Most art books share the same fault: they are too big. Too big for a bed or a sofa or a rocking chair, too big to bring for a walk, to a cafe or a park. They are meant for a table – and who in their right mind reads books at a table? Except if you are at a cafe, of course.
Therefore, it was a great joy to wander into a little used books store in Greenwich, London, where every book in the store was available for a pound and find there little pocketbooks about some of history’s greatest painters. Adding to the joy to find something cheap in London, who is one of those cities where you’re almost charged for breathing.
Those are the Dolphin Art Books, fifty years old by now, and the book I’ve been reading about Francisco Goya has been crumbling in my hands while I read it. The pages are falling out, separately, which means that soon I can hang some of those pictures on the walls if I want.
The format is simple, 40 pages of text and then 80 pages of colour illustrations. Yet not 80 pictures though, some cover two pages and sometimes they also zoom into a small detail in the pictures, meaning it’s closer to the experience of going to a gallery where you of course keep zooming into what interests you, only can’t control the zoom this time.
A Well-Off Rebel
I had recently read a fine interview with Icelandic artist Þrándur Þórarinsson in The Reykjavík Grapevine (it’s in English) and the similarities between him and Goya echoed in my head. Neither found their place in academia, Þrándur quit because his professors weren’t teaching the kind of painting he was interested in and Goya struggled to break into academia and seemed incapable of producing the kind of work the Spanish academies at the time demanded. That demand was for lifeless pictures, if the picture of the crucifixion is anything to go by, a painting where Goya admitted trying to please the academics. This is a boring Jesus – but he painted Jesus a lot better later in his career, in a cave waving his hands, gesturing: what are you thinking? But to whom?
The text is by Margherita Abbruzzese and a lot of it centres on how he managed to earn a position at the court of Spain despite his apparent loathing of the aristocracy. Working for the court may have been similar to all the artist working for advertising agencies today, the capitalists just like the aristocrats manage to find a way to make the artists useful towards their ends. Goya always struggled with this arrangement, as he wrote in a letter: “[…] as a rule in commissioned paintings caprice and imagination cannot be developed.”
But how well did they understand each other? Not well, according to Abbruzzese, who claims that: “Sympathy for the poor, which Goya’s truthful portrayal was calculated to evoke, never entered the heads of members of that class. So without discomforting them at all Goya painted in the way he thought right, and their want of perception allowed him to go on doing so.”
Two of the cartoons are intended for the Princes’ bedroom at Aranjuez, the author claims, before adding: “Both cartoons contain a strong element of social criticism.” Yet you suspect the prince didn’t lose any sleep over them – and it begs the question of aristocrats and capitalists of all eras: are they just this stupid – or this smart? Is their ignorance perhaps the key to their brilliance, to maintaining their power and their wealth? Yet, from Goya’s time a lot has certainly changed, even if certain things are eerily familiar.
The relationship between the artist and the paymaster is perhaps most vivid in the portraits, which Goya sort of admitted himself he couldn’t do well, since they were commissioned works, the enemy of creation. One of those portraits is unusually weak according to Abbruzzese, A Portrait of the Count of Floriblanca. “It is one of Goya‘s least successful portraits; it shows the artist himself ill at ease in the face of officialdom.” Yet even if she’s right I disagree with her, because this is perhaps Goya’s best portrait, because of the background details. The count is certainly handsome and the image of good health (weather that was true to life or not) – but behind him there is a sceptical assistant and to the side is Goya himself, ill at ease. And this deconstruction is what really makes the portrait great.
The same can be said about a big family portrait for Charles the IV. Goya obviously knows who he can insult and who he can’t on this portrait of 14 people. Those at the front (probably the ones who paid the bill) are paintings-by-numbers, but something is happening in the back rows, there people’s looks and glances are at odds with the front the others are putting up. Perphaps they are jealous, perhaps they can see through the king and the queen.
There is also a self-portrait of Goya himself at the start of the book. He reminds me a bit of actor John C Reilly, but it’s like there is a thin veil over one of his eyes. Perhaps a mark for all that he can’t see, the self-criticism of an artist who can’t capture everything he dreams of on the canvas.
The best picture Goya paints of the class struggle is perhaps though “Pick-a-back,” where young boys carry each other on their shoulders. At the front is a well dressed and happy kid, totally oblivious to the grim face of the poor kid carrying him. The blindness of the aristocracy already formed by childhood.
The Blind Guitarist and the Monsters
It took Goya a long time to find his style, even if he found fame early. His talent is there and many of the paintings have a lot to recommend them – but it’s always like there is something missing, and he’s often struggling to capture faces. They always seem a bit hazy, like he can’t quite capture the essence of his characters.
One of the best of the early Goyas is The Blind Guitarist, since he gets away from drawing the eyes, a weakness throughout his career. The paintings also proved prescient, a blind guitarist as a symbol of how the loss of one sense makes another stronger – something that happened to Goya fourteen years later and perhaps made him the revolutionary painter we know today.
Because after a long illness he lost his hearing in 1792, at 46 years of age. Which seemed to have made him into a much better and more nuanced artist. But what also happened at the same time was that he discovered his monsters – or at least finally dared to paint them. It took time though, there is an interesting period where all the humans slowly become more and more grotesque, change into some monster hybrids even.
And then a goat appears, posturing like a man, surrounded by deformed witches. After this Goya’s world becomes a darker, more interesting world. Later we see a colossus, an unusually human-looking giant, walking past killing fields. The colossus melts a bit into the nature – but we don’t know his role in all of this. The war is at the forefront – but did he participate or is he just a silent witness of man’s folly?
The war then reaches it’s peak in 2 May 1808 – a truly bloody painting where you can smell the bloodlust, the horses walk over dead bodies and a man is stabbing an already dead foe. The day after, 3 May 1808, is a twin to this picture and is in fact the painting: not just one of his best but also simply the one picture most people conjure up in their minds when they hear the word Goya.
Yet it’s more uneven then many of Goya’s works, but he’s never found the focus so clearly. The man in the white shirt, his arm raised to the sky. Helplessness personified but grace as well – the innocent men that can’t help but being carried away by the winds of history.
The late peak of Goya’s art then came when he painted the walls of his summer house. That human goat appears again – the picture even carries the same name; The Witches Sabbath. Yet it’s not the exact same picture, it’s better, and the goat-man has found his final form, it’s like he’s haunted Goya all this time, yet now that he finally found him, and his true essence, he’s broken free.
Because near the very end Goya finally manages to paint something like happiness convincingly, we see a balloon and then a beautiful lady, without any irony, perhaps his last lover. It’s like he’s conquered all the monsters to claim his happiness.
Prior to this he had done one nude – two pictures of Maja; The Maja Clothed and The Maja Nude. What’s most interesting about the nude is that finally Goya masters the human eyes. After those two picture we see The Majas Walking – and start wondering, was it maybe not the same person after all?
But who is Goya beyond this book? A lot of things, certainly, but there’s a clue in the book, it does show some of his etchings, published as Los caprichos. It’s black-and-white, while the book focuses on color photographs, but here he truly lets the monsters loose. This form actually seems to suit Goya a lot better then the paintings, now the focus is on the details of the people and he’s never done faces so well in his paintings – and meanwhile the landscape disappears into the background. The details are at the forefront here, not in the background as in the paintings.
This may be the truest expression of Goya’s genius – or as Charles Baudelaire wrote of him “In him we find love of the inexpressible, a feeling for the most violent contrasts, for terrors shared by everybody and for faces which life has moulded into a thousand weird animal shapes. Goya‘s great strength lies in his having created credible monsters. His monsters are alive, they strike a chord. Nobody more than he has dared to make the absurd possible. All his distortions, his bestial and diabolical faces, are filled with humanity.”
Text: Ásgeir H Ingólfsson