Why is it that, after two centuries of increasingly barbaric conflicts, Goya’s work is still a peak of artistic representation of the human cost of warfare? Robert Hughes’s beautiful biography of Goya answers this fully. It is a great work of scholarship, but also of love for its subject. Goya’s journey from provincial art student, to royal portraitist, to draughtsman of the human condition is told with style and bravura.
Goya’s 82-year life was a full one. Born in 1746 outside Zaragoza, he trained to be an artist from age 13, working mainly on religious paintings. Aged 29, he moved to Madrid, where he worked designing scenes of town and country life for the royal tapestry factory. Spain was ruled by an absolute monarch and was dominated by the church, whose Inquisition was still proscribing books and works of art. Goya was made painter to the court in 1789, the year of the French Revolution, although many of his friends were prominent ilustrados, or followers of Enlightenment thinking. In 1792 Goya was struck down by a near-fatal illness which left him stone deaf. It is believed that he also suffered from a deep depression that would affect him for the rest of his life.
The turning point in Goya’s career came in 1799 with the publication of his Caprichos, a set of 80 brilliantly conceived and executed etchings, savagely attacking the clergy, superstition, custom and sexual relationships. Probably the most famous of these prints is ‘The Sleep of Reason Brings Forth Monsters’. Inscribed beneath the figure slumped at his desk, harried by apparitions of owls and bats, is inscribed the legend, ‘The author dreaming. His only purpose is to root out harmful ideas, commonly believed, and to perpetuate with this work of the Caprichos the soundly based testimony of truth.’ Goya had 300 copies printed, but they were on sale for only two days before he withdrew them – probably after threats from the Inquisition.
Napoleon invaded Spain in 1808 and imposed his brother as king. The next six years witnessed the rout of the Spanish army, followed by continual bloody battles with the Spanish people. Goya then produced ‘the greatest anti-war manifesto in the history of art’, The Disasters of War, which was another set of more than 80 prints. What makes them so strikingly modern is his refusal to depict heroic set-piece battles, and instead show the sheer horror, barbarity, misery and inhumanity to which both sides are reduced by war.
Spain’s ultimate victory over the French occupiers saw the restoration of the monarchy under Fernando VII, who was even more reactionary than his predecessors. Any suspected collaborators were subject to the Inquisition. Goya never dared to produce his Disasters of War, and by 1820 he had only printed two sets of proofs, which remained the only copies in existence until 1863.
Goya now produced two of his most famous paintings. They commemorated the events of 2 and 3 May 1808, when the people of Madrid rose spontaneously against the invading French army, and were then subject to terrible reprisals. The second painting, the execution of a Spanish nationalist, demonstrates Goya’s profound empathy with victims of war.
Goya’s last great cycle of work was meant for no one’s viewing but his own. He painted almost the entire inside of his own house in murals depicting the most obscure subjects. ‘Saturn Devouring His Children’ is the most well known of these ‘Black Paintings’. It is an image of almost unbearable cruelty, horror and shame. (Fortunately, in 1874 the plaster was carefully lifted from the walls and remounted to be hung in the Prado museum.) Fearing the Inquisition, Goya now went into exile in Bordeaux, where he remained until he died in 1828.
This is an excellent biography which treats its subject with reverence, but it also provides great insight and historical detail, which bring out the complexities in Goya’s life and work. What makes it complete are the many reproductions of the paintings and prints, which enable readers to study the images to which the author refers.
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