Thursday, May 22, 2014

Into the Black: Goya's Descent Into Madness

From Drexel University's The Smart Set:
Until an illness drove him mad, Goya was simply a Spanish court painter. But in his portraits of the Altamira family, had the darkness already begun to stir?

Francisco Goya was felled by a mysterious illness in 1792. He didn’t die, he just fell. The illness made him dizzy and disoriented. Goya stumbled; he teetered. He was nauseous. Voices sounded in his head. He was frequently in terror. His hearing began to fail. Soon, he was completely deaf. By all accounts, he was temporarily insane at points. Then he recovered, though he would never regain his hearing.
Little Dude in Red
Before the illness, Goya had been a successful painter for the Spanish court. He was good, but unremarkable. After the illness, Goya became the extraordinary artist whose paintings — like The Third Of May 1808 — are among the most celebrated works in the history of art. In the late 1790s, Goya began working on a series of prints known as Los Caprichos. The Caprichos are commonly interpreted as satire. Goya was making fun of society’s corruptions and stupidities. Goya himself described the Caprichos as illustrating "the innumerable foibles and follies to be found in any civilized society, and from the common prejudices and deceitful practices which custom, ignorance, or self-interest have made usual.” The most famous print from the Caprichos is number 43, which bears the inscription: “El sueƱo de la razon produce monstrous,” or, “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.” You’ve likely seen the print. It shows a man, presumably Goya, asleep with his head on a desk. He’s been writing or drawing something. Behind the sleeping man are a number of creatures. Some of the creatures are owls. There are also bats. A lynx sits at the foot of the desk looking directly at the sleeping man. Goya’s fascination with monsters and the edge of reason stayed with him until his dying day.

In his early 70s, Goya had another bout of illness. This second illness caused Goya to begin his final series of paintings, known as the Black Paintings. These were done on the walls of a house Goya had purchased outside Madrid. The Black Paintings are muddy and impressionistic. They depict scenes of loneliness, despair, violence, and witchcraft. Perhaps the most famous of the Black Paintings is Saturn Devouring his Son. It shows the scene from Greek mythology where Cronus (Saturn) eats his children in order to thwart the prophecy that he will be overthrown by one of his own sons. In the painting, a wild-eyed Saturn tears bloody pieces from a headless corpse. The Black Paintings are unforgettable. They are the product of a man struggling with unnamable terrors, visions from just beyond the cusp....MORE