BY William Kentridge in Opinion | 25 OCT 21

William Kentridge on Francisco Goya

The artist reflects on a single work by the Spanish master that opened up an absurd world

W
BY William Kentridge in Opinion | 25 OCT 21

I saw reproductions of Francisco Goya’s magnificent painting The Third of May 1808 (1814) when I was an adolescent, but I only arrived at his etchings several years later, while starting as an art student. The comfort and relief I felt at finding someone whose major works – rather than preparatory pieces –  were in a monochromatic graphic medium were immense. Seeing that an artist could work figuratively in monochrome and still find extraordinary connections to the world was encouraging.

The etching Una reina del circo (A Queen of the Circus), from the series ‘Los disparates’ (The Follies, 1816–24) – which was published posthumously in 1864 – is extraordinary but also absurd. It’s an image of a highly skilled circus artiste standing on the back of a horse, with one foot on its neck. The horse, on a tightrope, becomes a kind of anti-horse: instead of being sturdy and mobile, it is balancing in its precarious position. The drama lies in the tightrope: a fat white line that comes down from the image’s upper left corner, travels horizontally between the horse’s hooves and up to the other side. It brings the precariousness of the subject matter and the graphic medium together so clearly. The cloud of faces watching has nothing to do with the geography of the circus, but is certainly reminiscent of people witnessing executions in other prints by Goya. It is like those heads in the background of Rembrandt van Rijn’s etching Descent from the Cross (1633): a hint at a face, a few quick marks made with the knuckles and the etching needle – enough to understand that the scene is being observed by a large crowd. 

Francisco Goya, Una reina  del circo (A Queen of the Circus), from the series ‘Los disparates’ (The Follies), 1816–24
Francisco Goya, Una reina del circo (A Queen of the Circus), from the series ‘Los disparates’ (The Follies), 1816–24, etching and aquatint on paper, 25 × 36 cm. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

There is something of the punctum here, as Roland Barthes put it in Camera Lucida (1980): the detail that holds our attention, and from which our viewing expands. For me, it is the turning of the woman’s left leg as she puts her foot on the horse’s neck. A simple shape and black line give us all we need to know about her foot, the delicacy of the shoe, its decisive pivot towards us. With Goya, there is always this extraordinary economy of line. Even though the lines might have been drawn at lightning speed – I imagine his needle flying across the plate, faster than even he could control – all the rough marks push the tonality of the crowd back to allow the whiteness of the horse and its rider to come towards us. 

There are so many things that we could learn from this work, even though I didn’t grasp all of them when I first ‘watched’ the etching. It proposes the possibility that art could be connected to the activity of drawing while turning logic, whether political or social, on its head to reveal a world of the absurd – which is nonetheless a description of the one we are in. 

This article first appeared in Frieze Masters with the headline ‘William Kentridge on Francisco Goya’

Main image: Francisco Goya, Una reina del circo (A Queen of the Circus), from the series ‘Los disparates’ (The Follies), 1816–24, etching and aquatint on paper, 25 × 36 cm. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

William Kentridge is an artist. In 2021, he had a solo exhibition at Mudam Luxembourg. In 2022, he will have solo shows at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, UK, and The Broad, Los Angeles, USA. He lives in Johannesburg, South Africa.

SHARE THIS