A Portrait Of Madness: The Black Paintings Of Francisco Goya
Compared to the threat of wild animals and devastating diseases, the human psyche remains infinitely more terrifying. Because as devastating as nature can be, the cruelty that humanity often inflicts upon itself is far more perverse.
But even in the vast history of human violence, there remains a quieter demon, the looming threat of an unstable mind. And while various artists, filmmakers and actors have made attempts to bottle that sensation, no one ever succeeded more than Francisco Goya.
Born in 1746 to an unremarkable family, Goya would soon grow to be the greatest Spanish artist of the 18th and 19th centuries. His first important job as a painter was to design tapestry cartoons for the palaces and residences of Spanish royalty.
These cartoons were picturesque and light-hearted, meant to add aesthetic value to the homes in which they hung. His big break, however, came as the appointed painter to Charles the Third of Spain.
The disastrous monarch and his failings to modernize the country of Spain was the first instance in Goya’s life where he faced a great disappointment.
By the year 1792, he had earned a formidable reputation for himself, but his progress was hindered by an unknown disease that left him completely deaf. And it was from then on that his works took a drastically different direction.
The easiest example of this is his series called Los caprichos.
Gone were the graceful tableaus and bright colour schemes.
Caprichos was Goya’s insight into the degradation that plagued Spanish society – from corruption to superstitions and an insistence on sticking to outdated ways.
His criticisms were hard-hitting and unforgiving, targeting everyone from the clergy to the common man.
He even added descriptions to each of his illustrations. The most famous one being “The sleep of reason produces monsters…”
He looked at interactions between the natural and the fantastical to develop the scenes like in Yard With Lunatics.
A quiet, smouldering depiction of humanity – with the figures grappling like wild animals. Tinged with dirt and violence. And most importantly, madness.
But it was after the French campaign attacked Spain in 1808, that Goya created some of his most famous works. These paintings were nothing like the depictions of war most people were used to.
War was noble and soldiers were inspiring. But Goya saw the world differently, capturing the brutality and cruelty of the French army. He depicted the impoverishment and fear of the commoners when faced with an invading force.
These were also critical of the monarchy that returned to Spain after the French invasion and effectively stopped the Spanish enlightenment in its tracks.
And then Goya essentially withdrew from public life. Leaving behind the glamour of his early years, he chose to work in private.
He lived a quiet life near the city if Madrid, in a house called “Quinta del Sordo”. The house of a deaf man.
Ironic that both Goya and its former occupant were both stone deaf when they lived in it.
His mental state declined as Spain withdrew into its old ways with the restoration of a monarchy to afraid to march forward in time. And so at the age of 75 – in his solitude and anger – it is believed that he created his infamous Black paintings.
Goya did not publicize them, nor did he paint them on traditional canvas – but straight onto the walls of his own home.
For all intents and purposes, these paintings were private, and he probably never meant for anyone to see them. Which is why it is sadly ironic that they became some of the most recognizable paintings of all time.
The most famous of the black paintings has always been Saturn Devouring His Son, thought to be a depiction of the titan Cronos eating through his child.
Doing away with the ideas of fatherhood and human dignity, he simply depicts the myth as it is – eating a child alive. Piece by bloody piece.
As disturbing as the subject matter got, Goya retained his artistic integrity, painting gruesome and disturbing scenes with just enough fantasy to keep us engaged. Like a coven of witches gathered around a spellbinding monster – feeding them lies.
Or a person whispering into the ears of a serene old man.
Or even just faces, leering at a crazed man, laughing.
The idea that an artist as prolific as Goya is remembered mainly for the work he didn’t want anyone to see is tragic, but unfortunately, his truest pieces were created by him alone, in his own home. Simply waiting to be discovered.
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