Goya: The Bravest Coward Of Art
Author: Elena Agnese Sorrentino
There are artists who are remembered for their beautiful artworks, and artists who change the course of art history. We can still hear them today, because they speak with an urgency that passes over space and time. They speak of the human nature, the most intimate and monstrous one, with no filters or mediations or make-ups. No one like Goya knew how to tell tragedy and irony at the same time, sarcastic and tender, grotesque and pathetic, heroic and ruthless, true and phantasmagoric things, with a paintbrush that has the energy of a machete and the sharpness of a lancet. After him, all artists had to deal with the heritage he left. His dismembered corpses in the disasters of war inspired directly Géricault, Manet imitated him tirelessly, Dalí invoked him in worship as if he was an inspirational God, Picasso felt drawn to him constantly.
Destined to become one of the greatest artists of all time, Goya left a permanent mark also in Charles Baudelaire, who said about art in his writings: “In Spain, a singular man opens new horizons to the comical. To be exact, there is nothing special or unique in Goya (…) It is certain that he often sinks in the wild comical and raises to the absolute comical. Goya is an always great and often scary artist… no one dared more than he did in the sense of possible absurdity”. His images have a heart wrenching energy, how can anyone forget Saturn tearing apart the body of his son?
Who is Goya?
Goya was at the same time the “Pintor de Camara” (i.e. the official court painter with the institutional role of portraying the Spanish Royal Family and realizing the designs for the tapestry of the Royal Palace) and the most acute critic of Spanish politics, as was shown in the movie “The Last Inquisitor” by Milas Forman. Who is then Francisco Goya? He was a very careful man not to antagonize anyone. Yet, in his work, he was so bold and offensive as any other artist. No one saw The Disasters of War until 30 years after his death, and his famous Black Paintings, for which we all lose our minds today, the first real modern artworks, were not conceived for public viewing. For this reason, some may define him “the bravest coward of art”.
With his wonderful and terrible etchings, aquatints, and lithographs, his fame starts going beyond the Spanish limits: the first collection of Caprices arrives in France thanks to the Baron Vivant Denon in 1809, 30 years before the opening of the Spanish painters’ gallery at the Louvre. The close bond between the Spanish artist and the enlightened intellectuals of the time and the mysterious disease that made him deaf, as well as deeply meditative, misanthropic, and introverted, maybe were the two factors that opened his eyes on the decline of the Spanish monarchy as well as of the human soul. Los Caprichos are a collection of 80 engravings, in which Goya creates an intimate and secret space for himself, where imagination can finally go wild with no decency limits. He describes every aspect of his soul in complete freedom: weak, prey to instincts, short, dumb, dreaming, superficial, portraying ugliness, vices, sorrows, joys, perversions, meanness, and follies.
What is a monkey in front of a canvas doing? Why is it painting a donkey? And titles it “Ni mas ni menos”? Is it saying that only a beast can depict intimately another beast? Is the painter a monkey? Or, in another of his caprices “No te escaparas?”, why is a dancer chased by a worrying flock of evil birds, as in a Hitchcock movie? What will she not escape? Does it have to do with a sort of modern vanitas in which the dancer embodies youth destined to inevitably perish? Los Caprichos are a thriller or art rebus to be solved like the Monna Lisa’s smile. The mystery intensifies with the series of the Disparates (term vaguely translatable with absurdity, oddity, blunder, folly), an enigmatic incomplete collection of graphic works, which saw the light only in the mid-19th century. This suite is a sort of hermeneutic machine, a producer of meanings and of various interpretations, created by the by then old artist, worn out by life, during the years of Ferdinando VII’s restoration plan, in which he rethinks the same atrocities represented in the engravings about war, but this time making a step forward: he adds a carnivalesque trace with satirical lugubrious charge. With what dreadful sneer does the enormous character advance accompanied by monsters and by the sound of castanets in the “Folly of stupidity” (Disparates 4)? The sleep of reason produces monsters, though not ghosts or nightmares, but portraits of a world that has lost any sense, order, and possible harmony. Never like in this series, Goya dominates the surrounding reality with a more ferocious and critical gaze, and at the same time gives up the reins of enlightened reason to abandon himself to the phantasmagorical, distressing, and disoriented world.
It is possible to admire a rare edition of Los Proverbios or of Los Disparates in the section Old Masters of Wallector.com, and to experience live the twofold gaze of Goya upon the “real monstrosities” that enthralled many generations like the Siren’s laments.