Published May 7, 2021 on Degree Critical.
Sometime in late 1792, Spanish painter Francisco Goya fell ill with an undiagnosed malady. It was a long and painful period that started with headaches, dizziness, auditory problems, and depression. During this time of agony, the painter suffered from severe hallucinations as well. The cause of his illness was never determined, though his friend Martin Zapatero noted that “the nature of this illness [was] of the very worst kind.” He was forty-six, and he did survive, but with permanent hearing loss.
Before this period, Goya was at the peak of his career as a painter. After expanding his circle of high-profile patrons during the 1780s, he was appointed First Court Painter to Charles IV in 1790, only three short years before his illness forever transformed him personally and artistically. The direction of Goya’s commissioned work stayed relatively consistent, albeit increasingly cynical, until the 1800s: he had mastered the Velázquezian style of portrait painting, his color and light work were supreme. He was a natural for perceiving whatever was significant about his models, and he conveyed their essence candidly. The drawings and prints he produced after 1793 without royal or noble commission were equally intuitive, yet they grew darker and grimmer, showing the weighty aftermath of the disease that robbed him of his hearing and mental clarity. These were the works that mattered in the end: ones that touch their viewer’s soul the most, ones that best epitomized the brilliant and bleak mind of Francisco Goya. Indeed, the many theories as to determine his mysterious illness include chronic lead poisoning: Goya used large amounts of white lead and cinnabar, both toxic materials that could have caused his symptoms. The deafness and ill health that fed his most iconic paintings may have well been born from the tools of his trade— a morbidly romantic ouroboros.
Around the same time Goya got sick, the French declared war on Spain. He spent the following years in the restless political environment of the region while creating a set of 80 aquatinted prints, published in 1799. He called them “Los Caprichos,” meaning caprices or follies, and described them as “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.” These works were both intelligent satires of society and saturnine depictions of a dreamlike reality. They showed clergymen and drunk women, comical scenes of courting, and witches hunting for dead men’s teeth along with goblins, owls, and bogeymen. One of them, These Specks of Dust (1799), depicts a man in a capirote during an auto-da-fé, a public ceremony of judgment, while the Inquisition and the roaring crowd watches, huddled in the darkness, veiled with the dusky tone of the aquatint. Compositionally at the forefront, though, sits the so-called heretic, centered, and illuminated. Bon Voyage (1799) is more allegorical and nightmarish as it shows a group of demons with wings in the blurry shadows of the night. The monsters are said to be an embodiment of societal depravity, finding refuge in the darkest corners of human ignorance. The shadows cover almost every inch of the organic, refined strokes of the etching, leaving only small parts of the figures visibly lighted.
Not unlike Goya’s imagination, the real surroundings of the artist were increasingly somber at the turn of the nineteenth century. The French army invaded Spain in 1808. The bloodshed, executions, and uprisings of the Peninsular War lasted six long years. Meanwhile a dreadful famine ravaged Madrid, and Joseph Bonaparte took the Spanish throne until Napoleon fell in 1814. War was then over, but with the monarchy of the new king Ferdinand VII, terror remained. For Goya, who died under his rule in 1828, the days of violence and unrest never ended.
Goya produced two more series of prints in the final decades of his life, “Los Desastres de la Guerra” (“The Disasters of War,” between 1810-20), and “Los Disparates” (“Follies” or “Irrationalities,” between 1815-23). Like his famous “Caprichos,” intricate and peculiar, these works reside in the marginal space between real and delusive, earthly and visionary. Plate 30 of “The Disasters of War,” Ravages of war (ca. 1810) is a terrifying portrayal of life under the French incursion, bodies of men and women scattered in the darkness, depicted in an unsettling sense of movement. Plate 71 from the same series, Against the common good (1814-15) shows a flesh-and-bone demon with a malicious face, sharp nails, and bat wings instead of ears. He is equipped with a big, heavy book and dressed ecclesiastically. The “Disparates” series also illustrate scenes from the twilight of reason: men flying with artificial wings in the night, devilish giants, carnivals.
Within the dichotomy of Goya’s prints lies an agonizing revelation. The illness that took away his hearing probably came with delusions and hallucinations, but there is no way to know for certain. He might have seen those demons, creatures of pure evil with their beaks and grisly wings, as real as himself when he looked up to the sky, or when he witnessed an Inquisitor carrying out an execution. He also might have seen all for what they were, smelling the blood, death, and war that overpowered everything around him. What otherworldly art and fiction mostly ends up unveiling is that the real evil lies within the human beings. Ghosts and witches aren’t real, but malevolence is present nevertheless. Goya didn’t need to hear screams to sense the violence, nor did he need to see monsters in the night. During war, the two seemed the same.
Goya’s Graphic Imagination was on view from February 12 – May 2, 2021 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.