Socialist Worker

Goya and the folly of the ‘impossible revolution’

by Dave Beecham
Issue No. 1957

Woman Seized by a Horse is a nightmarish image from the exhibition

Woman Seized by a Horse is a nightmarish image from the exhibition

Goya: The Disparates
Hayward Gallery touring exhibition

The storm that burst upon Europe with the French Revolution of 1789 wreaked havoc on Spain, once the most powerful European nation, but by then among the most backward.

The year 1789 was also important for Francisco Goya. The son of an artisan, he had just been appointed official painter to the Spanish royal household at the age of 43. Under the patronage of the king, and in the company of his liberal friends, he could look forward to a prosperous future.

But 1789 was a turning point in his life, just as it was in the development of Spanish society. The weak Spanish monarchy had been trying to modernise the country and drag it out from under the dominance of the Catholic church.

But the weakness of the state and the backwardness of Spanish agriculture meant that there was a mounting crisis on the land. Most peasants and rural labourers lived in poverty.

The French Revolution finally shattered the illusion that Spain could be gradually reformed. It began the chain of events leading towards civil war.

As the church and aristocracy led an assault on the radical ideas coming from revolutionary France, Goya and his progressive friends found themselves under attack.

In 1793 Spain launched a holy war against France. Around this time Goya fell seriously ill and went permanently deaf. As he recovered — and Spanish society disintegrated around him — he began to produce pictures quite unlike the brilliant but conventional paintings from his early career.

His famous engravings from the late 1790s, known as The Caprichos, were a sustained attack on hypocrisy, sexual mores, clerical reaction and the Catholic church.

By 1800 power had passed decisively to the reactionaries. In 1808 a paralysed regime appealed for help to the French ruler Napoleon.

But Napoleon responded by installing his brother, Joseph, as king. This acted as the trigger for a series of civil wars, as reactionaries and progressives battled both with the French and each other.

In 1820 Spanish troops being sent to the colonies mutinied and proclaimed a new democratic constitution. A series of drawings by Goya captured the hope that must have leapt in his heart at the rising of the people.

In public most of his output was quite different. He went on working for commission right through the civil war, producing paintings for leading figures on both sides.

But Goya’s private work depicts both the hope of revolution and the agony of a people who cannot break with an old order and therefore turn in on themselves.

This is symbolised in one of the great paintings of his last years — Saturn — which shows a tortured and desperate old man devouring a child. Saturn is one of the so called Black Paintings — murals Goya painted on the walls of his home near Madrid.

This touring exhibition of etchings, known as The Disparates (The Follies), comes from the same period.

They are thought to have been created between Goya’s relapse into serious illness in 1819 and the restoration of the Spanish monarchy in 1823, during which many of his friends were executed or exiled.

They were completed shortly before the artist himself fled to France, where he died in 1828. They depict monstrously deformed creatures, scenes of war, human folly and cruelty.

Like much of Goya’s art they show all the contradictions of one of the most intense social and political conflicts in history up to that time.

Goya was faced with, and portrayed, the horrific consequences of what Gwyn Williams, in his magnificent book on Goya, described as “the impossible revolution”.

  • 4 June – 3 July Kirkcaldy Museum and Art Gallery
  • 17 September – 16 October Ashfield School, Kirkby-in-Ashfield
  • 22 October – 20 November Wednesbury Museum and Art Gallery
  • 14 January – 12 February 2006 Fairfield Arts Centre, Basingstoke

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Article information

Sat 25 Jun 2005, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1957
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