by Bart Sedgebear
The name of Francisco Goya is familiar to all of us. He was, after all, one of the all-time great visual artists. We are familiar with the court paintings he did for Spain’s first Bourbon king, Fernando III, with the designs he did for the Royal Tapestry Factory in Madrid, with his half-hearted religious paintings and his prodigious prints. And let’s not forget his celebrated oil portraits of othe Duchess of Alba, “The Nude Maja” and “The Dressed Maja,” which turned out not to have been of the Duchess of Alba, after all. Have we stopped to consider, however, that this 18th-century Spanish artist from a humble village in the Aragonese outback may have been the inventor of modern art as we know it?
Goya opened new inroads in diverse aspects of what we consider today “modern art.” In his artistic maturity he exercised absolute freedom in his choice of subject matter. He tended to the abstract; if you look closely as his later work even the figurative images have a lot of the abstract about them. He dealt with real contemporary issues, not just the religious and mythological themes which had been the stuff of the visual arts until his time. But more than anything else, his art was human centered. Goya said he acknowledged three masters: Velázquez, Rembrandt and nature. He might have added, “human nature,” because no artist before Goya had delved with such insight into the darkest recesses of human character.
This, I submit, is what made Goya modern, his sombre, many-sided vision of his fellow human beings, premonitions of the horror that was to ensue in the following 250-odd years. If Goya didn’t actually foresee the Holocaust, the atomic bombing of cities, the senseless injustice of Vietnam, the truculent events of the Balcans, and the rise of the killer drone, he certainly identified the flawed gene that fomented all of them. Could Picasso have achieved his “Guernica” without standing on Goya’s shoulders? Where would Van Gogh, Ensor and Munch have started from? Or Kafka, Yeats, Kavafis, Conrad, Baudelaire or Camus, for that matter? For all of these artists participate in Goya’s infra-red ability to see into the murky waters of the human soul. Do you doubt it? Take another look at “Saturn Devouring His Son,” then re-read “Heart of Darkness,” “The Trial,” “The Second Coming” or “Fleurs du Mal.” No time for re-reading the classics? Turn on the television news.
Francisco de Goya y Lucientes was born in 1746 in the Aragonese village of Fuendetodos, in northeastern Spain, but his family soon moved to Zaragoza, the provincial capital, where his father worked as a humble gilder. At 14 the young Goya was apprenticed to a local painter and later made his way to Italy where he paid his way by selling his paintings. By the time he was 25 he was back in Zaragoza, where he painted frescoes for the Catedral de Nuestra Señora del Pilar. His reputation thus established, he married Josefa Bayeu, the sister of a Zaragoza painter, and fathered a large family, though only one of his sons lived to adulthood.
He spent his formative years from 1775 to 1792 painting “cartoons” for the Royal Tapestry Factory in Madrid, where he rendered his first scenes from everyday life. (“Cartoon” is a mistranslation from Spanish of “cartón,” or “cardboard” on which his fabric designs were painted.) He was elected to the recently established Royal Academy of San Fernando in 1780. It is here at the academy’s Calcografía Nacional on Madrid’s Calle Alcalá, just a couple of blocks off the Puerta del Sol, where they still keep and display the master’s plates and prints in a dignified, almost reverent atmosphere. In 1786 he was named painter to King Fernando III and was made court painter in 1789.
The Master Turns a Corner
A serious illness that Goya suffered in 1792 left him stone deaf and marked a turning point in his life and his career as an artist. Though this deafness was a devastating personal setback, one suspects that it was an extraordinary stroke of luck for the history of art. Goya was 46 years old at the time, had experienced his fair measure success, tasted the intrigue and frivolity at court and seen most of his children die in childhood. His vision was that of an experienced artist and mature person with a finely developed critical sense who was intimately conversant with both folly and suffering.
Not surprisingly Goya’s work began to change as he began his voyage into his own particular world of visual and moral chiaroscuro. It changed radically in attitude, in content, in treatment and in his chosen medium: the print. Goya went on to produce more than a thousand prints and drawings, work which was to change the way modern men and women perceived the world around them. The medium of etching, and especially the recently discovered technique of aquatint were uniquely suited to his new pared-to-the-bone form of expression.
Images courtesy of ICEX, Museo del Prado, Calcografía Nacional