BY Matthew McLean in Profiles | 30 SEP 15
Featured in
Issue 4

Goya: What Happens to Our Bodies

Francisco de Goya's influence on modern art

BY Matthew McLean in Profiles | 30 SEP 15

In 1985, the art historian Lawrence Gowing wrote a letter to the artist Carolee Schneemann, enclosing in the envelope a picture of Francisco de Goya’s Portrait of the Duchess of Alba (1797), declaring that the performance artist was ‘very like’ the Duchess, with her ‘snakey embroidery and black net of lace’. ‘How much blood’, Schneemann asked in return, ‘is in a painted muse?’ ‘I draw’, she declared, ‘so that I will not become Goya’s duchess.’ Almost 30 years later, Amelie von Wulffen drew a cartoon series, ‘Am kühlen Tisch’ (At the Cool Table, 2013), in which Goya reminds the artist that she has a show to install and becomes her guide. The following year, a retrospective of Elly Strik’s work at the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid included a mysterious, four-metre-high painting of a hairy, anonymous figure, entitled Para Goya (For Goya, 2009).

Two men standing close to one another.
Francisco de Goya, Dos viejos or Dos Frailes (Two Old Men or Two Friars), 1820–23, oil mural transferred to canvas, 146 × 66 cm. Courtesy: Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

Artists’ responses to Goya have been as disparate as his own work is varied; the breadth of his achievement makes him hard to grasp. Born in 1746 in Fuendetodos, Spain, Goya’s earliest paintings are hard to prise out of their late-18th-century context. The irreverence of El Quitasol (The Parasol, c.1777), for example — from a series of cartoons commissioned by the Royal Spanish Tapestry Factory and exhibited en masse this year at Madrid’s Prado Museum — is camouflaged in rococo grace, so it takes time to really see the picture’s awkwardness: the shallowness with which the dog on the woman’s lap is rendered, the implausible way the hillock on which she sits drops away. The idyll is something of a sham: the woman’s expression more than faintly derisive.

When the tapestry factory suspended its operations in 1780, Goya focused his efforts on portraiture. La familia del Infante Don Luis (The Family of the Infante Don Luis, 1784) is breathtakingly strange. The centre of the composition is not the titular patriarch, but his wife, Maria Teresa, having her hair dressed. The couple’s entourage teem around her, their expressions (now timid, now mugging) more befitting of a family snap than an aristocratic portrait. No one’s gaze alights on another: Don Luis himself gapes emptily into space. The intense chiaroscuro — in which Maria Teresa’s face glows, moon-like, among the murk — alone unites the amiable chaos. But the lighting is inexplicable — the candle on the table can hardly account for it. And how is the table supported by its needle-thin leg? It’s as if this court’s disjointed revels take place in the same sleepwalking world as Paul Delvaux’s painting Le Sabbat (The Sabbath, 1962).

A donkey talking to a monkey.
Francisco de Goya, Ni más ni menos (Neither More Nor Less), plate 41 from the series 'Los Caprichos' ('The Caprices'), 1979-–9, etching and aquatint on paper, 21 × 15 cm. Courtesy: Museo National del Prado, Madrid

Certain plates from the acquatint and engraving series ‘Los Caprichos’ (The Caprices), first published in 1799, likewise echo the worlds of countless surrealists: you could draw a straight line from no. 57, La filiación (The Filiation), to Leonora Carrington’s Kron Flower (1987). One of the startling aspects of the series is the way Goya’s experiments with plate surface mean that even its most quotidian scenes — say, no. 15 Bellos consejos (A Pretty Piece of Advice) and no. 25 Si quebró el cántaro (Yes, He Broke the Pot) — take place in almost unreadable physical spaces. Light is no guide: it doesn’t define space, but leaks into it, sickly as treacle. And, while confusing familiar planes like floors and walls, Goya treats fantastical elements — witches, beaked- and winged-creatures — with blunt facticity, like the monkey painting the donkey in no. 41 Ni más ni menos (Neither More Nor Less). The mixture of hot-blooded fantasy and cool objectivity makes clear Paula Rego’s graphic debt to Goya, three etchings by whom she declared in a Guardian interview in 2013, to be her most precious possessions.

Though ‘Los Caprichos’ deliver a line in pro-Enlightenment satire quite distinct from the illogic of surrealism — a glance at no. 52  ¡Lo que puede un sastre! (What a Tailor Can Do!) and no.53 ¡Que pico de oro! (What a Golden Beak!) confirms their mockery of empty authority. Goya’s anticipation of certain proponents of that movement is striking. In 1825, he developed a technique for painting miniatures, adapting the stains that emerged from dropping water onto carbon-covered ivory, which foreshadows Max Ernst’s use of frottage — the ‘automatic’ method of producing images from the results of rubbing textured surfaces, like wood — a hundred years later. Affirming their commonality, Sigmar Polke superimposed a design from ‘Los Caprichos’ (no.26: Ya tienen asiento, They’ve Already Got a Seat) onto a page from Ernst’s collage book Une Semaine de bonté (A Week of Kindness, 1934) in a painting on printed fabric, So Sitzen Sie Richtig [Nach Goya] (This Is How You Sit Correctly [After Goya], 1982). In it, transparency mingles with hallucinogenic confusion, like a signal emerging from noise. The oddly knowing smiles of Goya’s trussed-up women start to make sense: as if they alone know what’s behind the door opening at the picture’s left.

A collage of women and chairs.
Sigmar Polke, So Sitzen Sie Richtig (Nach Goya) (This Is How You Sit Correctly (After Goya)), 1982, acrylic on fabric, 2 × 1.8 m. Courtesy: © The Estate of Sigmar Polke, Cologne, and DACS, London 2015

Polke looked obsessively at Goya. Encountering a reproduction of Las viejas (Old Women, 1810–12) in a book in 1982, the German artist visited the painting in situ at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Lille, photographing it, working over the reproductions and even producing an X-ray of the canvas. If Polke so often excavated the visual, overlaying pictures in order to strip them away, he identified in Goya an equally penetrating vision: in Las viejas, Goya strip-mines his subjects’ faces, revealing the skull beneath the skin, while Polke’s tribute to it, Goya (Die Alten) (Goya [The Old Women], 1984), overlays them with Raster dots, as if showing the painting’s bones. Little surprise, then, that James Ensor, master of the skeletal, visited the Goya holdings in Lille in November 1884, writing to his friend Darío de Regoyos the following month that the paintings had ‘stirred his blood’.1

Ever since Théophile Gautier described La familia de Carlos IV (The Family of Carlos IV, 1800) as ‘the corner-baker and his wife after they won the lottery’2, Goya has accrued a reputation as an unforgiving portraitist. Indeed, there is an extraordinary honesty in almost all of his depictions: the refusal to gloss the cleft lip of Don Andrés del Peral (c.1798), rendered almost as a snarl, catches the viewer like a fish on a hook, while his portrait of La Marquesa de Santa Cruz (1805) demonstrates a bracing lack of respectful painterly distance. Though dressed up in the trappings of mythology, stateliness and desirability, a painful informality is all that remains of the Marquesa: according to Janis A. Tomlinson in her book Goya: Images of Women (2002), her descendants referred to the picture as ‘grandma in a slip’.

Women with chairs on their heads.
Francisco de Goya, Ya tienen asiento (They've Already Got a Seat), plate 26 from the series 'Los Caprichos' ('The Caprices'), 1979-–9, etching and aquatint on paper, 21 × 15 cm. Courtesy: Museo National del Prado, Madrid

Goya’s La Maja Vestida (Clothed Maja, 1795–1800) and Maja Desnuda (Nude Maja, 1800–07) were scandals when they came to public attention — in 1815, the Tribunal of the Holy Office called Goya to account for their carnality — and they’re considered possible models for Édouard Manet’s Olympia (1863); still, it’s the Marquesa that seems to open the way to the next century’s renegotiation of the female subject.

As the Countess’s strangely tapered legs suggest, anatomy was not Goya’s strongest suit (rejected twice by the Royal Academy, he later declared: ‘There are no rules in painting!’ — despite the fact that he took himself to Italy around 1770 to sketch classical antiquity). Yet, his portraits always convince. As the British art historian and former director of London’s National Gallery, Michael Levey, wrote in his 1966 account of 18th century painting, Rococo to Revolution: ‘Goya’s sitters are dolls that have been given a good shaking, the stuffing and the nonsense fallen out of them.’ There are few better descriptions of the strange blend of the credible and the toy-like evident in The Duchess of Alba (1795) and The Count of Altamira (1787). It’s as if perfect naturalism were, for Goya, incompatible with absolute spontaneity. This subject was real, the portraits assure us, and if their forms were not precisely as the artist depicted them, that was precisely how they impressed themselves on Goya. The same awkwardly forceful presence marks the portraits of the artist Marlene Dumas, who praised Goya in a recent BBC radio documentary for his ‘sensitive, sensual thing’. For both artists, a portrait is, above all, an encounter, a record of existing relations.

Collage of many colourful faces.
James Ensor, Old Lady with Masks (Theatre of Masks), 1889, oil on canvas, 55 × 46 cm. Courtesy: Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Ghent

Curator Xavier Bray, whose portrait survey opens at London’s National Gallery on 7 October, argues that the social interaction demanded by the genre drove Goya to return to it throughout his career. Accordingly, he produced barely any portraits without empathy. The gaunt array of faces in The Family of Carlos IV may be ageing (some of them) and intensely fallible (all of them) but — despite the implication of Gautier’s ‘corner baker’ line — this seems not sneering but a tribute to their humanity. (It may even, Bray suggests, have suited the royals, following the deposition of the French Bourbons in 1789, to appear of a piece with the common people, rather than above them.) If a note of faint absurdity lingers around the features of the Queen in this image, consider a letter from Goya to his friend Zapater of November 1787: ‘I should like to know if you are elegant, distinguished or dishevelled, if you have grown a beard, if you have all your own teeth, if your nose has grown, if you wear glasses, walk with a stoop, if you have gone grey anywhere, and if time has gone by for you as quickly as it has for me.’3

The litany of physical changes Goya catalogues suggests less the artist’s gerontophobia than an awareness that one way to tell the story of what happens to us is to record what happens to our bodies, how they change and adapt. Time assaults us, Goya make clear in Las viejas, but there’s a dignity in looking at ourselves clearly — even, as the Queen does, with delight. The vigorous crones of the untitled private sketch book, posthumously known as the Witches and Old Women Album (begun around 1819, and to which Goya added until his death in 1828), were the subject of a definitive display at London’s Courtauld Gallery earlier this year; they’re brittle carriers of greed, lust and other raging appetites. But these are embodiments, the exhibition’s curator Juliet Wilson-Bareau says, of ‘life force’, and Goya treats them not with mockery, but tender respect.

In 1807, Napoleon’s troops invaded Spain, sparking a wave of local resistance — the guerrilla or ‘little war’. Following the Emperor’s defeat and the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy, Goya requested a commission to commemorate key events in Spanish resistance in the war’s second year: an attack on French Mameluke troops in Madrid on 2 May and retributive executions the following day.

Revolutionary shot of holding a prisoner at gunpoint.
Francisco de Goya, El 3 de mayo en Madrid, o ‘Los fusilamientos’ (The 3rd of May 1808 in Madrid or ‘The Executions’), 1814, oil on canvas, 2.6 × 3.4 cm. Courtesy: Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid 

El 3 de mayo en Madrid, o ‘Los fusilamientos’ (The 3rd of May 1808 in Madrid or ‘The Executions’, 1814) is one of the most iconic images of conflict: in his book Looking at Pictures (1962) Kenneth Clark described it as ‘the first great picture which can be called revolutionary in every sense of the word’. To the right, French troops — though they could be from anywhere — form a single, eight-legged, mass, the points of their bayonets aimed at a huddle of civilians: a production-line of killing. The central figure, brightly lit, raises his arms in a pose of heroic victimhood, his stubby fingers oddly pathetic: it’s an image that is epic in its desperation. Manet borrowed the bisection of the canvas between victims and anonymous aggressor for his L’Exécution de L’empereur Maximilien (The Execution of Maximillian, 1867–68) and, in response to both artists, Pablo Picasso’s Massacre in Korea (1951) renders the right-hand military mass even more machine-like. Though the late American artist Leon Golub, for whose investigation of military brutality Goya was a guiding light, shows us the troops’ faces in his Vietnam II (1973), the compositional and emotional debt to Goya’s The 3rd of May can still be felt.

There’s something Christ-like about the way Goya poses the central figure in his composition — his palms almost crying out for stigmata that will not come — but there’s also a family resemblance between this gesture and that of a man who topples over on skates, Locos patines (Crazy Skates, 1824–28). With this, as with the host of witches in the late sketchbooks, rising and descending in their own weird gravity, or the mannequin floating limply in El pelele (The Straw Man, 1791–92), Goya often seems drawn to bodies on the brink, suspended between verticality and falling down. (As the novelist Siri Hustvedt points out, chronic dizziness was one result of Goya’s first major illness in 1792, which also rendered him deaf.)5

Image of a noble man sitting.
Francisco de Goya, Vicente Isabel Osorio de Moscoso y Fernandez de Cordoba, Count of Altamira, 1787, oil on canvas, 1.7 × 1 m. Courtesy: © Coleccion Banco de Espana, Madrid

The figure in The 3rd of May, too, is almost cinematically poised between elevation — though apparently kneeling, he seems to rise above his aggressors — and collapse: a body strewn immediately below him, arms similarly outstretched, prefigures the movement that is about to occur. This face is utterly corpse- like: scratched and hollowed with injury, more bloodied rock than head. There is something darkly lyrical in the way Goya bends and breaks the body — ‘no longer a manifest ideal shape that demands respect’, wrote the art historian Fred Licht in his 1979 monograph Goya: The Origins of the Modern Temper in Art, but ‘a vehicle for expression that can be changed about and used’, and the expressionists indeed looked to him (Otto Dix dedicated a 1926 nude sketch, vaguely resembling Nude Maja, to Goya). Dix’s 1924 graphic cycle ‘Der Krieg’ (The War) draws upon Goya’s other hallowed series of engravings, popularly known as ‘The Disasters of War’, which Goya probably worked on during the decade that saw the Napoleonic invasion. (They are commonly dated 1810–14.) The restoration of the triumphant Spanish monarchy under Ferdinand VII led to increased levels of political oppression; as a result, the set was never published in Goya’s lifetime and the only title he gave it was hand written on a copy given to a friend: Fatales consequencias de la sangrienta guerra en España con Buonaparte, Y otros caprichos enfáticos (Fatal Consequences of Spain’s Bloody War with Buonaparte, and Other Emphatic Caprices).

Artists had tried to record war dispassionately before Goya — Jacques Callot’s series of 18 etchings, ‘Les Grandes Misères de la guerre’ (The Great Miseries of War, 1633), is one comparable effort — but in ‘The Disasters’ modern combat first assumes its ghastly form. ‘With Goya’, Susan Sontag wrote in Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), ‘a new standard for responsiveness to suffering enters art.’ In this series, again, the human body is consistently the site and measure of degradation — whether strung up on a rope (no.36, Tampoco, Not in This Case), impaled on a stump (no. 37, Esto es peor, This is Worse), or hung, in pieces, from a tree (no. 39, Grande hazaña! Con muertos!, Great Deeds! With the Dead!). The terrible familiarity of this gruesomeness is no coincidence: modern war photographers like Don McCullin have cited Goya as a constant inspiration and Robert Hughes, in his 2003 biography, credits the artist with creating ‘vivid, camera-can’t-lie pictorial journalism’. Yet, it would be too simplistic to see this body of work as pure record: Goya’s insistence when titling one scene Yo lo vi (‘I Saw It’) is belied, for example, by the way the dismembered body in no.37 echoes the classical Belvedere Torso he drew in Rome. Moreover, given how close to contemporary brutality many of the scenes are, it is easy to forget that ‘The Disasters’ contain scenes of metaphysical horror more familiar from ‘Los Caprichos’ — a giant bird, for example, cavorts in no. 76 (El buitre carnívoro, The Carnivorous Vulture), a precedent, perhaps, for the looming vultures of one of the most moving images of the Spanish Civil War, John Heartfield’s poster Madrid 1936 (1936).

A man seating bread in a sea of bones.
Otto Dix, Mahlzeit in der Sappe, Lorettohöhe (Mealtime in the Trenches, the Loretto Hills), plate 13 from 'Der Krieg' ('The War'), 1924, Intaglio etching and aquatint, 19 × 29 cm. Courtesy: National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 

Another artist of that conflict, Salvador Dalí, drew on Goya’s distending of the human form when he addressed war — the right leg of the soupy colossus in Construcción blanda con judías hervidas (Soft Construction with Boiled Beans, 1936) borrowed from Goya’s mural, known as Saturno devorando a un hijo (Jupiter Devouring One of his Sons, c.1820–23). No less iconic than the war imagery, this work belongs to the ‘Black Paintings’ (1819–23), which were painted directly onto the walls of the Quinta del Sordo — the house outside Madrid that Goya bought in 1819. It is difficult to see these pictures clearly, not just for their titular palette, but because they have been so mythologized, most prominently by Andre Malraux in his 1957 study of Goya, Saturn. The incomplete record of their creation concerns some scholars (a few even hold, based on deeds and records, that the series is a forgery).

What is incontestable is that something profound enters art history with the ‘Black Paintings’. For all the major movements of 18th-century painting, no less than in the Renaissance, the visual world is essentially light. In the ‘Black Paintings’, darkness is primary and, in it, is depth and form. ‘The light of modern art’, Licht observed, ‘is usually fringed in black’ — Goya, he claims, points all the way to Ad Reinhardt. Indeed, while steadfastly figurative, Goya reaches the brink of abstraction in this series: squint at Perro Semihundido (Half-Submerged Dog) and you have the essential elements of a Joan Miró field, curve, dot.

Even so, there is affective, melancholic content in these pictures, which are dark in mood as well as palette. Duelo a garrotazos (Duel with Cudgels) is no less excoriating a condemnation of meaningless hostility than The 3rd of May. But it would be wrong to conclude from the series that Goya abandoned himself to despair. That he decorated his home with these scenes doesn’t mean he revelled in them, any more than the fact that he depicted the interiors of madhouses means he wanted to be mad. Rather, Bray says, he thinks of the ‘Black Paintings’ as ‘spitting out the poison’ — as if painting a terrible image was to dispel it, and thereby control it.

Woman on all fours with teeth beared out.
Paula Rego, Dog Woman, 1952, pencil on paper, 15 × 21 cm. Courtesy: Marlborough Fine Art, London

Any residual suspicion that Goya delighted in darkness or submitted to fear or ignorance is put to flight by the sketchbook known as the ‘Inquisition Album’ (its chronology is unclear, but was probably begun after 1808), depicting suspects in the dock or undergoing punishment for charges inscribed on each page — ranging from having no legs to being of Jewish descent to ‘loving a she-ass’. The drawings are, Wilson-Bareau says, ‘almost too painful to look at’; but, in them, Goya’s Enlightenment colours — his utter abhorrence of idiocy and intolerance — are coruscating.

‘No other artist’, John Berger writes in a 1954 essay, ‘has ever achieved greater honesty than Goya […] meaning facing the facts and preserving one’s ideals.’5 Sometime during the Napoleonic war, Goya painted a still life with sheep’s heads (c.1808–12). Their bloodiness seems to pre-empt the severed heads that Théodore Géricault would paint a few years later. Yet, by comparison, Géricault seems merely theatrical; Goya’s composition matches brutality with numinous calm. Even Picasso, with his Tête du Mouton écorchée (Skinned Sheep’s Head, 1939) cannot achieve this balance. Goya hunted animals all his life; his art itself, at times, looks hungry — ‘flesh’, Berger writes elsewhere, with ‘a bloom on it like fruit’.6 Rich and glowing, the red surfaces of this still life convey, like little else, the awfulness and awesomeness of life’s barest facts: that some things die and others carry on living; that things consume other things in order to go on.

Man held at gunpoint.
Édouard Manet, L'exécution de l'empereur Maximilien (The Execution of Emperor Maximilian), 1868-–69, oil on canvas, 2.5 × 3 m. Courtesy: © Kunsthalle Mannheim; photograph: Cem Yücetas

Going on: that life-force which Wilson-Bareau finds in Goya’s last drawings is present even in this morbid tableaux. The last page displayed in the Courtauld exhibition depicts a haggard, bearded old man, walking on two sticks, titled No puede ya con los 98 años (He Can No Longer at the Age of 98). A shadow lies across the page like a snail’s trail, suggesting a trajectory: does the man’s journey really end on the paper’s dead space? There is pathos here, almost tragi-comedy — the limping subject of Von Wulffen’s Untitled (2010) bears comparison — but not hopelessness. Levey notes that a friend found Goya in self-imposed exile in Bordeaux in 1824; he was 78 years old, ‘deaf, old, awkward and feeble […] and so happy and eager to see the world’. Goya speaks to those who follow him precisely through this tension, this paradoxical coexistence of despairing candour and hope. Another title for the drawing might come from Samuel Beckett, one of the 20th-century’s most singular voices: ‘I can’t go on, I’ll go on.’

Main image: Francisco de Goya, La Marquesa de Santa Cruz, 1805, oil on canvas, 1.2 × 2 m. Courtesy: Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid 

1 James Ensor, Lettres, ed. Xavier Tricot, Editions Labor, Brussels, 1999, pp.153–154 

2 Fred Licht, Goya: The Origins of the Modern Temper in Art, John Murray, London, 1980, p.68 

3 Letter to Martin Zapater, 19 February 1785, quoted in Juliet Wilson-Bareau & Manuela B. Mena Marques, Goya: Truth and Fantasy – The Small Paintings, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1994, pp.24–25 

4 Siri Hustvedt, ‘Narratives in the Body: Goya’s Caprichos’ in Mysteries of the Rectangle, Princeton Architectural Press, 2006, p.62 

5 John Berger, ‘The Honesty of Goya’, in Selected Essays ed. Geoff Dyer, Bloomsbury, London, p.57 

6 Berger, ‘The Maja Dressed and the Maja Undressed’, Ibid, p.131

Matthew McLean is creative director at Frieze Studios. He lives in London, UK.