Is This Goya Painting A Political Cartoon?

Hoo boy.

Recently Spanish lawyer and art researcher Antonio Muñoz-Casayús has come out with a rather interesting theory concerning “The Pilgrimage of San Isidro”, one of the so-called “Black Paintings” by Francisco de Goya (1746-1828). Up until now, most art historians have assumed that the figures in this painting are anonymous types, rather than representations of specific individuals. However according to Muñoz-Casayús, about two dozen of the figures in the painting are in fact caricatures of famous people from the Napoleonic period in Spain, including Napoleon Bonaparte himself.

Back in June, I revisited the “Black Paintings” at The Prado, along with a friend who was seeing these haunting works in person for the first time. They have always struck me as symbolic tableaux, demonstrating different aspects of the Spanish tendency toward embracing the darker side of life. Broadly speaking, art historians often look at them as commentaries on more universal themes, such as poverty and human suffering. Therefore the idea that Goya included caricatures of personalities of his day in the “San Isidro” is an extremely interesting one, because it would completely alter the way that most people, myself included, interpret this painting.

In favor of the argument that Goya was commemorating the disastrous politics of early 19th century Spain in this painting is the fact that Goya, like many radical republicans of his day, had a bizarrely fanatical attachment to Napoleon Bonaparte – or at least, to the Napoleon-shaped god whom he and many others had come to believe in. As often happens when one decides to lionize a dictator and overlook his evil tendencies, be he Adolf Hitler or Fidel Castro, Goya fell into the trap of believing that Bonaparte stood for something other than self-aggrandizement, even though his words never quite matched his deeds. If, as Muñoz-Casayús suggests, the little emperor is perhaps the only figure painted with some degree of sympathy in the “San Isidro”, this could be because Goya failed to reconcile the dichotomy between the real Bonaparte and Goya’s imaginary one.

Also in favor of the argument that the “San Isidro” is a political work is the fact that this painting was not created either for sale or for public exhibition. Rather it was a personal piece, like the rest of the works that collectively make up the “Black Paintings”. It was painted directly onto the wall of Goya’s own home in Madrid, where it remained until long after the painter’s death. The only people likely to have seen the “San Isidro” at the time of its creation would have been those invited to the artist’s home, and we can reasonably assume that Goya’s only invitees at this time would have been those whom he considered friends.

Yet significant arguments against the idea that the “San Isidro” is a giant political cartoon do exist. Perhaps foremost among them is the possibility that Muñoz-Casayús’ theory is an example of pareidolia, the human psychological tendency to perceive intentional images or hidden messages where none in fact exist. An example of this is the innocuous practice of looking up at the sky, and comparing the shape of a particular cloud formation to a human face, a running dog, or some other object. Another is the Rorschach or “ink blot” test, in which a person is asked to look at a series of ink blots on cards, and describe what, if anything, they see.

As stated above, Muñoz-Casayús claims that he can identify two dozen individuals in the “San Isidro”, including Bonaparte himself, his first wife Josephine, and his sister Pauline, among others. Certainly, the figure in the center of the main group, who is supposedly the Corsican, has the attributes we have come to expect in a representation of Napoleon: the short stature, the sunken eyes, the curl falling over the receding hairline of the round head. However, it is also entirely possible that this could be a case of seeing what one wants to see, and that the resemblance is merely coincidental.

The fundamental problem that arises in trying to prove or disprove Muñoz-Casayús’ theory is that we have no explanation from Goya or any of his contemporaries about the significance of any of the “Black Paintings”, including the “San Isidro”. In fact, some scholars believe the “Black Paintings” are not by Goya at all, or that some are by Goya and others are by his son Javier. We simply have no records indicating that Goya, or anyone else at the time, laid out what these paintings mean, let alone pointed out the presence of specific individuals in them. We don’t even know what Goya himself titled these paintings, if they are indeed his work, as I believe they are.

Goya is perhaps the first great “modern” artist, not because he was a technically accomplished painter, but because of his approach to his subject matter. There are no sacred cows in Goya’s art. His images of the court in Madrid are astonishing not because they are well-painted (which they aren’t), but rather because he often got away with painting powerful people as unattractive, parasitical creatures. His boldness in tackling unpleasant subjects, such as madhouses or witchcraft, as well as unpleasant people, like the Spanish royal family of his day, put him far ahead of his time.

It is this characteristic boldness that leaves me willing to remain open-minded about Muñoz-Casayús’ theory. Would the old, sick, and disillusioned Goya, his hearing gone, and his revolutionary ideals crushed into dust, have hesitated to paint a monumental political cartoon on the wall of his house, after a lifetime spent mocking power with paint? I can’t imagine that at this point in his long career that he would have restrained himself from doing so, if indeed the idea to create such a work had occurred to him. On the other hand, given the contemporary, gnostic tendency to declare the discovery of hidden meanings where there are none in works of art, architecture, literature, and so on, I’ll leave it to those better-informed than I to reach a consensus on this latest theory.

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