Cheryl’s new face paint, guaranteed to make you shine until your pores breath their last?
Or perhaps they’ve read the learned and glowing reviews of Tracey or Damien’s culturally ground-breaking exhibition, in which art’s new nigh point has been set below-and-beyond the reach of those with mere heart, talent and acquired skill?
Or it could simply be the crush for today’s special offer, new computer game or novelty item, which is guaranteed to take your mind off your repetitive existence…until the next day’s novelty item, which is guaranteed to take your mind off your repetitive existence (until you no longer have one).
Goya’s statement that ‘there are no rules in art’ was a swipe at the Spanish imposition of lines above form, not an abolition of skilful definition, and Goya’s need to be true was given life beyond fleeting fact by the power of the imagination.
And the general shape of the metaphor handed down from the walls of La Qunita del Sordo would appear to be clear and present: people are rarely so enslaved, endangered or threatening as when they fall mutely into step with the mob.
Pretty it ain’t.
Darkly prophetic it continues to be.
Art or the highest significance it is, was and always will be.