Old man Goya reminds me of the missing dog described in the reward poster: three legs, blind in one eye, missing right ear, broken tail, answers to the name “Lucky.” Goya like Lucky stuck his nose in the wrong place more than once. He survived the accidents of history, cheated the grim reaper numerous times, and swallowed hard in order to ingratiate himself with his masters.
At 74 years of age Goya retreated to his house, La Quinta del Sordo, to stew and wait for a royal pension he would rely on while in exile in Bordeaux. No longer in the lime light of the court I picture the grizzled recluse in his bathrobe rumbling around in his dark house ruminating on his long and eventful life, and I doubt that self-pity or regret played a part in his diatribe. No, one look at the images he punched onto the walls will reassure the viewer that he aimed his stream of a lifetime of piss and vinegar with canine accuracy to splash on clergy, monarchs, and society, and in general the hopeless stupidity of mankind. Goya might have kept a civil tongue in public but he vented in private.
Stored under his bed were his latest etchings, Los Disparates de La Guerra, a savage condemnation of war and those who propagate and benefit from it. I can understand Goya’s principled, and courageous urge to create the etchings as critique, after all there was a precedent for such critical broadsides in England and France, but Spain was very different. Los Disparates were published and available for one day only until a benefactor reminded Goya of the penalties for critical, liberal speech in conservative Spain. The mildest image in that series would be enough to have him brought up before the Inquisition for heresy, a crime punishable by the death sentence. The edition promptly disappeared from view, swept under Goya’s bed where it remained until well after his death.
The paintings on the walls of the Quinta del Sordo, both fascinating and frightening, are an intimate chronicle of Goya’s days in that dark house, a private exorcism of the outrage he expressed in his etchings, performed to repair his weary soul, and witnessed by no one but his son and his mistress.
Goya was probably still in his bathrobe when the urge and the images flashed into his mind’s eye demanding to be released. He dug deep into his bitter heart and in the flickering circle of candlelight he began painting directly on the wall. He summoned up the devils and monsters that had ravaged his world setting them loose in the encroaching gloom of his dark house of memories to bear witness— never let him forget.
The resulting Black Paintings, worked in a reduced palette of black, red and ochre, manifest the devil in the guise of a goat preaching to a mesmerized crowd, Saturn devouring, no shredding the limbs of his children, and witches flying over a dark landscape. Not the usual companions that a sane person would choose to live with. Most of the images are immediately frightening when viewed in the light of day on a museum wall, but imagine waking up in the middle of the night to find a moonlit Saturn staring at you as he chews. These paintings could be read as the outpouring of a madman or a bitter artist unhinged by illness and the compounded tragedies of his life were it not for the Duel to the Death with Cudgels the most disheartening and startlingly seductive of all the black paintings. This painting is different. It seems to have been painted in the cool, rational light of day. Goya some how managed to transcend his bitterness to prove to himself that reason and discipline were still in command of his brutal deluge. In the next post we’ll try to figure out why this tragic painting is still alive and kicking — still relevant in our time.
A Blue Sky, and Luminous, Rising Clouds.
A while back I asked a painter friend of mine, Red Cushing, a WWII veteran, what war was like. Characteristic of his generation, he never spoke of it much and when forced to he was concise.
“I’ll paint you a little picture,” he said. “ I was green. it was springtime, the hills were greening. We were in an apple orchard on a hill in northern France, you know, blue skies, blossoms, clouds, birds singing.” Then, Red slammed his fist on the table, “Bang!” He yelled, “then clumps of dirt flying, friends— darkness. I was never fooled by a blue sky again.”
A blue sky, and luminous, rising clouds, welcome us into Goya’s Duel to the Death with Cudgels. There are no goats, witches or chewing Saturn rushing out at us, none of the heat or outrage of the other Black Paintings, just that blue sky and the low horizon drawing us in to his landscape. Still, we are on guard as we surrender to Goya’s illusion. Like Red after the orchard, we should be suspicious of blue skies. After all, we are in Goya’s house and we just passed a chewing Saturn.
Compared to the other Black Paintings we are acutely aware that this panting has been rationally plotted: designed and executed to perform, to elegantly communicate its layered narrative.
Goya refined his skills as a designer of dynamic pictorial space while creating pastoral scenes for the Royal Tapestry Works. By definition, decorative tapestries should be pleasing to the eye and not overly demanding or unsettling in their narrative. The challenge to the designer is to create a dynamic composition that will engage a generally distracted, passive viewer and then take them on a pleasant ride along his chosen visual-narrative path.
In the ‘Duel’ painting, Goya demonstrates that he is in full control of his craft. He barricades the bottom edge of the picture plane with a pool of irresolvable dark confident that we would prefer to travel the clear well lit path beginning at the right bottom edge of the painting rather than stick our visual toe in muddy water. We enter the image along the bottom right corner, skirt along the unbroken diagonal edge of the dark and take a split second trip to the blue-mountains and the distant horizon.
Goya places the fighters to the left, off center to give us a chance to get into the landscape and be somewhat at ease before we begin to read them closely. Had he centered the fighting men they would have demanded our attention first, and we would have not taken the ground route to begin our reading the figures from the legs up.
Goya had an intuitive awareness of the mechanics of our interaction with visual reality. He well understood that we unconsciously read corresponding shapes and create patterns in order to derive meaning from a crowded visual field. The tiniest variation from our expectation—our stored memory of the norm, raises an alarm, causing us to linger on that spot until we have resolved the question.
The analogous positions of the men keep our eyes bouncing from one to the other in order to quantify slight differences. Starting from the bottom, the most congested area, our eyes ping pong back and forth between the negative spaces, the parallel and complementary angles. The convex and concave interlocking curves on the torso prolong the swinging motion. Slowing down to read the faces, we then swing out along graceful arc of the arms to the business end of the cudgels. From there we are released into the blue sky where the corresponding shapes of the clouds expand the relentless back and forth movement, and then, Bang! Goya explodes the full sad narrative and it hits us like a big clump of dirt.
The back and forth movement of our eyes on the picture plane have animated the relentless swing of the cudgels and unleashed the narrative: these men are buried up to their knees and methodically bashing each other’s brains out! There are no witnesses to account for valor, no honor, and no way out. The scale and interlocking shapes of the figures make it clear that he is not recounting an anecdote about two individuals, but in effect making a universal comment on one being, one flesh—mankind.
In order to design this elegant vehicle that illustrates the saddest idea contained in all of the Black paintings, Goya had to damn up the bitterness and heat he expressed in the other paintings. But why all that skill and effort expended on a wall that no one else would see? Surely he knew that the new residents would have the monsters white washed well before they moved in. Was this Goya talking to himself, reassuring himself that he still had it in him? Was it the work of a madman or was he the first modern artist, insisting that his unique outlook and vision of the world, no matter how far off the official orthodoxy, has to be expressed regardless if there is an audience or not. Or was this Goya tempting fate again, planting another land mine, like his satirical but brutally honest etchings that could blow up in his face at that critical moment when he was waiting— depending on a royal pension?
Goya was a supremely gifted, insightful artist, a complicated character, as charming as he was vindictive. He created a masterpiece on the wall that expressed a view of man’s condition that was relevant in his times, during Red Cushing’s time, and still relevant in our own time, but Goya was no prophet. During the three years he spent in his dark house he was a reclusive insomniac, spending his nights walking around in his bathrobe, scribbling on walls. A pessimist, who had seen too many blue skies marred by war and other senseless stupidities who would not allow himself to hope for a shift, a human leap into the blue.
Nevertheless ‘Duel to the Death with Cudgels’ the saddest painting of all, is proof that Goya might have been bent but never broken. He never lost his power, or his belief in his own greatness. In a sense Goya in the Quinta Del Sordo was also an optimist, a magician practicing his tricks for the benefit of his solitary shadow, confident that he still had the magic required to cheat the grim reaper— just one more time.
Above all, Goya was a survivor, and lucky as Lucky was.
I have tried to paint a picture of this great painter from my own reading of his work: the tracks of his hand in the painting, marks that always reveal temperament, and of course the literature. I’ve presented an incomplete picture that raises many questions and leaves many areas for your interpretations. Your clarifying comments are sincerely welcomed.