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The Art of Disaster


by Robert Hughes
Knopf, 429 pp., $40.00


Of the three towering figures in Spanish painting—Diego Velázquez, Francisco Goya, and Pablo Picasso—Goya seems to have a special appeal for imaginative writers. Too little is known of the life of Velázquez, Goya’s seventeenth-century idol. Velázquez has, as Robert Hughes notes, “next to no personal myth.” Of Picasso, whose Guernica owed so much to Goya’s searing depictions of war, we know perhaps too much; the sheer weight of the facts impedes our power to give them meaningful shape. It is difficult for us to feel the intimacy with these imposing artists that we do with Goya, who seems, though he worked two centuries ago and died in 1828, to combine accessibility and mystery, tradition and modern sensibility, in his person and in his pictures.

That mystery as well as the rich variety of Goya’s work accounts for sharp differences among the writers who have written about him. Goya spent his last years in exile in France, and through the nineteenth century it was the French who took the most interest in his work. For the Romantic poet Théophile Gautier, Goya was the quintessence of Spanish flair, a debonair connoisseur of bullfights and dark-eyed courtesans. For Baudelaire, by contrast, Goya was an alienated peintre maudit, a brooding painterly counterpart to that French invention “Edgar Poe.”

Goya’s series of etchings depicting Napoleon’s occupation of Spain, known as the Desastres de la guerra, or Disasters of War, was published posthumously in Paris in 1863, just as Mathew Brady’s photographers were fanning out across the killing fields of the American South to add their own deadpan horrors to Goya’s numbing record. From 1937—when the Goyas in the Prado Museum in Madrid were shipped to Geneva for exhibition and safekeeping during the Spanish Civil War—to 1945, no artist spoke more poignantly to European writers (not to mention such painters as Picasso and Robert Motherwell) of the disasters of war than Goya. André Malraux, Simone Weil, Ernest Hemingway—all testified to Goya’s disturbing prescience.

Lately, we seem to be in another Goya moment. During the past two years, the novelists Julia Blackburn and Evan S. Connell have written books about Goya’s life.1 The Goya of the Desastres is the presiding spirit in Susan Sontag’s study of visual representations of atrocity in wartime, Regarding the Pain of Others; “With Goya,” writes Sontag, “a new standard for responsiveness to suffering enters art.”2 Last year there was a perceptive exhibition on Goya’s images of women, curated by the Goya scholar Janis A. Tomlinson, at the National Gallery in Washington. The sumptuous Manet/ Velázquez exhibition at the Met this year, to which Goya was as central as Velázquez, added considerably to our understanding of Goya’s decisive influence on French and American realist painters.

Now we have Robert Hughes’s intensely written and powerfully imagined critical biography, a book that gives the impression of muscling the competition off the shelf. Hughes, for twenty-five years the chief art critic at Time magazine and the author of two marvelous evocations of place, Barcelona and The Fatal Shore (a history of his native Australia), among other books, reminds us that Goya is a writer’s painter, who saw an intimate tie between literature and his own incisive art. In an advertisement for the Caprichos, his etched fantasies of witches, prostitutes, and priests, Goya wrote:

The author is convinced that it is as proper for painting to criticize human error and vice as for poetry and prose to do so, although criticism is usually taken to be exclusively the business of literature.

That no painter in the history of art has criticized human error and vice more powerfully than Goya is a central claim of Hughes’s book, as is his view that Goya’s critical temper was key to his modernism. “We see,” Hughes writes, “his long-dead face pressed against the glass of our terrible times, Goya looking in on a world worse than his own.”3

Francisco Goya was born on March 30, 1746, in the remote village of Fuendetodos, a “hole” then and now, according to Hughes, amid “a landscape of deprivation where every stone is a sharp, weighty noun.” He spent his childhood in the nearby city of Zaragoza (Saragossa), the capital of Aragón made famous in accounts of the Gothic horrors of the Spanish Inquisition. Goya’s father, a professional gilder of Basque descent, supported the family by applying gold leaf to candlesticks and picture frames. His better-bred mother was of the lower nobility, as Hughes remarks, “that perhaps most useless rung of eighteenth-century Spanish society,” which entitled her to little more than the honor of being addressed as “Doña.” Little is known of Goya’s early education, which Hughes in any case finds of less importance than Goya’s “masculine pursuits” in the bleak landscape of Aragón, pursuits made possible by his uncertain social status:

He liked the macho life. He was good at it, and good company in the field. He was not cut out simply for the drawing room. Because he was not particularly a man of breeding, nor really a caballero, the hunt was also his way of connecting with the life of the nobles and royals he would need to serve if he were to get on. You didn’t need to be the Duke of This or That to hit a partridge, or to blaspheme victoriously when a puff of dust flew from its ass and it came pinwheeling down, feathers awry, out of the hard hot blue air.

We have better information about Goya’s training as an artist. At thirteen he was apprenticed to a local painter in Zaragoza, copying prints and learning the elements of design; in 1773 he married the sister of a fellow apprentice. Goya mastered the cherub- and-clouds rhetoric of eighteenth-century Rococo religious painting, traveled to Rome, entered—and lost—a few painting competitions, and returned to Spain, ambitious but still professionally adrift. In 1775, at the age of twenty-nine, he was summoned to Madrid by the Neoclassical court painter Anton Mengs to work at the Royal Tapestry Factory, thus launching his career as an artist in the employ of Spanish kings. After years of slogging work designing tapestries, Goya was promoted in 1789 from court painter to King Carlos IV’s pintor de cámara, the most prestigious post in the country for an artist.

Hughes knows that the most important events in an artist’s life involve the making of art; he doesn’t try to fill in the blanks of Goya’s early life with the sediment of legend and hearsay that was later to accumulate. Was Goya’s marriage a happy one? The most that can be said is that the marriage “lasted without incident or scandal for thirty-nine years.” Did Goya share a house with Piranesi during his youthful sojourn in Rome? It would be nice to think so, but the undoubted impact of Piranesi’s fanciful prisons on Goya’s depictions of madhouses far outweighs whatever we might make of possible chance encounters between them. The important thing, for Hughes, is to get at what in Goya’s temperament and times contributed to his utter distinctiveness as an artist.

In Hughes’s view, two upheavals—one in Goya’s personal life and one in the national life of Spain—made Goya the artist he was. Hughes writes more powerfully about these matters than anyone else has done before him. According to Hughes, Goya was temperamentally “averse to risks, physical or professional.” Though Goya (like Hughes) had a pronounced taste for the popular art of bullfighting, and portrayed himself dressed as a torero, he was “in no sense the conventional Spaniard—all cape, sword, and olés—imagined by nineteenth-century writers.” Goya’s roots were in the common people, or pueblo, but his political instincts impelled him toward the more progressive ilustrados, or “enlightened” class. “Enlightenment” was a relative term in Spain, to be sure, not to be equated with the ideas of Diderot and Voltaire: “Everything that had convulsed and remade European thought in the eighteenth century stopped at the Pyrenees.” But under Carlos III and his son, Carlos IV, who assumed the throne in 1788, the Inquisition, at least, had waned; and a painter like Goya with progressive tendencies could thrive in the Spanish court.

Having achieved a comfortable living, Goya, if he wished, might have gone on turning out religious paintings of modest originality and superb commissioned portraits, in which one can discern an edge of melancholia, but nothing more. A good example of the latter is the exquisite portrait of Don Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zúñiga, circa 1790s (at the Metropolitan Museum), the four-year-old son of one of Goya’s rich patrons. The alert little boy in a red suit with silver sash holds his pet magpie on a string, while three cats in the looming gray-green background look on with sinister intent, and a meticulously painted green cage of finches provides additional distraction for the cats and the viewer. The magpie holds Goya’s calling card in its beak. In this beguiling painting Hughes discerns “Goya’s awareness of how contingent life is: how at any moment, without warning, death can break into it.”

Death almost broke into Goya’s life in late 1792, when he was forty-five. A severe illness that might have been polio, syphilis, or meningitis, with alarming symptoms ranging from vertigo to hallucinations and partial blindness, nearly killed him, and left him permanently deaf. According to Hughes, there were signs even before this crisis that Goya, depressed and bored with his recent designs for tapestry, was looking for a new direction in his art. In an official report on the teaching of art, Goya maintained that “there are no rules in painting,” and argued that the bold naturalism of Velázquez would yield better art than the “monotonous manner” of Mengs’s copying from Greek statues. The illness and long recuperation that followed seemed to give Goya permission to experiment, and to trace the contours of his own bleak moods. In a series of small pictures—of bullfights, inmates in insane asylums, shipwrecks—he unraveled what Hughes calls “the long thread of violence and fear that would henceforth run through his work.”

There is also a new sexual frankness in Goya’s work of the mid-1790s. His passion for the Duchess of Alba, with her Cher-like shock of black hair and her “woman-of-the-people maja drag,” dates from these years. “Goya felt her sexuality,” writes Hughes, “with the uncensorable instinct of a hound getting a scent.” Two centuries of gossip have turned them into lovers. In the full-length portrait in the Hispanic Society in New York, she points to the words Sólo Goya traced in the sand. But according to Hughes, this is “Goya’s fantasy, not hers.” She may have been “rather an airhead,” Hughes writes, but

she was emphatically not a fool, and it would have been distinctly foolish to carry on an affair, even with a deaf and aging houseguest, in front of the numerous and no doubt inquisitive and chatty maids….

  1. 1

    See Julia Blackburn, Old Man Goya (Pantheon, 2002) and, to be published in February 2004, Evan S. Connell’s Francisco Goya (Counterpoint).

  2. 2

    Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003, p. 45.

  3. 3

    Robert Hughes, “The Unflinching Eye,” The Guardian, October 4, 2003.

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