Miriam Cosic considers the Goya enigma
Goya’s challenging drawings and prints should be seen in the context of his place and time, writes Miriam Cosic
SPAIN is an enigma. It was Spanish explorers who opened up the New World, inventing globalisation and fast-forwarding Europe’s segue into modernity, yet it was also in Spain that the Catholic Church’s vehicle for theological censorship, the Inquisition, operated at its most atavistic and vicious.
It was Spain that made a startling 180-degree turn in the 1970s, ditching the Franco dictatorship — which inexplicably endured for 30 years after fellow-travelling fascists were defeated in Germany and Italy — and becoming, in an instant, one of the most socially progressive countries in the world. The new Spain became strong on gay rights and reproductive rights and every other kind of right, though some say the lack of hard reckoning, such as Germany had with its Nazi past, has left the spectres of murdered multitudes haunting the land.
Francisco de Goya is an avatar for the Spanish enigma. He lived on commissions from the church and the nobility, but was an Enlightenment figure who sympathised deeply with the miseries of the poor and marginalised. His drawings, particularly his The Disasters of War series, can be seen as a kind of universal Spanish reckoning three centuries after Spain’s genocidal conquest of the Americas and a century before its particular variant of fascism. His brush drawing Because They are Jewish was a critique of the Inquisition but its intensity was ratcheted up in the 20th century. His drawings are also a humanist’s reckoning with every human cruelty and misery — war, torture, rape, mutilation, political and religious persecution, you name it — and proved a lasting inspiration to other artists’ work.
A dozen works on paper by Goya, each as unsettling and thought-provoking as the next, are at the heart of an exhibition of Spanish drawings from the British Museum now on show at the Art Gallery of NSW in Sydney after outings in London and Madrid.
Earlier generations of art historians have presumed that drawing wasn’t important to the Spanish. Few examples are lionised in the way drawings by Leonardo or Michelangelo are, and famous drawings by Spanish masters such as Diego Velasquez or Francisco de Zurbaran or El Greco (who was, in fact, Greek) are curiously absent from museums. Early commentators, including Spaniards, explained this in essentialist terms, by contrasting cool Italian feeling for form with the emotionally and spiritually intense Spanish preoccupation with theme: Spain is ‘‘ given more to the magic of colour than to the discipline of drawing’’, as one commentator had it.
It wasn’t until the 1950s that a Spanish scholar, relying on material evidence rather than national stereotypes, wrote an essay titled, ‘‘ On the supposed non-existence of Spanish Old Masters Drawings’’. That brief argument ‘‘ immediately transformed the debate’’, Mark McDonald, curator of the Sydney exhibition, writes in his impressive catalogue.
McDonald, the British Museum’s Australian-born assistant keeper of Old Master prints, gives two very practical reasons why lithography, for example, was slow to take off in Spain. The first comes straight out of economics 101: businesses in Paris, Rome and Antwerp, expert in production and marketing, quickly exploited the technological innovation and flooded the Spanish market before local workshops geared up. The second was peculiarly local. Censorship in Spain was assiduous and ubiquitous: artists faced the Inquisition if it disliked the way they portrayed the face of a saint in a church, which made them cautious.
This exhibition, Renaissance to Goya: Prints and Drawings from Spain, spanning three centuries and several urban centres of Spanish art, shows Goya’s expert works on paper didn’t spring from nowhere. It wasn’t that Spaniards didn’t draw, or that drawing wasn’t a critical part of an artist’s education, says McDonald. Rather, the Spanish didn’t value drawing as a medium in its own right until late in the 18th century. Before that, preparatory drawings were considered disposable work sketches.
‘‘ I’ve seen so many sheets torn, stained. There wasn’t the same impetus to keep things in a good state,’’ McDonald says by telephone from his desk in London. ‘‘ So much seems to have been chucked out. I’ve seen many archival references to sketches, but none of those sketches seems to have survived.’’
By Goya’s time, works on paper had become more interesting to collectors in Spain, and his drawings, lithographs and aquatints, some of them pages of his private journals, some carefully prepared for sale, have not only survived but continue to enthral us. Each has a powerful intimacy; cumulatively, they assemble even more powerfully into the metanarrative of Goya’s world view.
‘‘ He keeps on saying to us, ‘ Stop!’ and ‘ Pay attention!’,’’ McDonald says. ‘‘ He constantly challenges us, even now. And I’m constantly shocked by him.’’
Francisco Jose de Goya y Lucientes was born in 1746 in Fuendetodos in the province of Aragon, but his family soon moved to Zaragoza. He studied art privately from the age of 14 and twice failed in competitions for a place at the Royal Academy in Madrid. Frustrated, he travelled to Italy and stayed there for two years, absorbing everything it had to offer. On his return to Zaragoza, he joined the recently established workshop of Francisco and Ramon Bayeau. He eventually married their sister, Josefa.
It wasn’t long before Goya scored a job in the royal tapestry workshop under Francisco Bayeu. His rise was steady. By 1785, he was named deputy director of painting at the Royal Academy, the very place that had rebuffed his early applications to study. In 1786, he was appointed painter to Charles III, with an appropriately comfortable salary, and was promoted to court painter under Charles’s successor, Charles IV. Life was looking good, but two catastrophes intervened. First, in 1792, Goya suffered a terrible illness that obliterated his hearing. Some art historians say this made him withdraw into himself, inexorably shifting his work into dark places, though they may underestimate the effect of losing one child after another in infancy.
In 1799 he published a set of 80 aquatints that he had made in the previous two years called Los Caprichos, or caprices, though the lightness of the term is misleading. In this series Goya probed every human folly: stupidity, greed, vanity and superstition among them. No 43, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, is the best known and was intended for the frontispiece, before Goya exchanged it for a more conventional self-portrait.
‘‘ In the Caprichos,’’ McDonald writes, ‘‘ goblins, witches, priests, prostitutes and nobility occupy the same world.’’ So far from drawing down the wrath of church and state, the work was a success and liberal-minded aristocrats in Spain and abroad rushed to buy copies. Goya might have been sinking into pessimism, but he had the measure of his times and seemed unassailable.
Goya’s second catastrophe was political. The Bourbon king Charles III, an enlightened and reforming monarch, had ruled Spain since Goya was a teenager. That was clearly formative and planted Goya’s political outlook deep. When Charles IV ascended the throne 30 years later, he maintained his father’s policies. In 1807, however, France invaded Spain, part of Napoleon’s sweep across Europe, and the Bourbons were deposed. Goya’s childhood home, Zaragoza, was almost destroyed in a siege, but Napoleon later claimed the Spanish war had been the beginning of the end for him. The war left two intriguing legacies: Spanish civilians put up a stiff resistance to the French, and the term guerilla, a diminutive of the Spanish word for war, guerra, was coined for them; and it inspired Goya’s enduring pacifist manifesto, The Disasters of War.
After Napoleon was thrown out, Ferdinand VII took the throne in 1814. Another Bourbon but no friend of the Enlightenment, he revoked the constitution, declared absolute rule and reinstated the Inquisition. Goya’s patriotism was unquestionable. One of his most famous paintings, Third of May 1808, shows defenders of Spain being mown down by French firing squads. The Disasters of War is a homage to Spanish resistance to French occupation. And yet his Enlightenment views made him suspect in the regime’s eyes and royal commissions stopped. Fed up with the mood in Spain, in 1824 he went to Bordeaux in France and spent his remaining years between there and Paris.
Goya kept working right up until his death four years later. ‘‘ He was always making albums and drawings, paintings, small studies. There was no sense of an older man slowing down,’’ McDonald says. Goya was shaped through and by social forces, he adds, and he explored them until the end.
Renaissance to Goya: Prints and
Drawings from Spain, at the Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney, until November 24.
For Being of Jewish Ancestry (1808-14), left;
and Soldiers Fleeing a Phantom (1816-24) by Francisco de Goya