Wednesday, July 2, 2008


My students still gasp when they first see this image.  This is Goya's painting of the myth of Saturn, driven mad by the prophecy that one of his children will overthrow him, devouring one of his offspring.  It remains among the most shockingly violent images in art.  Instead of classical clarity, we have the vividness of a nightmare.  The giant lumbers out of the darkness, consumed in frenzy, tearing the arm off the already mangled corpse of one of his sons.  Goya based this painting on a picture by Rubens that can still be seen in the Prado in Madrid.

When Goya died, he was known as a famous and successful portraitist.  This aspect of his work remained largely unknown except to a handful of people.  This painting was not shown until the late 19th century in Paris in an exhibition of art by the mentally ill.
Goya was an old man when he painted this in oil on the wall of a house that he shared with his mistress, Leocadia Weiss.  This was in the dining room, and was one of a series of paintings in that house for his eyes only known as "The Black Paintings" partly because of their dark subject matter, and partly because of the extensive use of black in them.

It was images like this that Goya chose to have before his eyes every day in his old age.  Whatever for?

It was common 20 years ago to try to make Goya out to be an outraged liberal.  That may have been true of the younger Goya, but outraged liberalism does not explain the specter we see here, or why he wanted to live with it.  I frankly think Goya on some level either lost his mind, or gave up.  He had lived through so much and seen so much.  He would die a tough old buzzard in his 90s.  I had an old professor years ago who suggested that Goya probably enjoyed this image, that it was for him a manifestation of a kind of savage vitality.  He may even have gotten some pleasure out of seeing the shock on the face of the rare visitor who saw this painting in his house, especially when they dined with him.  I can only imagine what Leocadia must have thought.

I think that old Goya says that this is the real driving force of life; not love and reason, but fear and madness.  Perhaps it is a manifestation in art of the idea of "nature, red in tooth and claw."
Perhaps Saturn is that raging will to live at all costs.  Lord knows Goya had seen plenty of innocent people swallowed up and devoured for no good reason over the course of his long life.

And yet, even in the face of this specter, I will say that what Goya's entire body of work is ultimately about is not madness, but sanity.  It was the later Romantics who would glamorize madness, not Goya. 


it's margaret said...

A mystical revelation? Of the dark side. Must ponder, along with the stories of Abraham and Isaac--and all that kill our children stream...

I am fascinated by these women who lived in the shadow of genius.... I mean, did they totally "submit" or did they truly interact and fuel the fires of the artist...?

Sorry to visit and just ask questions!!! But you do get me thinking!


Counterlight said...

To be honest, I don't know much about Leocadia Weiss at all, and I'm not sure that anyone else does either. She's a fairly shadowy figure in all the Goya biographies. I suspect that she must have been a fairly tough smart woman herself. I imagine that sharing a small house with the aging Goya in the Spain of Ferdinand VII was no picnic.

Padre Mickey said...

Another great post! A bit off topic, but you, sir, have been given an award ¡Felicidades!

Fran said...

Counterlight! What a blog! What a website with your art!

And it comes as no surprise, with your brilliant comments at MP's and so forth, but your words are beautiful as well.

I am so glad that Padre Mickey pointed me here.

June Butler said...

Counterlight, I came here before breakfast and my caffeinated tea, and I had to do a quick retreat. I gasped. I can't imagine being able to eat with that painting in the dining room. The subject of a nightmare, indeed!

If Goya and his mistress could dine in the same room with the nightmare, they both must have been a little mad. Perhaps Goya exorcised the demon by painting it. There is nothing romantic about madness. In the end Goya told the truth and was true to himself.

Counterlight said...

I thought about people sitting down to coffee and breakfast when I posted this today.
But then, in the spirit of Goya, I thought,

heh, heh, heh, heh, heh.

June Butler said...

Counterlight, that's not nice, spirit of Goya or not. I'm an old lady, you know.

Davis said...

It would appear that Goya had a premonition of the current state of the Anglican communion.