Robert Hughes’ Goya

Goya: Self-portrait, 1815, oil on panel, 51 x 46 cm; image held here

There’s a lot of disability in this new biography of the Spanish painter Francisco Goya y Lucientes, now known to us simply and immediately as Goya. Written by well-known international art critic Robert Hughes, the genesis of the book was as dramatic as it gets. Following a near-fatal car crash in western Australia, which left his body “smashed like a toad’s" Hughes spent months in hospitals under-going painful, restorative surgery, and in his drug-induced dreaming he dreamt he was set upon by Goya and a gang of roughs. Prompted by his own experience of pain, suffering and enforced disability, he resolved to get inside the head of Goya- “it was through the accident that I came to know extreme pain, fear and despair; and it may be that the writer who does not know fear, despair and pain cannot fully know Goya."

Goya started out as a minor painter, painting portraits of the Spanish nobility from the 1760s onwards, but it was his apprenticeship to the court, beginning in 1775, that made his name and fortune.

In the early 1780s Goya had became court painter to the remarkably stupid Carlos IV and his remarkably stupid family, and also figures such as the beautiful but enigmatic Duchess of Alba, the vainglorious  Duke of Godoy and others. In 1792 he was struck down by a mysterious and dangerous illness.  Even his friends despaired – “Since the nature of his malady is of the most fearful, I am forced to think with melancholy about his recuperation."  Posthumous attempts to diagnose the illness that transformed Goya’s life are pretty much pointless (Hughes thinks it was polio; others have pointed the finger at syphilitic meningitis), but what we do know is that it left him permanently and  completely deaf – and victim to the consequences of such a traumatic, life-changing event. For depression followed deafness: “sometimes raving with a mood that I myself cannot stand," as he himself put it.

And yet this personal disaster brought with it a period of intense artistic invention. As Goya became withdrawn from the world – physically and emotionally distanced from those around him – his eye became wilder, deeper, and more subversive. Deafness created a wall between him and the world, and so he tried to communicate vividly the ferocity of creatures trying to make themselves heard from the other side of a sealed glass, as Hughes puts it.

Goya, El sueño de la razón produce monstruos (‘the sleep of reason produces monsters’, plate 43 from Los caprichos, c.1799. Image held here .

Feeling himself mad, Goya was drawn to paint the inside of madhouses, and to dwell on macabre subjects – witchcraft, banditry and cannibalism. He published Los caprichos, his series of fantastic, grotesque, disturbing engravings, whose definitive image is of a man slumped over his abandoned drawings, with owls, bats and an evil cat surrounding his unconscious form in the dark. This became the most powerful epitaph for the Enlightenment: El sueño de la razón produce monstruos (“the sleep of reason produces monsters’).

Goya: from Los desastres de la guerra (‘the disasters of war’); Image held here

But it was during the War of Independence against Napoleon, beginning in 1808, that Goya produced his most disturbing and powerful images.  Los desastres de la guerra (‘the disasters of war’) records many of the most gruesome incidents of this savage and gruesome war fought between Spanish guerrillas and French regulars.  Corpses hanging from trees by their entrails was a not-uncommon sight.  Probably Goya’s best painting, 3rd May 1808, commemorates a mass execution of Spanish partisans by the French. His work from this period, with its blood-spattered realism and semi-pornographic depictions of brutality, have made Goya a patron saint among war photographers and documentary makers.  His attitude is best summed up by his saying “yo lo vi’ (“I saw it’).

Goya, 3rd May 1808 . Image held here

Goya’s deafness meant for him a harsh isolation from the world and indeed from all human contact.  The situation, as Hughes concedes, is not that different today, even with all our gadgetry. But it also developed his skills as an artist, deepening his sensitivity to body language, facial tics, and the minutiae of bodily expression. The change is abrupt. Hughes presents two very different versions of the same event, the feast of San Isidro, painted by Goya with a thirty-year interval. The first painting is a pleasant, brightly coloured rural scene, filled with young maids. The second comes from his later period of “pinturas negras’ or black paintings, and depicts a very different scene of dark colours where a black-clad crowd of ugly, distorted faces rush towards the viewer. It’s the difference between Goya, the eighteenth-century romantic artist and Goya the modernist and expressionist.

Goya: La Pradera de San Isidro, 1788; image held here

Goya: The Pilgrims of San Isidro, 1820-23; image held here

Although Goya himself lived to eighty-two years of age, his last decade was spent in Bordeaux  in far-off France, not in his native Spain, a common fate, alas, for exiles then and since.

Robert Hughes has produced what will become the most popular and accessible portrait of Goya for our times. Written in his own inimitable style the book is a delight to read. It’s worth remembering that Hughes is a professional historian as well as art critic, and the book is as much a history of Goya’s turbulent times in a Spain racked by war and revolution as it is of Goya the painter. Hughes’ attempts to contemporarize his text with asides to Cher and “that patron saint of kitsch sentiment Lady Di" sometimes go off-target, but in general the writing is faultless. This superb volume is fully illustrated throughout with both colour and black-and-white plates.

Goya by Robert Hughes published by the Harvill press, 2003, price £20.00

Michael Morgan is a freelance writer and arts journalist from Belfast, specialising in arts and disability issues.