Sunday, August 3, 2014

Francisco Jose de Goya y Lucientes

Pilgrimage to San Isidro's Fountain
My trip to Spain this past spring was a long time coming, but it ended up being a lot different than I imagined it would be. I had contemplated (without doing any research, which is always dangerous) a few days in Barcelona to see Antoni Gaudí's buildings, followed by maybe a few other cities. Madrid, Bilbao and Seville probably with maybe a day trip to Tangier, Morocco. As it turned out, the only city other than Barcelona that survived the planning process was Madrid.

When I made the decision to spend three days in Madrid, the only attractions I could highlight as must sees were Pablo Picasso's Guernica and the Museo Nacional del Prado, which I probably conceived as the same thing. They aren't; Guernica is in the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia about a 10 to 15 minute walk south of the Prado. But in researching Madrid and art in Madrid in particular, it became obvious that I should go see some of the works of Francisco Jose de Goya y Lucientes (hereafter in this post just referred to as Goya), one of the great Spanish masters whose work has not traveled far from Madrid. 

If there's a place in the world you can get immersed in Goya's work, it's the Prado. So knowing absolutely nothing about what I would find there, but armed with what I like to think is some understanding of the history of western art, I set out for the Prado on the first day I arrived in Spain, which happened to be a Saturday night when the museum is open until 8 pm. The Prado itself is not an enormous museum but it's big enough. It is arrayed as a series of enfillade rooms along a floor plan which is about four to five times as long as it is wide. My arrival at the museum just before 6 pm revealed a line of people almost the entire length of the building and my heart sank a little. I'm English and so queuing is sort of in my blood but the length of this line was ridiculous; it would likely take forever to get it.

Turns out the Prado is free after 6 pm and once the hour hand struck the bottom of the clock the line disappeared quickly; it took all of maybe 10 minutes to get from the back of the line to the building entrance. They were just handing out free tickets as fast as they could. For an unknown museum that held works by a guy I may or may not like, this was a great start. The first thing I did when I got through the door was to grab a map and find out where the Goyas were hung. It appears from looking at the Prado this morning while writing this post that the Prado is no longer free after 6, but is instead half price. I feel even luckier now than I did the day I visited.

The main spine of the Prado on the entrance level runs from the circular entrance hall down almost the full length of the building to an octagonal room, before the sequence of travel deflects the visitor into a series of side galleries. The first encounter with Goya's work is in the aforementioned octagonal room, with the next five galleries off that room also dedicated to Goya. So not wishing to waste any time, I fast forwarded past all the rest of the art hanging in the building and headed down the building to see what the Goya fuss was all about.

The Family of Charles IV
The centerpiece of the octagonal room at the south end of the Prado's first level is the painting The Family of Charles IV. The painting hangs on the wall that terminates the building's axis so it is the most prominently displayed work for anyone entering the room. The remainder of the walls hold vignettes or studies of some of the family members in the main painting; practice sketches if you will for the final work. The date of the final work (shown above) is the year 1800.

So re-stating the fact that I like to think I have some understanding of western art...what's the big deal? I had read that one of the hallmarks of Goya's works was the warts and all nature of his painting; that he refused to deliberately edit or change his works to cater to someone else's idea of what should be shown. From written accounts, this seemed to be especially true of his depictions of historical scenes when Madrid was briefly under Napoleon's rule in the early 1800s; his paintings showing the struggle between Napoleonic troops and ordinary Spanish citizens were allegedly shocking because they refused to sugar coat what really happened those couple of days.

Knowing all that, I expected his paintings of Spain's elite to be less beautiful and composed and I imagined any physical defect of his subjects would be pronounced. What I saw on the wall of the octagonal room was a nice painting of a royal family. To me, this was not worth raving about. Maybe among his contemporaries in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Goya employed techniques heretofore undiscovered in depicting light and shade and the human form but to me, this was not brilliant. I moved on hoping to find something better.

The series of five galleries to the south of the octagonal room holding The Family of Charles IV are completely devoted to Goya. Almost all of the paintings in these five galleries are portraits or religious or allegorical works and almost all were commissioned. In these commissioned paintings, I found nothing that I was hoping to find, namely a move away from strict representational paintings of people or imagined biblical figures.

There were, however, a few non-commissioned paintings in these five galleries that showed something different; they were small works depicting carnival characters in slightly surreal surroundings. There were also hints in the captions near each work that Goya's mental state was becoming less stable with age, brought on by the onset of deafness or maybe something more severe. I headed downstairs, hoping to find something great, or at least the gruesome scenes of the cruelty of Napoleon's forces exerting their power over the residents of Madrid.

The Third of May, 1808
The Third of May, 1808 (shown above) is one of Goya's most famous works and it can be found in the Prado's zero level in the southeast corner of the building. It shows the execution of some of Madrid's citizens by French troops and was painted in 1814, right after the French had been sent back north. The painting has a companion piece, The Second of May, 1808, which shows the events of a day earlier, a scuffle between the same French troops and some Spanish citizens who objected to the rough handling of the Spanish royal family in their removal from the royal residence. That scene, like the one on May 3rd, ended in French troops killing Spanish men.

Like the religious and portraiture works by Goya that I had seen earlier in the day, The Third of May, 1808 was a commissioned work, in this case for the government of Spain, and while I'm sure the image was shocking in the early 19th century due to the gore on full display, I was not impressed. I am sure the actual scene was far worse. I am also pretty sure that Goya was not on hand to witness it. Another disappointment.

Now in my rush to get to the highly anticipated anti-Napleonic works, I had bypassed gallery 67 of the Prado, which is the last Goya gallery in the building and therefore my last chance to be impressed. In backtracking to visit that gallery, everything I thought about Goya from my visit so far changed instantly.

Duel With Cudgels
I had learned earlier in my visit to the Prado that deafness and maybe some other diseases or conditions had changed Goya's mental state. An acquaintance of Goya's at the time reported the painter hearing voices as his hearing deteriorated and modern day post mortems attribute Goya's conditions to one or more of a series of strokes, paranoid dementia, brain trauma or even lead poisoning. This change in mental state is reflected in a series of paintings labeled Fantasy and Invention, a few of which I had seen in an earlier gallery upstairs at the Prado (the carnival folk in slightly surreal settings).

In 1819, Goya bought a house outside of Madrid and effectively retired, isolating himself from the world and pretty much everyone he had ever known. The house was known as Quinta del Sordo and was named after the previous owner but the rough translation to "house of the deaf man" fit Goya perfectly. Although he retired from public life, he didn't stop painting. While living in his new house until his death in 1828, he painted a series of 14 paintings directly onto the plaster walls of the houses. These works, known as the Black Paintings for both the predominance of that color and their dark nature, are in gallery 67 of the Prado. And they are absolutely amazing.

Pilgrimage to San Isidro
The Black Paintings remained at Quinta del Sordo until the 1870s when they were removed from the walls of the house and transferred to canvas and hung in the Prado. Understandably, the works were damaged when transferred and repairs were necessary which some feel irreversibly changed the paintings. Nonetheless, the contrast between these works and the rest of Goya's paintings in the Prado is striking and obvious. The realistic portrayal of the human form is gone; figures are hunched or twisted or otherwise grotesquely displayed. In some cases, they are levitated unnaturally.

The overall demeanor of the paintings is restrained chaos and emerging madness, a reversal of the calm, heroic, stately nature of the rest of Goya's paintings hanging in the galleries. The range of emotions on the figures' faces in many of the paintings is astonishing: I read insanity, laughter, confusion, fear, rage and hatred rather than any other emotion which speaks to the higher nature of humanity. There is conflict, shame, horror and a sense of things ready to go horribly wrong in these works, even in the painting depicting a dog swimming in water; the sense is that the creature is in the middle of the ocean and there's no way he's going to make it to shore.

The Dog
There are two paintings depicting pilgrimages to San Isidro among the 14 paintings. In both works the train of pilgrims seems like they are either being driven cruelly by some unknown tormentor or that they are caught up in something they don't quite understand. The faces of some of the people seem confused, or blissfully happy but totally unaware of what they are doing. There is another painting which depicts two men beating each other with clubs. It is plainly obvious by the expressions on the two men's faces that one of them is not going to escape the fight alive.

In perhaps the most famous of the 14, Saturn Devouring His Son, the titan Saturn is engaged in cannibalism of his son in response to a prophecy that his own son would one day overthrow him. The action makes no sense; it is so extreme a response to a prophecy that Saturn himself seems halfway between madness and rage and at the same time we sort of pity him. The eyes popping out of his head and his hands clenched with rage around the body of his own child are terrifying.

Saturn Devouring His Son
My favorite of the 14, The Great He-Goat or Witches' Sabbath, is completely fantastical. A great crowd is gathered to look at a half-man, half-goat figure who is depicted only in shadow profile, so it's actually unclear if the figure is a mix of man and beast or in fact a man just wearing some sort of goat mask. The crowd appears to be variably venerating and fearing the figure; some can't seem to look away despite being shocked and horrified while others seem to be in comfortable adoration. It's dark and creepy and sinister and everything the earlier Goya works in the Prado are not. The transformation of an artist's subject matter in a few years is amazing.

The exact date of these paintings is of course unknown because nobody actually saw the progress of these works except Goya himself but they were obviously painted between 1819 when he bought his house and his death in 1828. As works of art, these paintings are so far ahead of their time. They are truly modern in the sense that they aren't strictly representational. The figures painted are not depicted necessarily physically correctly and their facial features are often distorted or their bodies merged through the painting technique with those of their neighbors. But the emotion, again mostly very dark emotions, are there throughout.

I honestly had no idea what I would find at the Prado and my expectations for any artist painting in the late 1700s and early 1800s were very low. But I'd go back to see these again, and not just when the museum is free or reduced price or whatever the admission policy on a Saturday night is nowadays. These works truly made an impact on me. I'm putting these works on my favorites list. Gallery 67. Remember it when visiting.

The Great He-Goat or Witches' Sabbath

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