I think most of us would agree that the Goya exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum is the most powerful show in town. We can say this even though it doesn’t give us the whole Goya. We can feel it because he speaks to us with an urgency that no artist of our time can muster. We see his long-dead face pressed against the glass of our terrible century, Goya looking in at a time worse than his.
You can make a proto-modernist out of Goya, just as the nineteenth century made him a proto-Romantic and then a proto-Realist. His dismembered carcasses in the Disasters of War directly inspired Géricault’s. Manet assiduously imitated him—his Parisiennes on the balcony are Goya’s majas transposed to Paris, his bullfight is a direct homage to Goya’s Tauromaquia. Dali constantly invoked him and from L’Age d’Or to The Exterminating Angel Luis Buñuel’s films elliptically refer to Goya and constitute a cinematic parallel to his eighty prints about the sexual and social follies of Spanish society high and low, the Caprichos.
Picasso, of course, meditated on Goya from first to last and was always scared of the comparison. Among Americans, to name only a couple, Goya surfaces dramatically in late works of Philip Guston (so many of which seem like homages to the Caprichos) and in the tragic blacks and humped profiles of Robert Motherwell’s Elegy to the Spanish Republic.
But you cannot make Goya into a proto-post-modernist. He is never trivial enough for that. It is the wholeness of his fiction, its unremitting earnestness, its desire to know and tell the truth, that our art has currently lost.
This is what used to be meant when a great artist was called “universal.” The term can’t be taken literally—there is no imaginable Goya that could mean as much to a Chinese as to a European—but it does suggest the power of such artists to keep appealing through their imagery to very different people along the strand of a common cultural descent, so that even when beliefs have lost their fervency, when both the oppressors and the oppressed are dead, when the references of religion and popular culture have changed, as they certainly have between Madrid in 1809 and New York in 1989—still we venture to claim Goya as our own. Our ability to describe ourselves is somewhat inflected by this man’s paintings, drawings, and prints.
We could not claim this for any of his Spanish contemporaries. It doesn’t entirely rest on his greatness as an artist either, since other great painters of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries don’t have Goya’s ability to project their images from their time into ours. No matter how much we love Watteau, his sense of society is closed to us forever; we will never be able to imagine ourselves taking part in those rituals on the shaven lawns of the paradise garden. But Goya is a different matter.
Two paintings that are not in the Metropolitan show underscore why nobody should call it a Goya retrospective, an event that now will never take place. The paintings commemorate a rising that touched off Spain’s War of Independence against France. On May 2, 1808, in the Puerta del Sol in the very heart of Madrid, a crowd of citizens turned into what authority would call a mob and attacked a detachment of Mameluke cavalry—the predecessors, one might say, of Franco’s Moors—led by the French general, Murat. One painting by Goya records the moment: the Dos de Mayo. A second, the Tres de Mayo, commemorates the next night’s reprisals, in which about forty madrileños found with weapons were summarily shot by French firing squads behind the hill of Principe Pio, outside Madrid.
The Second of May is a fine painting but not a great one; it is renovated Baron Gros with its heroic rocking horse, without the French etiquette of violence, and more abandoned in expressions. The Third of May (see page 28) is not renovated anything. It is truly modern and its newness seems to have ensured that, though a state commission, it remained in storage for the first forty years of its life.
The surface is ragged, for Goya is suppressing his fluency in the interests of a harsher address to the eye. Occasionally the signs of that fluency break through—one is the saber and sheath of the French soldier closest to us—a mere scribble, but what a scribble, of burnt umber, lightened by a swipe of yellow that begins in a round splotch at the tip of the sheath and swings right up the form. Elsewhere the improvised bluntness of his painting is tragically expressive, even—or perhaps especially—down to the blood on the ground, which is a dark alizarin crimson put on thick and then scraped back with a palette knife, so that its sinking into the grain of the canvas mimics the drying of blood itself: it looks crusty, dull, and scratchy, just like real blood smeared on a surface by the involuntary twitches of a dying body. The wounds that disfigure the face of the man on the ground can’t be deciphered fully as wounds, but as signs of trauma embodied in paint they are inexpressibly shocking: their imprecision conveys the sense of something too painful to look at, of the aversion of one’s own eyes.
Signs of past art are there: I suspect that the array of French barrels and bayonets carries a small sharp echo of a more triumphal and chivalrous military piece, well-known to Goya: the palisade of lances in Velasquez’s Surrender of Breda. Above all, there is the man about to be shot, whom we saw dragging the Mameluke backward off his horse on May Second. There he now stands, in his clean white shirt, throwing out his arms in a gesture that irresistibly recalls the Crucifixion. It is a gesture of indescribable power: it takes the spread arms of the passive crucified victim and makes them active, a flinging out of life in despair and defiance. Indeed, he has a face—coarse, swarthy, dilated in its last moment of vitality. All his fellow victims have faces too. By rendering them as national portraits—the faces of the pueblo—Goya grants the living their individually right up to the edge of the mass grave. The landscape, however, is featureless: a bare hill and bare rocks. And so are the soldiers, whose row of backs still strikes us as the first truly modern image of war because it is the first to register the anonymity, the machine-like efficiency, of oppression. Nothing personal.
We see only backs, braced forward into the recoil of those big .70-caliber flintlocks. And without knowing it, Goya piercingly anticipates our sense of modern documentary with that lantern: the minimal cube with its objective white light, presently to be invoked, in homage to Goya, by Picasso’s electric light in Guernica. In sum, this painting is as unlike all previous war paintings as Wilfred Owen’s writings from the trenches are unlike all Georgian and Victorian war poetry. And the difference is that Goya speaks for the victims: not only for those killed in French reprisals in Madrid, but for all the millions of individuals destroyed, before and since, in the name of The People. The Third of May is not a piece of reporting—any more than the Disasters of War will be. Goya didn’t see this scene; he almost certainly wasn’t there, though he was in Madrid. In any case it can’t have looked like this. But we can’t forget what he didn’t see.
I have dwelt on this painting because it exemplifies what is somewhat underplayed in the Metropolitan show. The idea of Goya as a man of the Enlightenment stops a long way short of explaining why his work has such a purchase on our imagination. The light of this lantern is not the light shed by Rousseau’s assumptions about the goodness of mankind, or by the hopes of the Spanish reformers that Goya saw crushed at the very moment in 1814 when he was painting The Third of May. They were crushed when that parody of kingship, Ferdinand VII, entered Madrid and, instead of restoring the rights of the Spanish people that Napoleon and the war had taken away, abolished the Constitution of 1812, and reinstated the Inquisition. To employ Milton’s stunning phrase about the illumination of Hell, it is “no light, but rather darkness visible.” Because The Third of May excites our pity and terror as no other painting of war has done—or, I suppose, will ever do—we incline to suppose that it does so in the name of liberal ideology.
But here our emphasis may be wrong. Perhaps in claiming Goya as a liberal we are only repeating the process by which successive moments of taste have appropriated him. There have been more than a few Goyas in the two hundred years since his birth. There was Goya the Romantic, the creation of writers like Théophile Gautier. We have had Goya the Man of the People, critic of established power and French imperialism, whose work argues for an immutable bedrock of his culture, the ser auténtico. His offspring is Goya the Incipient Marxist, in whose work the class struggle is set forth and predicted from the eye-line of the workers, a view based partly on his own humble birth—though it ignores some of Goya’s opinions of the common people, and creates problems when it comes to explaining his social climbing and canny self-interest. Then there is Goya the Surrealist, whose uncensored access to his own worst dreams would not be approached until the 1930s, with the anxious maturity of Picasso—and will certainly never be equaled.
There are other Goyas too—the existential one suggested by André Malraux’s Saturn, for instance—and in each a culture later than his own strives to locate itself, its own dreams, its own self-image. They are all partly true, and none of them wholly excludes the rest. For Goya’s personality was one of the richest and most various that an artist ever had: a remarkable blend of introspection, opportunism, and relentless curiosity; gluttonously drawn to the social framework but always alone among his fantasies.
He turns in the dark space of Bourbon history like a ball with mirrored facets, immediately casting back whatever pencil of light the specialist directs on him. He demands interpretation, he absorbs it and always seems to want more, because his work is so rich and so variegated.
So the latest Goya—the one the Metropolitan show invokes and to some degree invents—is Goya the Liberal. The use of the word “liberal” in its political sense began in Spain in his time, to distinguish reformers from the serviles, the conservatives who wanted no change in social ranking and the power of the Church and the Inquisition. It only got into English around 1830. Maybe the Spanish today want to stress Goya’s liberalism because they see their present king fulfilling the liberal promise of his ancestor Charles III in Goya’s time—and because Goya was too often claimed as “quintessentially Spanish” during the long Franco years. Maybe we like to hear it because American liberalism has taken such a beating from political speechwriters and TV preachers. That they could so easily turn America’s noblest tradition of political thought into the “L-word” is obscene, and perhaps it’s natural that survivors of this linguistic mugging should want to claim Goya as an ancestor for their own opinions about human freedom and rights. And there is a good deal of evidence for this in his work, especially the Caprichos, brilliantly explicated by Eleanor Sayre in the catalog. But it is not the whole story.
Goya’s liberalism is bound up with his class ambitions. In the late eighteenth century, which also saw the first phase of Goya’s career, Madrid had a thin veneer of ilustrados, whose influence was largely dependent on royal approval—which they got in plenty from Charles III. Their liberalism was safeguarded not by popular movements, but by the direct sympathy of the monarch. Like many of the aristocrats who supported the French Revolution in its pre-Jacobin years, they perceived their king as the caretaker of liberal reform.
But the common people and artisans from whose ranks Goya had risen were far more conservative. There was an immense chasm between popular and elite culture in Bourbon Spain. To the majo on the street, the ilustrado in the salon with his Frenchified ideas was virtually a foreigner. People rarely like the humanitarian plans of their social superiors. The culture of the Madrid pueblo had nothing to do with Beccaria or Diderot—or with Goya’s court portraits, for that matter. It was immersed in folk tales, superstitions, and ferociously dirty jokes. It clung to the bullfight; to flamenco singers and hellfire preachers; to the grotesque pantomimes known as tonadillas; to phantasmagorias full of witches and demons; to crude woodcuts and to a popular theater whose heroes were bandits, smugglers, and other enemies of authority; and to the codes of brash laconic dandyism and male bonding that were signified by the word majismo.
Aged forty-six, Goya painted himself as a majo (see page 29)—a costume which for an established court painter in the 1790s was roughly equivalent to black leather and jeans among New York artists in the Sixties. Populism stood for liberty—of a rough, conservative, intensely xenophobic kind, sentimental and hard-eyed by turns. And it was indissolubly linked to old Spain, black Spain, the Spain the ilustrados hoped to cure with their judicious enemas of liberal ideology. What the majos really thought of their would-be doctors and their medicine became brutally clear to Goya (and everyone else) after the Peninsular War broke out. They thought liberals were French quislings. The title of one plate from the Disasters of War is Popolacho, meaning “rabble” or “mob”—definitely not people; the victim on the ground is a liberal defrocked, and the instrument he is about to get the point of is a media luna, a tool with a half-moon cutter used to hamstring bulls. It was not etched by a man with stars in his eyes about the natural goodness of common folk.
The roots of Goya’s imagination were fixed deep in this world, and its imagery pervades his work. It is in some ways its deepest source. Yet his late work moves beyond purely Spanish concerns, though its dress is Spanish, and its encyclopedic despair and skepticism are just as much to do with his disillusionment at the failure of French revolutionary promises as with his loathing of the return of Spanish absolutism after the Peninsular War. He had followed the liberal blossoming of 1789, and the Paris bloodbath of the 1790s. He was the first great artist to bear witness to the atrocities committed by ideologues in the name of liberty. This was the Gorgon’s head of modern history. David could not look at it. But Goya could. And still he chose to spend his last years in France, and to die there. The developing drama of his work unfolds from his effort to move between these two mental worlds of the ilustrados and the pueblo, even as political events in Spain were tearing them apart. But the view he took of those events was deeply colored by his memories of the French Revolution, which is why no simple view of Goya as either a liberal or as a man of the people fits the late work.
When I first saw the current show in Boston I wanted to accept the Enlightenment view of Goya wholeheartedly, because it promised a way out of earlier stereotypes of the artist. It enables us to reread many of his images, even the most famous, such as the capricho El sueño de la razon, “The sleep of Reason brings forth monsters” (see opposite page). The figure of the artist dozing over the midnight oil and beset by foul imaginings is rooted both in the present and the past. In the present, because it seems to repeat the pose in which, in 1798, he painted the economist, writer, and educational reformer Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos, whose Informe or report on agrarian law was the bureaucratic cornerstone of the Spanish enlightenment, and who was made minister of culture and justice by Charles III’s successor, Charles IV, for a brief nine months in 1789–1790 and was then banished to a long and frustrating exile for his liberal views. Goya paints this intellectual meditating on the cares of office in the splendors of the palace, symbolically blessed by Minerva, the goddess of wisdom.
In the etching, as Dr. Sayre shows, Minerva’s role is filled by a protective lynx, the symbol of alertness and skepticism—these big cats have night vision and can pierce the gloom of ignorance. The owl is a telling variation of Minerva’s emblem: it is offering the sleeper a pen with which to record error and superstition. And there is no doubt about the meaning of the bats, cats, and other critters that swarm through the sky to take over the man’s dreams. Goya’s owls on the sleeper’s back—one with its wings spread, the others staring at you—come from the similar cluster of owls on a ruined, inscribed tomb-slab which is the opening plate of the Scherzi by Giambattista Tiepolo, who had died in Madrid in 1770.
And then one recalls other and older images that Goya knew from the royal collections, such as those of Hieronymus Bosch, that favorite of the gloomy Philip II; in particular, the theme of Saint Anthony tempted by devils, of which the Escorial had no fewer than four versions. Eleanor Sayre points out that Goya didn’t want to paint “a dreaming artist surrounded by a wild phantasmagoria of bizarre, Bosch-like beings.” Certainly Bosch’s hellish little androids scuttling around the saint and his pig are fantastic in a way that Goya’s owls and cats are not. And yet I find it hard to suppose that Goya’s image is not a recycling of the Temptation of Saint Anthony, and harder still to believe that this was not a partly deliberate choice, signaling his own rootedness in a tradition that predated the Enlightenment by centuries. Indeed, until Goya’s own moment, it would be difficult to name a denser landscape of hysteria than in northern Europe between 1480 and 1550, with its pogroms and religious wars, its flagellants and prophets proclaiming the imminent arrival of the millennium—in some ways like the Middle East today, with priests instead of imams and right-wing rabbis.
Bosch’s importance to Goya can hardly be overestimated. Because of the influence Surrealism has had, inducing us to think of Bosch as though he were a Surrealist, coupled with the extreme difficulty of decoding the actual meaning of Bosch’s images—and the opacity of some of Goya’s as well—we are apt to get this slightly skewed. But it seems likely that Goya was drawn to Bosch not only by the unmatched power of the long-dead painter’s fantasy, but by his reputation as a moral allegorist. Here is Brother Joseph de Siguenca, an early seventeenth-century monk attached to the Escorial, defending his king’s favorite painter against the charges of frivolity and heresy.
I should like to point out that these paintings are by no means farces, but books of great wisdom and art, and if foolish actions are shown in them they are our follies, not his: and, let us admit it, they are a painted satire on the sins and fickleness of men…. Others try as often as possible to paint man as he looks from the outside, while this man has the courage to paint him as he is inwardly.
This is very close to Goya’s own statement for the Caprichos: “The author,” he writes,
is convinced that censoring human errors and vices—though it seems the preserve of poetry and oratory—may also be a worthy object of painting. As subjects appropriate to his work, he has selected from the multitude of errors and stupidities common to every civil society, and from the ordinary obfuscations and lies condoned by custom, ignorance or self-interest, those he has deemed most fit to furnish material for ridicule.
A full study of Goya’s debt to Bosch, and to later demonological painters, has yet to be made, and when it is done it will connect with Goya’s delight in demotic and populist fantasy, and unlock more of him than we now have.
Working from direct observation fixed by incessant note taking, he had the genius to make this symbolism of the body concrete, rather than schematic, so that we are always left feeling that such monsters may be chatting to one another, in darkness or sunlight, just around the corner. It was a thought that occurred to him when preparing to publish the Caprichos. “He who would catch a group of goblins in their den,” he wrote, “and show them in a cage at ten o’clock in the morning on the Puerta del Sol, would not need any rights of primogeniture to an entailed estate.” It was a joke: he meant that they’d be such curiosities that their owner would get rich. But it wasn’t a joke: to cage these goblins, these duendecitos, in the white sunlight of the printed page was to have power over them, more power than mere birth could give you; it was to have dominion over your own fears and society’s as well.
Some geniuses find their true voice almost indecently early, like Mozart or Masaccio. Others are late developers, and Goya was one. If he had died at forty—a common fate in the eighteenth century—we would not remember him as a great painter.
He was born in the Aragonese village of Fuendetodos, two days by mule from Saragossa, deep in the provinces, in 1746. His father was an artisan, a master gilder. In the 1750s he went to school in Saragossa. In 1760 he was apprenticed to José Luzán, a small-time painter. In 1763, aged seventeen, he went to Madrid for the first time and he moved up to studying under Francisco Bayeu, a court painter whose sister Josefa he eventually married.
In 1770, at twenty-four, he went to Italy to study and stayed more than a year. Much romantic nonsense has been written about his Italian visit—we can be fairly sure that he did not go there as a toreador with a bullfighting troupe, as was claimed after his death. But he stayed in Rome and Naples and probably Milan.
The frustrating thing about this period of his life, which must have mattered immensely to his later growth—as the pilgrimage to Rome did with any artist—is that we know so little about it. It seems likely that (apart from the great obligatory menu of Raphael, Michelangelo, and the Carracci) he would have seen work by Magnasco, and stored those voluptuously menacing dungeon and inquisition scenes away for future use. But they pale into agitated theatricality beside Goya’s own laconic images of suffering under the Inquisition…For having been born elsewhere (see page 27), For discovering the movement of the earth, For marrying as she wished. In fact the Furies of the Spanish Inquisition had calmed down somewhat in the Bourbon period, but for Goya it was still an archsymbol of tyranny that had to be erased. Goya’s carceral imagery vividly reminds us that eighteenth-century prisons and bedlams in Spain no less than in England had nothing to do with the enlightened idea of the prison as reformatory or the madhouse as hospital. They were simply dumps, holes in the social surface, where anything anomalous could be thrown and forgotten. He must have looked at Piranesi too, because the imagery of perpetual confinement in endlessly replicated, overscaled spaces that haunts you in Piranesi’s Carceri d’Invenzione is present, in a terser form, in Goya—the figures crushed into solipsistic despair by the sheer weight of stone walls and arches.
But these come later. What he actually painted under Italian influence, what commended him to Anton Raffael Mengs, the friend of Winckelmann who ruled the Madrid painters’ roost under Charles III, was a fairly routine kind of neoclassicism in which nothing of the eventual Goya could be seen, for example The Sacrifice to Priapus done when he was twenty-five. Once back in Madrid, he began the scramble up the greasy social pole. There were rebuffs. The Academy wouldn’t accept him. In 1779 Mengs died and Goya applied for his job as pintor de cámara, but was refused. Then in 1786 he was able to report to his friend the lawyer Zapater that he was at last painter to the king, with a salary of 15,000 reales—not much in money, but precious in allowing him access to the court. As Goya moved upward to become first painter to the king, a post he finally secured in 1799, he stuck a “de” in front of his name to suggest aristocratic kinship; he kept crowing loudly about his fees, his new English buggy, his posh friends. He had absolutely no qualms about fawning to the great—you had to, if you were to succeed, and above all he was fixed on success.
The tone is set in his 1783 portrait of the Conde de Floridablanca, the minister of state, magnificent in his red suit and blue sash, surrounded by the emblems of administration and plans for public works. His king’s oval portrait smiles down on this physiocrat like a god from a cloud, and in front of him is Goya, holding up a picture for the count’s approval—the artist as artisan, Figaro in front of Count Almaviva, one would like to think—except that nowhere in Goya’s court portraits to come would there be a trace of the rebelliousness of the little barber whom Beaumarchais would place onstage to the scandal and delight of Paris the very next year.
Through the 1780s and into the 1790s Goya’s portraits became a small anthology of socially responsible aristocrats who took an interest in practical, prudent, bureaucratic enlightenment, partly no doubt because he liked their ideas, but mainly because they were the people favored by the monarch: Francisco de Cabarrús, the founder of Spain’s central bank, a strong believer in equal education for all classes and the right to divorce, both scandalous propositions in their day. Then there was Jovellanos, whose report on agrarian law was the corner-stone text of the Spanish enlightenment, and the Duque de Osuna, great supporters of progress in economics, science, technology, writing, and art, in whose salon Goya expanded his friendships with writers like Leandro Moratin and the art critic Ceán Bermúdez.
Such people had copies of Diderot’s banned encyclopedia; they had read El Teatro critico, the extensive compilation of superstitions and follies by the Benedictine monk Benito Feijóo, which ran into fifteen editions by 1780 and kept dozens of conservatives writing attacks on it, all in vain. The reform-minded aristocrats enjoyed the social and political cartoons that the serviles hated on principle, especially English ones by Gillray, Rowlandson, and others. They subscribed to skeptical papers like El Pensador, modeled on Addison’s Spectator, and to radical ones like El Censor, whose corrosive satires were the closest thing in words to the values Goya would express in the Caprichos.
We don’t know how much of this liberal material Goya actually read—perhaps not as much as scholars would like to believe. But there is no doubt that the ilustrado circle in Madrid fed his art, gave him ways of dealing with social subjects, fostered his career, and directed his thought. With his tapestry designs of the 1770s and 1780s he became, in a sense, its decorator, under the influence of Giambattista Tiepolo. The hopeful convention is to see these as evidence of Goya’s eye for the common people, but real social empathy is just what is suppressed in them: all these peasants, workers, majas, and folk are seen from the perspective of patronage, and even The Wounded Mason is meant more as a compliment to the new safety regulations Charles III clapped on the construction industry than as a gesture of identification with the suffering worker. Goya was adaptable. He understood the skill without which the career of a court artist or a social portraitist is bound to fizzle—the ability to tailor the image to the cloth of the patron’s ideas or the sitter’s self-esteem. That is why, admiration aside, you tend to trust Goya the portraitist most when he does the formal likeness of someone you know he was close to, like the marvelously frank and direct image of Sebastián Martínez (see below), a wine merchant and collector from Cádiz who was also a self-made man, and whose friendship with Goya is inscribed on the paper he is holding. Or of a colleague, such as Bartolomé Sureda, who taught Goya some of his printing techniques and went on to head the Royal Porcelain Factory in Madrid.
But we run into difficulty if we try to project the internal Goya, the creator of the Caprichos, back on the external and public Goya, the portraitist and allegorist. We’d like to think our hero viewed those in power with a cold eye, and that his portraits of them have an undercurrent of satire, but they didn’t think so and they were neither foolish nor lacking in vanity.
We may wish to see his great Madrid portrait of the family of King Charles IV as a parade of lumpish nitwits in costume, but there is no evidence that Goya did so, and in fact the lyrical enthusiasm with which he swathed his royal personages in exquisite tissues of light and color suggests quite the opposite. We have no photographs of them, and it may even be that Charles and María Luisa were so much uglier in real life that Goya’s portraits of them are a positive act of charity. Goya could fill his portrait of General José de Palafox, the popular hero of the defense of Saragossa, with quite unironic enthusiasm. But he did the same with one of his most regular patrons, who was also among the nastiest pieces of work ever to hold power in Spain: María Luisa’s minister, lover, and so-called Prince of Peace, Don Manuel Godoy (see opposite page), whose pretensions to military virtue were, as everyone in the army knew, a joke—though not one you could laugh at publicly. He may look to us like the prototype of every Latin American dictator that ever diverted foreign aid from Washington to a numbered account in Switzerland, but there is no mistaking Goya’s obsequiousness. On the other hand, he was wonderfully sympathetic to Godoy’s unhappy wife, the Condesa de Chinchón, bewildered and fragile in her cloud of sprigged muslin. It is, perhaps, fitting in view of Goya’s practical indifference to the politics of his sitters that in the late 1930s when Franco was looking for a present to give his friend Adolf Hitler he was only narrowly dissuaded from giving him Goya’s portrait of the Marquesa de Santa Cruz: he thought the Führer would like the swastika on her lyre.
Goya’s readiness to maneuver ought to make us wary about the political content of his work. The catalog of the Metropolitan show presents a huge and, for Goya, rather simple-minded picture as an Allegory on the Adoption of the Constitution of 1812, but, as Jonathan Brown argues in an excellent review of the show in the May 15 New Republic, it may be nothing of the kind. The painting bears no date, it is a rework of a much earlier allegory, Truth Rescued by Time, and it could just as plausibly have been commissioned by the French to celebrate the Napoleonic constitution of 1808, which many of the ilustrados welcomed with open arms: they wanted to collaborate with Joseph Bonaparte, hoping that he would produce the radical reforms of church and state Spain so badly needed.
But unofficial allegory was a different thing. Goya in 1792 fell ill from an infection—it may have been a form of polio—that disoriented him, rocked his self-confidence, and left him permanently deaf. Deafness meant less sociability, and through the 1790s you see the second, the private, the deeper Goya pushing to the surface, first in a genre scene of bandits holding up a coach that looks like a rococo pastorale in which something has gone hideously wrong—he won’t suppress the ugly sprawl of the dead or the shoe that’s come off the foot. Having hallucinated and heard noises in his head, he paints madhouses. He nourishes himself with drawings whose content is very far from the polite discourse of court art. These drawings of the 1790s are the protein of his later work. They are the basis of the Caprichos. They go parallel with a sudden mood of reaction that swept the Spanish government. In 1790 Floridablanca banned the import of French writings; in 1791 he suspended most Spanish newspapers; in 1792 Godoy took power, ruling Spain through María Luisa and her complaisant husband.
Goya was shocked by this and disillusioned by the seesawing of influence between liberals and conservatives that would end, after 1800, with total liberal defeat. His response was one of sardonic, oblique protest. Through the 1790s there was a growing split between the public and the private Goya. After 1800 he still did official commissions, and negotiated his way through the centers of patronage; but more and more of his drive went into his private visions, whose first complete manifesto was the Caprichos, sent to press in 1799 when he was fifty-three.
You can decode the Caprichos because they are meant, explicitly, as social speech—satires on reaction, privilege, stupidity, exploitation, and social vulgarity, a manifesto of liberal dislikes. He attacks the clergy for overglossing the Bible and trying to ban its vernacular editions. He satirizes the irrational rise and fall of favorites at court in an image which may very obliquely refer to God as a risen Lucifer, and which derives from the old medieval figure of the turning of Fortune’s wheel. On the rituals of commercial love and commercial marriage, he is wonderful, as in They say yes. Even this close, he can’t make her out. He draws prostitutes plucking their clients and shooing the poor little chickens out the door; but he also shows the victimization of helpless whores by the respectable—“Oh how they pluck out her feathers!” the caption reads. He guys the aristocrat’s pride in his family tree—a donkey showing off his asinine lineage—and rebukes the people for putting up with their indolent masters by showing donkeys riding men. And he goes much deeper into the fears of the pueblo, down to the crossroads of the demonic and the sexual, protesting against the sexual abuse of children in an image whose details shock us even today, Sopla.
The catalog of the show tends to treat the Caprichos and Goya’s later and altogether weirder etchings, the Disparates, as though they were continuous. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Disparates resist all interpretation; they are hermetic even when they are most appalling; they weren’t even published until Goya was dead and he said nothing about them. Undoubtedly the Disparate showing French soldiers stumbling in panic away from an enormous specter can be decoded as a political allegory. But how about the one with the rearing Leonardine horse carrying an ecstatic woman in its mouth—what does it mean? You sense it viscerally: on some level the image is about orgasm; but these dark sexual images, so intensely vivid in their presentation and yet so elusive in their literal meaning, are among the most mysterious components of European Romanticism and they invert the rationalist pretensions of the Enlightenment. And how did Goya get from the Caprichos to this point beyond satire? Through experience of political disillusionment and terminal violence; through the extinction of liberal hope and the reign of unreason; in short, through what is set forth in the Disasters of War.
For the last third of his immensely long working life Goya found himself less and less able to sustain an optimistic belief in the power of reason to organize a just world. The message of his later work—the Disasters of War, the Disparates, and the “Black Paintings” with which he adorned the dining room of his villa outside Madrid, the Quinto del Sordo—is one of cumulative despair. Hysteria, evil, cruelty, and irrationality are not merely the absence of wisdom any more than black in Goya’s paintings is merely the absence of color. Education will not stop these Fates from spinning and snipping the thread of life. Culture will not exorcise them. They are continuous presences, and the world is thick with them. They are pervasive, as demons were to the medieval mind: y no hai remedio, as he engraved below one of the massacres in the Disasters of War—and there is no remedy.
The painting in the show that best expresses this is the tiny Witches in the Air (see opposite page), done around 1798 when he was working on the Caprichos. Three half-stripped men in the long conical hats that heretics were forced to wear in their ritual humiliation by the Inquisition are floating in the air. There is nothing airy about them. Their bodies are concrete, dense, and muscular—business-like, almost, as they gobble like owls at the flesh of the victim they carry. The arms and legs sticking out of the core of bodies make an extraordinary burst of light in this thick darkness. And the men on the ground do not want to know about it. One lies down and covers his ears. The other makes a sign to ward off evil and tries to hurry on by.
Part of the subliminal power of this image for a Spanish Catholic in the late eighteenth century would have been that it reminds one of a Christian image, the Resurrection of Christ, which it morally inverts. But the schema is essentially the same: the manifestation rising from the ground, the failed witnesses—the Roman soldiers around Christ’s tomb, or the stricken travelers on the Goya—not seeing what is really there.
The liberal message was that human nature is naturally good, but is deformed by corrupt laws and bad customs. Man is born free, but he is everywhere in chains. Goya’s message, late in his life, is different. The chains are attached to something deep inside human nature: they are forged from the substance of what, since Freud, we have called the subconscious. They are not the “mind-forged manacles” of which William Blake wrote; they are not a social artifact that can be legislated away or struck off by the liberating intellect; they are what we are. In the end, there is only the violated emptiness of acceptance of our fallen nature: the pining of the philosophical dog, whose master is as absent from him as God is from Goya; the two last men in the world, Cain and Abel at the end as at the beginning, flailing at one another with their shillelaghs as they sink in the marsh; the corpse at the conclusion of the Disasters of War, pointing to the one word of wisdom it can show us from the jaws of death: Nada, “Nothing.” We can only claim an affinity between Goya and Rousseau if we are prepared, at the same time, to admit there is also one between Goya and Rousseau’s antitype, the Marquis de Sade—and that Goya’s unflagging modernity lies somewhere between the two.
June 29, 1989