Orwell considered the capacity to recognise and accept unpleasant facts a power. If he was right, and he certainly is, Francisco Goya’s work stands as testament to a man who elevated it to the level of a superpower. One doesn’t seek out Goya’s paintings or etchings looking for consolation. Here one finds the brutalities of war, the sadomasochism on which class and feudal relations depend, and the many ways Man can embody impotence.
Goya became an expert in the last of those when, at a relatively young age, he was struck by an illness that left him both blind and deaf. The former was temporary, the latter proved lifelong. This had the effect of turning the artist inward and further away from an idealised view of his country. Out went the beautiful scenes of picnics and salons, and in came the bull fighting, highwaymen and lunatic asylums in all their gory authenticity. See The Death of the Picador:
Ordinarily such scenes would depict a moment of triumph: man demonstrating his superiority over beast. A predictable assemble, with the tacit message, “this is the natural order of things”. But here is the bull, outnumbered and defiant, impaling the performer in a – although can it ever be contrary? – particularly undignified way. His horse is crushed beneath. In doing this, Goya shows Spaniards what they really wanted to see. (And if the tabloids are to be taken at face value, what they still do.) An articulate observer of this “sport” will tell you that, besides cherished tradition, it is the grace and pageantry that keep them coming back. But Goya knew that pueblo wanted gore, and lots of it.
There’s a question over whether anyone wanted to see inside a madhouse, however. This is where Spain dumped the mentally disturbed and its non-aristocratic eccentrics, and where the mantra “out of sight, out of mind” was cruelly followed. No one received care worthy of the name, and, with a architectural design George Carlin would be proud of, these prisons were open, chaotic. The resulting paintings by Goya convey a terrible atmosphere. If one were to take a peek into the cave of Michaelangelo’s The Last Judgement, I imagine one would see something like this:
It’s debatable whether or not he was a secret republican (many have taken his royal portraits as quite enough evidence, ignoring the fact he made the very best out of some very ugly sitters), but this scene would certainly suggest a sympathy. There is a man with a crown fashioned from feathers holding his hand out to adoring “courtiers”. Another wears a headdress made from cards, and a third sports a DIY mitre. This is the royal court depicted in one of the few ways possible. It takes skill and bravery to dupe most contemporaries, while leaving a clear subversive message for posterity. He saw behind the enchanted glass propped up to simultaneously dazzle and terrify, and found asses instead of lions.
He was a man of the Enlightenment, but unlike many of that tendency he never romantised “the people”. It is a failing of some liberals (and even more socialists) to assume that, if only the shackles were to be undone, most of population would rationally, and dutifully, get behind them. No, to Goya the reactionary inclinations of the hoi polloi were only too clear. It was they who, when the horrid Fernando VII consolidated his power – by employing secret police that hunted liberals like hogs – went to the streets chanting, “long live our chains, long live oppression; long live King Fernando, death to the Nation!”
(And it was the great mass that had urged along the monarch’s crushing of the 1812 Constitution, along with its liberating potential. This document was drawn up by the exiled Spanish government in Cádiz in response to Napoleon’s invasion. It promised the people a country worth fighting for: one with a free press, universal male suffrage, land reform, and checks on the monarchy. At one time – as the Peninsula War raged – it looked as if Spain would end up with either this indigenous liberalism born from war, or an enlightened absolutism imposed by France. Tragically, but in keeping with this troubled land, it got Fernando.)
There is a sense of disbelief, if not disgust, toward his victims of social inequity. In this image from the Caprichos, two proletarians lumber almost prostrate under the weight of asses, representative of the aristocracy. Their looks are one of complacency.
Here is Goya facing the unpleasant fact of power: in order for one to oppress, the other must choose to submit. Granted, this is the perspective of the artist: distant, if not disinterested. One with more sympathy – for either side of the dynamic – will be eager to point to Marxist or Humean theories of indoctrination, and the threats of violence contained, either latently or explicitly, within the dictates of tyrants. It’s not that Goya is unaware of these factors, but he isn’t so willing to absolve those who bend the knee. What bothered him, a man so use to questioning his surroundings, was the self-enforced ignorance of “the many,” that in fact makes a despot’s life so easy. The majority, by simply refusing to ask why, are more than complicit in their structural misery. Minds untutored in political philosophy are better placed to see this than their opposite. This is what Blake called “mind-forged manacles”.
This insight may seem blunted by the fact it comes from a painter of the court, though it shouldn’t. Goya maintained a fierce independence that got him in trouble with both the Inquisition and Fernando. And, besides, we can’t be certain that self-loathing wasn’t part of the impetus behind The Caprichos.
Another print, a favourite of Christopher Hitchens, shows a peasant groaning beneath the bulk of an overweight friar. The caption reads, “Will you never learn what you are carrying on your back?” This is, in part, one of Goya’s many shots at the clergy. A class of men he considered parasitic, stupid and dangerous.
Ever since the Moors were forced out, a particularly reactionary strain of Catholism was enforced on the Iberian peninsula. The climate of fear that began with the targeting of Muslims and Jews and their descendants, came to infect every corner of society: speak a foreign tongue? Suspect. In love a non-Catholic? Dangerous. A woman with aspirations above the convents or child rearing? Abhorrent. Known to read the latest treaties out of France? Traitor. And all knew the rack and burning poles awaited transgressors.
Though the Inquisition’s most tyrannical years had passed by Goya’s day, it maintained an ominous and persistent presence. For example, he was made to answer for The Naked Maja – the first Western painting to include female genital hair, according to biographer Robert Hughes – as well as The Caprichos.
During his early career he found himself at the whims of men of the cloth – a rare group with the capital to commission such works, and the bane of hundreds of artists before Goya and since. In a letter to a friend, he refers to his difficulties with them,
If you don’t watch out and even if you do, [these insects] will tear away your flesh and your hair out as well; not only do they scratch you and look for pretexts for quarrelling, but they bite, spit, stick you, and run you through; they often become food for other and worse ones…
As is classic of one who has made a deadly foe, Goya can’t even bring himself to consider his adversaries human. This colourful language prefigures later depictions of the clergy.
Hughes has suggested that even with this animus, Goya remained some sort of believer in the supernatural. But his pessimism runs so deep, and his contempt for religion’s representatives so great, that it’s hard to see him as anything but an atheist.
At his most pointed, he thought religion stupified the mind. The sleep of Reason brings forth monsters. Other times – as with the lore surrounding witches – he had an almost anthropological interest in the fantasies on which people build lives around. But this interest remained at a safe distance. See Plate 69 of Disasters of War, his second major series of etchings: A corpse faces away from the viewer holding a pen which, in rigamortise, hovers over a sheet of paper. It reads: Nada. Like that other great atheist David Hume, the everyday dreads of old age weren’t enough to bring about a late conversion. Goya remained steadfast, and kept the God-botherers from his bedside.
As well as that, not only does Christian imagery become absent early in his private work, but the motifs associated with such images end up being employed for notably secular purposes. Justice and reason, those cornerstones of the Enlightenment, look almost holy in Goya’s pen (see Lux et tenebris and Sol de justicia). While that symbol of revolution, and Spain’s wartime adversary, Lady Liberty, strikes a saintly pose in Allegory of the Constitution of 1812. (Old man Time has less hassle bringing her forth on canvas than “he” had in actual fact.)
This is a rare moment of optimism in Goya’s collection, which makes the knowledge that the 1812 Constitution was scrapped – and by a Spanish administration – so crushing. It’s hard not to think that, however courageous the resistance was – and Goya honored the everyday heroes of the struggle – a French victory would’ve been preferable to the outcome Spain was dealt. (The conflict has an odd parallel with the 2003 Iraq War: both began with foreigners citing enlightened progress as their casus belli, and both, in their own way, brought awful reaction.)
Although he clearly had a “side” during the war, he is surprisingly evenhanded in his coverage (a journalistic term that seems apt). The French are shown committing terrible acts of mutilation and savagery, but so are Spanish patriots. They are shocking.
At another time Goya said that he had hoped to document universal human failings. Looking at these prints today one’s mind is taken immediately to Syria in 2017, which is a strange compliment to the “most Spanish of artists”. One hopes there is enough left of that country in the near future so that a worthy heir might emerge.