Artist of the Month (December)
Francisco de Goya
A Giant Seated in a Landscape, sometimes called “The Colossus” (by 1818), copyright belongs to the Metropolitan Museum of Art 2016. Not on display.
There is something dark and deeply disturbing about the work of Spanish Romanticist Francisco de Goya (1746-1828). Goya once said that he only had three teachers: nature, Velazquez, and Rembrandt. It is easy to see the penetrative, noirish tones of Rembrandt and the structural depth of Velazquez in his work, but nature? Take, for example, Goya’s Los Caprichos, a series of 80 aquatint and etching prints, and a set called The Disasters of War, considered by art historians “a protest against the violence of the 1808 Dos de Mayo Uprising.” They depict marginal elements of the human narrative: writhing bats and reptilian figures; skeletal, starving people plagued by famine; twisted interactions; bizarre romances; and eerie, mythic monsters. Yet to write these pieces off as dystopian and artificial is fallacious, for the Los Caprichos personas, however fantastical, seem intended as the physical manifestations of mankind’s spiritual demons and gory products of evil gone unabated.
Clockwise, from the left: (Velazquez) Las Meninas, 1656. Museo Nacional del Prado; (Rembrandt) Self Portrait, 1659. National Gallery of Art, Washington; (Goya) El sueño de la razon produce monstruos, 1796-1797. Seattle Art Museum; The Colossus, 1808-1812. Museo Nacional del Prado; Saturn Devouring One of His Sons, 1819-1823. Museo Nacional del Prado; 48 Soplones, 1799. Eames Fine Art.
Whether real or imagined, these arresting creatures come alive through Goya’s fine mark. Unlike in A Giant Seated (above), the Los Caprichos are less fluid and far more precise than many of Goya’s paintings, including the uber-famous The Colossus (pictured; also known as The Storm), which portrays a similarly frightening, chaotic, Godzilla-worthy scene of a giant towering above a village enshrouded by clouds, people fleeing down below. [Please note: The Colossus has been embroiled in a controversy over the identity its crafter in recent years. I am of the opinion that either way it doesn’t matter, as the effects are the same]. In the gestural, painterly “messiness” of The Colossus, the same sinister gloom of the Los Caprichos and more meditative A Giant Seated reverberates thunderously. The fierce passion and vitality of Goya’s pieces, especially the bleaker ones, render his art highly memorable. But with these ominous visions impressed upon the brain, the entrancing stillness of A Giant Seated seems easy to forget, despite its protagonist’s mammoth physique, his frame enlarged by the print’s slim proportions. The thoughtful composition combines “burnished aquatint with scraping and strokes of ‘lavis’ added along the top of the landscape and within the landscape,” the general effect being an extra dimension to the giant’s rounded shape, spots of light hitting his back. The light forms are really strong abstractions that studied up close would be seen disappearing into the page. Instead, from our vantage point, they stand out, breathing energy into the work as a whole. And because of the fading upper and lower levels in A Giant Seated, there is this overall softness and gentleness that we would expect to be ill-fitting to Goya’s subject, but instead produces a contrast accentuating the artist’s magical touch.
Besides technical ability (often eschewed in favor of expressive strokes), what makes Goya so special? I began writing about Goya’s surrealism with the sense that his reality–his “nature”–was a contorted, disturbed, and distant incarnation of our own. It therefore appears trite to connect Goya’s theme of eternal suffering (combined on occasions like this one with comic joy) to the various global crises taking place in Syria, Turkey, Berlin, and so forth. I’ll profess that I’m not one of those critics to whom weaving the political with the personal constitutes anathema as a distortion of art as an institution, for I believe that art of whatever medium and age serves to chronicle one’s existence (that of artist and viewer), and certainly partisan biases cannot be divorced from human experiences. Nonetheless, conceptually I find tying Goya to today an uncomfortable approach, paralleling the utter ridiculousness of op-eds ridden with stretched connections, like this article by David Brooks strangling Buber into a modern, Trumpian application (though published before the election transpired). What excellent pop-philosophy from a Times figurehead! But the bleakness of the Los Caprichos, even if traded in for the brooding tranquility of A Giant Seated, undeniably resonates. So my fallback homage to Goya, in linking his breathtaking artwork to today, is his selection for December’s Artist of the Month. Here’s to hoping the doom he prophesies (and illustrates) will only lessen with the new year’s arrival.
In that vein, here is Goya’s short bio, courtesy of Artsy–
The tempestuous works of Francisco de Goya distinguish him as the most important Spanish painter of his time. Among his contemporaries, he was best known for his lighthearted tapestry cartoons of leisure activities, subtle satirical etchings of the bourgeoisie, and penetratingly psychological portraits of the aristocracy. Having survived an unknown illness that left him deaf and witnessed the atrocities committed during Napoleon’s occupation, which are hauntingly portrayed in the mass execution of Spanish civilians in The Third of May 1808, Goya went on to create some of his most somber, chilling images with his late “Black Paintings,” which were painted directly onto the walls of his home. Now recognized as a harbinger of modern art, Goya influenced numerous artists, including Pablo Picasso in the creation of his masterpiece Guernica (1937).
Happy holidays from MolaPola and look out for new postings during the break!
P.S. If you’re taken with the Los Caprichos, Enrique Chagoya, a Mexican artist specializing in politically-charged paintings and prints, did his Artist Project for the Met on Goya’s series. At only three minutes, it’s worth checking out: