The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, September 24, 2000
'Art and Soul

Goya: Painter of the absurd
By B.N Goswamy

I WAS struck by a passing remark someone made the other day, referring to the chaos that surrounds us: "To paint the state that we are in today, we need a painter like Goya". I reflected on this a little. That great painter one most easily associates with delicately nuanced portraits, picturesque groups of nobles and royalty, depictions of festivals and bull-fights, casting lingering looks on the alabaster bodies of majas — those fashionable women not specially known for their virtue — whether clothed or in a state of undress. But then I also remembered those searing works of his in which he turned to look at the tawdriness, the senseless violence, the hypocrisy, the pity and the

horror of daily life, which he saw around himself in the Spain of his times. And I thought that there was much in that seemingly simple remark. Perhaps we, in this land of ours, do need someone who would capture all this in his or her canvas, or etchings. For today, more than ever before, it seems to me, we need to look at ourselves.


Yet another Mughal Ramayana
September 10, 2000

Children: Seen, but not heard
September 3, 2000
Things that reach across time
August 13, 2000
Several tombs and a garden
July 30, 2000
Measuring time in Japan
July 16, 2000
About the making of a throne
July 2, 2000
Blending the old with the new
June 18, 2000
Picasso in Lucerne
June 11, 2000
Commerce in craft
May 28, 2000
The Pharaoh and the sun
May 14, 2000

Self-portrait by Goya, c.1794. National Library, MadridFrancois Jose Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828) was no ordinary painter. A man of great fantasy and invention, he began, like many others of his day, with painting idyllic scenes, in an almost gay and romantic manner. Success came to him early, and, although born in a family of craftsmen, he was inducted quickly into high society, winning fame for his portraits, and being appointed an official painter in the Court of Spain in 1789, the year in which the French Revolution broke out. The times in Europe that lay ahead were troubled, however, and Spain, burdened as it already was with obscurantism and intolerance, witchcraft and the Inquisition, was to see much tumult in Goya’s days. The country was overrun by the Napoleonic forces; a Bonaparte was installed in power; there were insurrections and reprisals. In the midst of all this, Goya did not lose his own position as an eminent painter, nor was he personally caught in the violence that convulsed the nation every now and then. But he saw much and registered a great deal in his work. This, while coping with a grave personal infirmity: total loss of hearing. By the time he was 46 years of age, Goya was stone-deaf. For the rest of his life, visual communication was to remain his link with the world.

Quietly, while enjoying the fruits of his early successes, Goya, one knows, was taking in a measure of the evil that belonged to his times. There was no thought in his mind of offering visions of a nobler world, as has been said: he set out to record the sickness of his own. In 1799, he brought

out a series of 82 etchings — Los Caprichos, Caprices, in other words — on which he had been working for full three years. In these he presented a disturbing world, more nightmare than dream, forcing the viewer to think for himself, summoning to the surface a gnawing sense of anxiety. There was wit in the work, but not the lampooning wit of the caricaturists of his day who were often intent chiefly upon entertaining the viewer. Goya was offering social commentary while drawing upon all those subconscious images of evil, and violence that lay hidden within the Spanish soul. Images that he was bringing forth apart, consider simply the titles of his works, and one knows the world that he was inviting his viewers to enter, both through this series, and another which followed, a few years later, called The Disasters of War: The Disparate of Fear; Because she was Sensitive, What Good is a Meal?, The Tribune of the Inquisition, There is no Remedy, They Don’t Want It, Truth is Dead, What Disease Will He Die Of?. One of the best-known plates from the Caprichos series bears a Shakespearean- sounding title: The dream of reason brings forth monsters. In his work faceless soldiers shoot down faceless men, hands are raised in horror as bodies fall, Saturn devours his son, and Colossus looms darkly over a harried, panic-stricken world.

Nearly everyone agrees that, in his own manner, Goya was recording, through his work, the collapse of eighteenth-century stability in terms that apply to all periods of social disintegration. One of his favourite devices was the use of black in large, dominant measure even in paintings, a whole group being called Black Paintings, painted on walls, almost entirely in black, grey and brown, evoking the profound anxiety, the primitive bleakness, that he felt sometimes assailed by. But, almost all fears and personal frailties were somehow internalised by him, and what stands out in Goya’s work, "at once realistic and visionary, crude and refined, plebeian and aristocratic", is his deep humanity. And the following summing up of his work by Norbert Lynton seems just. "He (Goya) is the first great artist to have treated contemporary horrors as his material. In a very un-Baroque and modern way he chose subjects without heroes, in which the protagonists are the anonymous multitude and nothing is achieved but a secular and pointless martyrdom. He is the first and greatest painter of the absurd."

A view of self

Like the great Rembrandt, whom he often acknowledged as his master, Goya painted several portraits of himself, as a part of the process of searching within. Many of them are known, but one portrait of his, now in the National Library at Madrid, is particularly revealing. It shows him dressed in the height of his day’s fashion, not looking exactly like a dandy, but very self-aware. What strike one, however, are the subtleties. In his eyes, on his lips, there is something that conveys a sense of isolation. Goya, as has been remarked in connection with this self-portrait, is self-contained: deafness has placed a barrier between him and the world. One notes with care the knitted eyebrows, the lines at the corners of the mouth, the slant of the eyes.

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