Today is the birthday of the great Spanish painter Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828), and it gives me the opportunity to draw the attention of my readers to a rather nightmarish but deeply affecting work from his brush. Two men wielding cudgels are rushing at each other in a landscape, about to beat each other’s brains in. Are they fighting over a woman? Was there some insult, or act of theft? No one knows. And yet it is quite possibly the best representation, in a single image, of the history of Spain presently in existence.
Though older by a generation, in both sympathy and in a wider European context Goya can be viewed as a kindred spirit to Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). Both men lived through incredibly tumultuous times, from the downfall of the Ancien Régime to the Napoleonic Wars and the unsettled politics which followed. Both were passionate, tortured geniuses whose work, as they aged and as their respective maladies overtook them – including shared deafness – distanced them more and more from the frothy, light-hearted places from which each of them began.
Goya should not properly be considered an Old Master painter, though I have seen him erroneously included in such lists on numerous occasions. As I have written about previously, the designation “Old Master” is, admittedly, to some extent dependent on an arbitrary cut-off date of 1800. Artists like Goya and J.M. W. Turner, whose work straddled the turn of the 19th century, are often segregated by more sensitive minds into a category known as the “Romantic” painters. This leaves us with a critical problem however, since much of the Rococo art which Goya himself produced early in his career, such as in his cartoons for the Royal Tapestries in Madrid, is an echo of the work of artists a generation older than he who are definitely Old Masters, such as Tiepolo.
But it is not on this lighter work that today’s spotlight falls, but rather a picture from Goya’s so-called “Black Paintings”. Painted between 1819 and 1823, these works are the ravings, in paint, of a very troubled mind. By this time Goya had already been exploring the violent and the macabre for some years, though his earlier efforts pale in comparison to these later nightmares.
In 1793 Goya went deaf following a lengthy, serious illness, and the painter whose wit and connections had made him a popular society figure – in part due to his alleged affair with the Duchess of Alba – started to turn in on himself and away from the world. He began to produce strange little paintings aside from his commissioned work, and published etchings of nightmarish scenes criticizing the follies of contemporary society, in a series known as the “Caprices”. These were followed by the “Disasters of War”, in which Goya chronicled the death and destruction wrought by Napoleon and the Peninsular Campaigns in both paint and engraving.
Yet by comparison the subsequent “Black Paintings” overwhelm these earlier works, not only because they are, nearly a century before the tortured explorations of the psyche by Symbolist and Expressionist painters such as Edvard Munch and Egon Schiele, astoundingly innovative, but also because they were private. Goya’s “Caprices” and “Disasters of War” were created for public consumption; the “Black Paintings” were not. The 14 images, some of them quite enormous, were painted directly onto the plaster walls of his house in Madrid. They were never exhibited to the public during his time there, and Goya fled to France in 1823, leaving them unfinished.
Of course there was no intent to “finish” them, per se, because they were not meant to be shown. They are, in paint, the thoughts of a man who has done and suffered much, and is haunted by what he as seen. In its way Goya’s bizarre home decorating project reminds me of a similar project by one of my Catalan ancestors, the last direct male heir in his line, who spent his declining years in the 16th century carving his name followed by the words, “a sinner”, into the walls of the now-ruined castle in which his family had lived since the days of Charlemagne.
Although today each of the “Black Paintings” has a name, so far as we know Goya himself never titled these works. The sobriquets that have subsequently been assigned to them over the course of time by art historians or the Prado Museum, where they are now housed, try to give them descriptions so that we can understand them better. Yet if Goya had been working in the 20th century or today, like many modern and contemporary artists I suspect he would not have found it necessary to actually give names to his work: the choice of “Untitled” by an artist, whether directly or through a refusal to name his piece, is a deliberately enigmatic act.
The fresco of two men about to brain each other – variously titled “A Fight to the Death with Clubs”, “Duel with Cudgels”, etc., – is one of these legendary “Black Paintings”. There is a universal aspect to it in Goya’s recognition of man’s tendency, since the time of Cain and Abel, toward violence against our brother, despite our intellect and ability to reason. From all he had seen and experienced, Goya recognized that the line between civilization and savagery is a very fine line indeed. Greed, lust, anger, and all of the other deadly sins which have accompanied us since Adam and Eve decided to play Johnny Appleseed can cause us to do unspeakable things to one another. Yet on a more personal level, this work is affecting for anyone who knows the history of Spain.
Spain can be categorized in part as an historic construct based on geographic limitations. There has existed a politically united Spain for only just over 500 years, with some interruptions, and during those centuries the peoples who inhabit the Iberian Peninsula, from Basques and Catalans to Galicians and Castilians, have been fairly constant in going about fighting with each other. On top of this, there is a never-ending battle between rich and poor, Catholic and anti-clerical, intellectual and philistine, that has led to a recognition of blood and violence as a permanent aspect of the culture. It is folly for contemporary Spain, as more and more people seek to ban bullfighting, to think that the bloodlust so much a part of the country’s character has disappeared merely because everyone now has televisions and microwave ovens.
For this reason Goya’s painting is a far more powerful mirror of the horror that is often the experience of Spain than is Picasso’s more famous “Guernica”, which seems to be the de rigeur image chosen for the dust jacket of any contemporary work on Spanish history published over the last 30 years or so. Picasso condemns the horrors of violence, yes, but his condemnation is one-sided: it is the forces of General Franco who are doing the killing, and the Leftists who are doing the dying. It is a painting which is completely unbalanced in its representation not only of the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939, but also in its understanding of the Spanish psyche.
What Picasso’s masterpiece fails to show, and where Goya’s is immeasurably more successful, is a reality which Spain does not like to admit but which is inherent to understanding Spain as a whole: Spaniards hate one another, equally, regardless of what side they happen to be on in an argument. They are not a gentle, loving people with one another nor, as a result, are they particularly good at organizing themselves into a nation. Insult and put-down is a skill practiced and honed from a Spanish child’s earliest days, and the class structure, while not as grossly apparent as in Britain, still informs how people treat one another in ways which in the U.S. would seem almost unimaginable. The history of Spain since 1492 is not one of a peaceful, prosperous people united by a common language and culture, but one of unabashed and often violent tribalism which has never really gone away, but merely taken on different forms.
It is in this deceptively simple yet deeply profound painting that we get a glimpse of the true character of Spain, whatever Spain actually is outside of demarcations on a map. Beyond the vibrant spectacle of flamenco dancing, glorious octopus-predicted soccer victories, and PBS’ José Andrés happily pretending that he knows how to cook, there is a very dark nature to the Spanish character which Goya understood and appreciated better than any other Spanish painter before or since. In this single image he encapsulates everything that you need to know about Spain, and he does so unflinchingly, which in itself is a supremely Spanish thing to do.
“A Fight to the Death with Clubs” by Francisco de Goya (c. 1820-1823)
Prado Museum, Madrid