Blackness and Light

Naked and obscurely threatening, the giant figure lurches above the clouds, raising his burly arms. The gesture is ambiguous: threatening, certainly, but who or what is being threatened? Everything in the painting is ambiguous, as it so often is in the works of Francisco Goya. Who is this black-bearded colossus, where does he come from and what is he up to? Why does he turn half away from the mass of tiny humans, beast and wagons caught up in a frenzy of panic which is scattering them through the valley? Why does the little white donkey in the midst of the tumult alone stand still? Commentators and critics have argued endlessly about what was in Goya’s mind when he painted this picture, which he always kept in his own home. His work often has specific political references, but since the date of the painting is in dispute – sometime between 1808 and 1812, very troubled years in which the political situation changed almost daily – no one can tell for sure what specific reference is here. Some say the giant is Napoleon preparing to conquer Spain others that it is the Spanish people preparing to drive out Napoleon. Other propose a deadly storm, or the Holy Inquisition, or Spain’s miserable prime minister, Manuel Godoy. Whatever the interpretation, everyone responds to the disquieting dreamlike intensity of the painting, with its broad brooding figure of the giant over the kaleidoscope of bright brush-strokes which forms the fleeing mob.

Like a dream, it asks to be interpreted in different ways. The genius of Goya often found itself working on different levels, and on one level at least, the painting seems perfectly clear. The giant’s eyes are closed, he can have no idea of what he is doing. In Goya closed eyes are almost always a mark of ignorance, a blackened mind closed to the purifying light of reason.
The particular political statement of any of his paintings would of course have been clearer to his contemporaries than it can be to us. But there can be little doubt where his political sympathies, in general, lay. Again and again in his long lifetime, he pledged allegiance to the intellectual movement which had swept Europe and America in the eighteenth century, to change the climate of thought and feeling from that time to this. Friend and foe knew it as the Enlightenment. Opponents regarded it as blasphemous, destructive of all the standards and values that make a just society possible. Followers believed that with the light of reason they could sweep away the accumulated errors and superstitions and barbaric tyrannies which had flourished for thousands of years, and establish liberty, toleration, peace, a steady advance of humanity toward perfection. In France devotees were called les lumières, in Spain los ilustrados, and Goya was ever an ilustrado.

This has not been the conventional view of the painter in the last century and a half. He has usually not been admired for his devotion to reason, but for his preoccupation with the irrational. His work has been praised as impulsive, subversive, obsessive – current terms of approbation he would probably not have appreciated at all. In many ways he can be seen as the precursor of all the passionate anarchic outbursts that have traversed the world of art since his day. His quick choppy brushstrokes give his canvases a look of spontaneity and improvisation that the modern taste finds more appealing than the carefully smooth finish of older masters. But especially he has been admired, worshipped and imitated because of his fascination with the world of dream, the unconscious, the boiling id which we have been taught to identify under the orderly superego of classical painting.
This assumes that there were actually two Goyas, one the court painter, the magician of color who could turn out acres of sparkling portraits and bright buoyant scenes of everyday life., the other a deaf embittered solitary who, in drawings and prints that were never published and in paintings never offered for sale, scrawled grotesque and grisly visions of a world which had gone mad.
If there were two Goyas, it must have puzzled biographers and critics that they usually seemed to coexist so cozily in a single skin. He could swing at apparent ease from mood to mood and from style to style, from the lovely portrait of the Countess of Chinchón in Madrid to the etched plates of his Caprichos with their snarling rage against the hypocrisies and follies of that same Madrid. In the years 1812-14. While he was painting dashing portraits of happy warriors like the Duke of Wellington and General Palafox, he was also etching the Disasters of War, those screams against the barbaric cruelties of conflict.

Goya was never an outcast, he loved society. Though a terrible and mysterious illness in the winter of 1792-93 left him stone deaf for the rest of his life, he learned how to lip-read, and he never lost his taste for the traditional Spanish tertulia, the evening get-together where good friends drink and talk for hours on end. He was from Saragossa in Aragon, and Aragonese have a reputation for being hardheaded, stubborn, down-to-earth – the kind of man who looks out of so many Goya self-portraits, with his bull neck, snubs nose and deep-set eyes that missed nothing.
He was more Sancho Panza than Don Quixote; he knew how to keep on good terms with the world. He was always aware that he had a job and a family to protect in a land full of police spies and informers. The dungeons of the Inquisition were not part of the picturesque past, they were in downtown Madrid, and he was faced with the possibility of being thrown into one when an investigative commission uncovered his Naked Maja among the effects of the disgraced Prime Minister Godoy – it was then a crime in Catholic Spain to paint a female nude. He was official painter to the royal family of Spain for almost 40 years and, like officials everywhere, in troubled times he had to be something of a weathervane, turning with the winds of war and government favor. Whoever was on top in Madrid – Bourbon or Bonaparte, Spanish grandee or French general, the Duke of Alba or the Duke of Wellington – Goya was there to paint them in all the splendor of their pride and the glitter of their multicolored uniforms.

In his etching The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, Goya shows himself with a lynx at his side, a wide-eyed lynx who can see in the dark. He brought the same clear vision to his dreams as he did to the spangles and ribbons on his duchess’s gowns. No artist before or since has looked so piercingly into the world of darkness that lies inside us. He worked out for himself a way of translating to paper or canvas the peculiar language of dreams, their mixture of sharpness and vagueness, their precise details in a hazy disorderly context, their expressive distortions. He can be seen groping his way to this new language in his work of the later 1790's. When he painted the Flying Witches to amuse the Duchess of Osuna, the witches are indistinguishable from real people; they might be a company of actors, except that they are up in the air with no visible support. When, about the same time, he was doing preliminary drawings for In Little Hobgoblins of his Caprichos series, the central figure was a sharp-toothed jeering figure wearing a priest’s surplice and gesturing with the outspread fingers of his right hand. As he worked over it in successive stages he enlarged the hand, extended the fingers, with such fury that his chalk dug into the paper. What was once a hand became a fearful claw, dominating the picture, and the funny little figure became a monster.
When he looked into his darkness to find monsters like these, he did not like what he saw. His hawk-faced men and his women with the bodies of owls, all the toads and bats and witches, are not, as in traditional Christian art, demons who have taken human or animal form They are human beings who have turned themselves into monsters by their contempt for or fear of the bright light of reason.
For one who, like Goya, believed in the ideals of the Enlightenment, the Spain of his day was an appalling place, and when he rendered it is his savage etchings and private paintings, he kept himself remote within the walls of his house. When he looked outside, he saw a rigid and reactionary social and political system, a mass of brutalized peasant supporting a legion of idle aristocrats, corrupt judges, thieving lawyers, quack doctors, lazy monks

There was, however, an active minority of enlightened noblemen and churchmen who saw that Spain could not go on living forever in the dreams of its past glory, that there had to be radical reform. Soon after he was proclaimed king in 1759, Charles III, an enlightened despot, took the revolutionary step of promoting successful merchants and businessmen into the ranks of the nobility. There were plans to reform the archaic tax system and the corrupt legal system. Later, under Charles IV, there was even a Secretary General who tried to reform the Inquisition.
In a tradition-bound society like Spain’s, there was little a man could hope to do but follow more or less successfully in his father’s footsteps. By Charles III’s reign, however, there was some chance for social mobility, and Francisco Goya’s career shows how an enterprising man could work his way upward, fast and far. His father was an artisan in Saragossa, a gilder who never had the right to put a “Don” in front of his name, but he sent his son to a school run by progressive friars whose reputations was so great that aristocrats were not ashamed to enroll their sons there and have them sit beside commoners like young Francisco.

Early marked for a career in the arts, Goya married the sister of a successful painter, Francisco Bayeu; and after a few formative years in Saragossa and Rome, he went to Madrid. Charles III was determined to beautify his capital city, and he and his noblemen were filling their palaces with tapestries and paintings in the bright, light rococo style. Goya, with his deft lively line and his brilliant color sense, was soon one of the most popular painters in Madrid. It was a fairly small place for the capital of a great empire, barely 150,000 souls when Goya arrived in the 1770's, and an ambitious hardworking young man had no trouble in getting to know every one, from the gaily dressed majos and majas, the sporty common people of Madrid, to dukes and duchesses and the royal family itself. In the years between 1775 and 1792 he was intermittently busy painting the cartoons that the weavers copied in thread to make tapestries for the walls of the various royal palaces. He took to signing himself Don Francisco de Goya.
He chafed at the constraints of painting for tapestry, and the weavers resented him for his bravura color effects, which were almost impossible to replicate on the loom, yet both the cartoons and the tapestries form one of the delights of Madrid. Their dominant note is one of carefree elegance as they skip through the pleasures of life in the waning eighteenth century, all games and dances, sparkle and fun. In some, however, a more muted somber tone appears. In one tapestry cartoon wounded mason being carried off by his comrades after a fall from a scaffold is a reminder that people can get hurt building palaces of pleasure. In fighting their way through snow against a howling wind to bring their slaughtered hog to market, the man at the left with his gun ready to ward off bandits, the blankets wrapped around the stooped bodies, bring in an uncomfortable touch of cruel reality.

Such glimpses of the miseries of life in eighteenth-century Spain are perhaps a reflection of the concerns of the enlightened nobles whom Goya met at court, nobles who sat for their portraits and sometimes tried to advance his career by arranging important commissions for him. They mark his entry into the camp of what would be called the liberales, those who stood for a constitutional monarchy guaranteeing the rights of man, believing in free thought and a free press, religious tolerance, impartial justice – the ideals and goals of the American and French revolutions which had set the old world topsy-turvy. On the other side stood to them stood the serviles, who believed in just the opposite; autocracy by divine right, feudal privilege, feudal privilege, the Inquisition, rigid religious orthodoxy.
For Goya, the serviles were the forces of the night, ignorance and hypocrisy and greed and cruelty, the offspring of tyranny and superstition. His first collection of etching, the Caprichos, began as a more or less light-hearted satire on contemporary morals. Here is Coco the Bogeyman, popping up in a cloak before a mother and her frightened children, and he looks frightening enough until you look closely and observe that he is wearing shoes like an ordinary human. He is in fact the mother’s lover, dressed up to give the kids a good scare so that they will run off somewhere and leave the adults alone. As the series progressed, the satire became sharper, more ferocious. Men and women half-turn into animals or birds of prey, asses sit on the judges’ bench or dispense medicine., witches fly off to unholy meetings.
In the later series of the Disparates (Follies), etched during 1816 and 1817 but never published in his life time for fear of the thought police, Goya goes farther in his rage against human folly, so that many have seen in them a conviction that the whole universe is radically insane.

His contemporaries, though, could probably have detected a political message lurking behind all the horror and madness. Goya never lost his faith that the divine light of reason would one day shine on his land and scatter his enemies as the sunlight scatters the owls and bats of uneasy dreams. It was a faith that would be cruelly challenged over the years.
His life alternated between glorious hope and crushing disillusion. His early career, begun brilliantly, was almost blighted when his patron, the kindly Infante Don Luis, brother of the king, died unexpectedly. It was almost destroyed again by the terrible illness of 1793, which left him deaf. At the age of 50 he had a passionate love affair with the beautiful Duchess of Alba, 16 years his junior, and spent some glorious months at Sunlucar, her estate in the south, but at the end he made her the central figure in an etching entitled Dreams of Lies and Inconstancy.
As court painter he acquired fame and became quite rich. His realistic Aragonese eye could see his royal patrons for what they were, and while they applauded him for the brilliant color in which he bathed their uniforms and gowns and jewels, they must have been at least half-blind not to see that he portrayed Charles IV as a pompous simpleton (“Que tonto eres, Carlos,” his father Charles III had said to him one day), his wife Maia Luisa as an arrogant shrew, and her lover Manuel Godoy (the 19-year–old guardsman whom she made a duke, prime minister and commander-in-chief of that army) as a self-satisfied boor.
In 1798 there was a sudden ray of hope when Godoy fell out of favor and a government of ilustrados came into office, with Goya’s longtime friend and patron Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos as Minister of Religion and Justice.

It was a false dawn. The ilustrados lasted only a few months in office. Godoy came back, and he and the queen had ten years ahead of them in which to lead Spain to disaster while the king stood idly by. Then in 1808, in the first of the great blunders that were to destroy him, Napoleon decided that he had to take over Spain to protect his rear when he attacked Russia, the still greater blunder which he was then preparing. He invited the Spanish family to make a state visit to Bayonne in France, a few miles north of the frontier, and there he kidnapped them. He bullied them into giving up the throne (it did not take much bullying) to his brother Joseph, who as King José I soon arrived to rule in Madrid. He was an inoffensive, ineffectual man, better suited to being a real estate developer in New Jersey, which is what he eventually became, than a king, but king he was for a while, and he came down to his new domain with a mighty army and an ambitious set of reforms designed to drag his backward people into the modern world – abolition of the Inquisition, abolition of feudal privileges, freedom of the press – just what the ilustrados had been calling for all their lives. Many of them, many of the painter’s friends, were glad to sign on with the new regime, and Goya painted them in all the regalia of their new positions of authority.

The Spanish people would have none of it. They derided the foreign king as a vulgar drunkard, Pepe Botella – Joe the Jug. In what must have seemed to Goya the most tragic of all ironies, they rejected not only French rule but French ideas. None of this newfangled liberty; they wanted the old Spain, the old monarchy. They rallied around their priests to pray for the return of el deseado, the noble prince of their dreams, who in real life was Ferdinand VII, cowardly, meanspirited and dim-witted, living in luxury in the gilded prison of the Chateau of Valençay, which had been the home of Napoleon’s foreign minister Talleyrand. He squealed to his jailers when he heard of an English plot rescue him by a commando raid, and he missed no opportunity to grovel before Napoleon, even begging to be allowed to marry a Bonaparte.
The people rose to fight with handmade weapons against armies that had conquered half of Europe. For six years Spain was prey to the most atrocious of wars, the kind for which a new word, guerrilla, was coined, a war without front lines or rules or mercy. Atrocities without number, murder, mutilation, torture, pestilence, famine – Goya saw it all and recorded it in the series Disasters of War, hallucinating images of savagery and despair.
In one of the etchings a corpse lifts itself half out of its grave to scrawl a message: Nada, Nothing. But Goya would not abandon hope. At the end of the Disaster series two prints proclaim that liberty can rise from the dead. In 1811, with the war raging everywhere, a group of leading liberales, lay and clerical, headed by Goya’s old friend Jovellanos, who had refused to collaborate with the French, gathered in an island off Cadiz and worked out a Constitution, the first in Spanish history, which was proclaimed in March 1812. Ferdinand, still in exile, promised to accept it. To celebrate the new birth of freedom, Goya painted a huge allegory in which a confident but wary maiden gowned in translucent white who represents the new Spain is being led into the future by Father Time, while the Muse of History records the event in her ever-living book. Father Time holds an hourglass that has been turned over to mark the beginning of a new year, and the maiden holds a little book that is copy of the Constitution of 1812.

The Duke of Wellington, commander of the British army which was driving the French out of Spain at the time, had a keener and more cynical eye for political realities than Goya. He found the people parochial, shortsighted and generally uninterested in the idea of nationhood. His opinion was confirmed by the event. In the spring of 1814, as Napoleon’s empire crumbled into dust, Ferdinand the deseado came back home and repudiated the Constitution, restored autocracy, feudal privileges, the Inquisition, and launched a bloody purge of every one suspected of contamination with the pestilential French ideas of liberty.

The king thought Goya deserved to be punished, but the artist was famous enough and clever enough to avoid prosecution of charges that he had painted portraits of José I’s collaborationist minister and even put a head of José himself in a huge work entitled The Allegory of the City of Madrid. (The head was prudently painted out, and an inscription put in its place.) Goya made several portraits of his sovereign in the years 1814 to 1820, though the two men detested each other, and Ferdinand would not sit for him: the faces in all the portraits are based on sketches made during two 20-minute settings back in 1808. In his private notebooks he drew a mob of hoggish triumphant monks bearing the dead body of constitutional Spain to the grave. In the house he bought in 1819 on the Manzanares - the people of Madrid called it the Quinta del Sorgo, the deaf man’s house – he covered the walls with the dreadful visions of his “black paintings,” which are in part a reflection of his hallucinations during the illness which almost killed him that year, in part a comment on the state of Spain under Ferdinand. Here he painted a mob of bestial witches worshiping a great black goat; two peasants stuck in mud to their knees, beating each other to death with cudgels; a pop-eyed imbecilic Saturn, king of heaven, munching on the bloody corpse of his latest-born son.
There was a brief revival of hope in 1820 when a military rising under General Riego forced Ferdinand to swear allegiance once again to the constitution and introduce a whole set of liberal reforms. The liberales triumphed. Goya’s allegory was unrolled.
But this new age of liberty lasted little longer than the first one. There were continual conspiracies ad tumults, the country drifted into civil war. In 1823 Louis XVIII, the restored Bourbon king of France, anxious to demonstrate that his nation was done once and for all with the subversive notions of the Revolution, sent an army in Spain which quickly restored his Bourbon cousin King Ferdinand to power. All the reforms were then repealed, General Riego was hanged, many of Gaya’s friends were jailed or driven into exile. Gaya himself had to go into hiding for several months.
He was suffocating again in the black cloud of tyranny and superstition. He was an old man now, nearing 80. He remained a wily resourceful Aragonese, and he did not want to give up the dignity of his position as court painter or the handsome salary that went with it. He managed to persuade the authorities that the climate was bad for him, and he needed to go to France to take the waters for his health. In 1824, he left Madrid. He was never to return to Spain.

Gaya was in Paris briefly, where the young men who were launching the Romantic movement were beginning to discover him through pirated editions of the Caprichos series, and were hailing him as a prophet and precursor of modern art. There is no record, though, that he met any of the rising celebrities like Delacroix or Victor Hugo, and they probably would not have known what to make of his if he had. He was dug too deep into the earth to share their airy notions. They might idealize the noble savage, but when Gaya painted savages he showed them gnawing on the flesh of French missionaries in Quebec.
He settled down for the last four years of his life in Bordeaux with his mistress Leocadia. Old age did not diminish his curiosity or his spirit of adventure. He learned the new technique of lithography, and produced the first great lithographs ever made. Though his hand had begun to tremble and he had to use a magnifying glass to see what he was doing on the canvas, he produced paintings like The Milkmaid of Bordeaux with a freshness and vigor that would equal anything Manet and Renoir would be doing half a century later.

He took advantage of what distractions Bordeaux had to offer – the fair, the bullring, the guillotine. He took walks with Leocadia’s (and presumably his own) daughter, Rosario, and gave her drawing lessons, insisting with parental astigmatism that she was a genius. He would talk and lip-read through endless tertulias with the throng of Spanish exiles, grieving over the long night that had descended on Spain, and calculating the chance of a return to the light. It would take a century and a half for their dreams to be realize, and a Bourbon king, Juan Carlos I , would reign as a constitutional monarch, preaching reconciliation, tolerance and progress, heading a reformist government which among other things would proudly send throughout the world a splendid show of 130 masterpieces by Goya, the painter of the Enlightenment.

©1989 Robert Wernick
Smithsonian Magazine, January 1989