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Beyond Goya’s Ghosts


Of Goya’s life, one thing is certain: he lived in trying times. In late eighteenth century Spain, the fanaticism of the Spanish Inquisition was subsuming the forward-thinking ideas of the Enlightenment that had been so fuelling intellectual life throughout Europe at the time; hate, suspicion and ignominy within the more conservative sections of the elite began to grow.

A direct indication of these harrowing times comes from Goya’s famous etching, ¡Lo que puede un sastre!, 1797-98 (What a Tailor Can Do!) from his Caprichos series, displayed on the second floor of the Prado.What appears to be a monk towers over a young woman on her knees. However, on closer exami- nation, the towering oppressor is simply a tree draped with a habit. The image suggests the essential emptiness of the ecclesiastical tyranny at this time but also hints at the power of its outward symbolism alone. The message seems to be: dress up anything as a powerful figure and the innocent will kneel before it.

In this etching, we can see where writer Jean-Claude Carrière may have found inspiration for the plot of Goya’s Ghosts, which follows the events surrounding the reinstated Inquisition’s persecution of Goya’s young muse Ines (played by Natalie Portman) for heresy despite Goya’s (Stellan Skarsgård) pleas to friend and Inquisition spearheader Brother Lorenzo (played by Javier Bardem).

Goya is believed to have suffered something of anervousbreakdownbetween1792and1793,when a mental and physical deterioration nearly killed him and caused him to go deaf. Another debilitating illness struck him in 1819, bringing him close to death for a second time.The title and the disturbing content of another of Goya’s etchings from this tortured period also on show on the second floor of the Prado, 1797- 98’s El sueño de razon produce monstruos (The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters), suggests the forces plaguing the ar tist’s beleaguered mind.

Salas 36-38 on the first floor of the Prado are home to Goya’s Pinturas Negras (Black Paintings), transferred to canvas from the walls of the artist’s Quinta del Sordo (“The country house of the deaf man”) residence near Madrid, where he lived between 1820 and 1823. In these works, Goya broke from almost every Rococo and Neoclassical influence when he painted over landscapes—origi- nally intended as pleasant and pastoral scenes to decorate the walls of his home—with images that draw from mythology and legend and reflect the depravity, violence and war that surrounded him.

Great He-Goat (or Witches Sabbath), which occupied the whole of the lower left wall of Goya’s quinta, depicts a dark maelstrom of a terrifying pagan ritual in broad, expressionistic strokes. Mouths of witches and watching figures hang open grotesquely in a manner that, like so many of Goya’s Black Paintings and etchings, was largely anathema in painting at the time, certainly in portraiture. The animalistic nature of the human organism is conveyed by the open mouth, as opposed to the the proper, austere rictus of pursed lips required in traditional renderings of the time.

His The Dog is devoid of landscape and renders the poignant and enigmatic image of a solitary dog staring up and out of the frame as if helpless, caught in the tide of some unknown force.The largely abstract image is ahead of its own time, to say the least. Catalan surrealist Joan Miró asked to be shown The Dog and Velázquez’s Las Meninas on his last visit to the Prado before his death. He gave both paintings equal weight by spending the same amount of time in front of each.

Goya left a civil war-torn Spain in 1824 after being tried by the Inquisition for obscenity for his painting of the salacious La Maja Desnuda, 1797 – 1800. He was largely ostracised from exalt- ed Spanish social circles (which were his bread and butter) and, as a result, subsequently withdrew himself from public life.

Goya died on April 16th, 1828 in Bordeaux at the age of 82. His ashes were buried in the chapel of San Antonio de la Florida, Madrid.

Image: Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (Capricho 43), 1797-98. Etching and aquatint, Madrid, Museo del Prado.


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