The macabre humane in Goya
The seed of discomfiture
Goya's imaginative expression that finds its loci in the figurative depiction of his images invokes a sense of confrontation between rationality and its counterpart, loosely conceived as irrationality; a performance of a chronic dichotomy. It opens up an avenue to a chaotic rupture when the viewer attempts to formulate a cerebral meaning out of the emotive, aesthetic and technical elements boldly harbouring themselves inside the frame of his engravings. They reflect traces of an appeal to the eternal, common heritage of the abiding human condition that defies the bounds of parochial historicity. Although he was no exception to an inevitable allegiance to his own situatedness in a historical continuum of the time and space he inhabited, yet in his works we witness a marked departure from the customary painterly language that set the tone for the works of his contemporaries. Introducing a psychological and at times pathological dimensions to the depiction of a society gone astray,he stood apart as an avant-garde of his time. A voyeur, in essence, his piercing gaze sought to decipher what met the eyes circumstantially, to the effect that the forcefulness of his interpretative gesture finds an easy conduit/portal into the minds' of the spectators. By his refusal to mimic and merely depict, with a quasi dispassionate engagement, an authorial intention of peremptory chastisement looms large intermittently out of the stark, scathing and sordid ambience his images. A radical Modernist forerunner's incursions into his works of elements of a dream like fantasy steeped in the lexis of psychical archeology informed the works of the later day symbolist, expressionists and surrealist.
It was Rembrandt's masterly maneuver of the techniques of printmaking that made a lasting impression on Goya who recognized in this medium the potential for a vehicle for archiving the labyrinthine intricacies of the human psyche. His intuitive artistic acumen drew him irresistibly towards the techniques of aquatint, a veritable playground for tonal modulation that allowed for enhancing the effects of the etched lines , a tool Goya successfully exploited in lending his visions an affective poignancy which otherwise would not have been possible. Like a tableau vivant, that is variedly described as a living picture or a pregnant moment, Goya's engravings could be seen as a performance representing a historical moment that is replete with the whole diegesis of an era (courtesy of Barthes). This kind of an allegorical/appropriative/referential representation of an observation of society exhibits its transformative power by turning a potentially vapid historical record into a portentous commentary on the nature of lived experience. In the portrayal of the figures in each piece of work is evident an unmistakable fixation for irony, which unfailingly points to Goya's unqualified satiric intent. It can also be read as an unsanitized disillusionment that sallies forth to unmask the follies and foibles of a transitional generation caught up in a clime of moral turpitude and its accompanying existential pathos.
Of allegory and an ahistorical historicizing
The trajectory of Goya's life and career was largely influenced by his filial genealogy. His father's ties with craftsmanship as a goldsmith and his mother's tenuous link to aristocracy placed him straddling over a dividing line in a stratified society, in his person a commoner juxtaposed with nobility. In the world of art that beckoned Goya, a slow process of a tectonic shift had been changing the overriding paradigms for decades. Art that was restricted to common, recognizable rhetoric and homilies and occupied a public space began to emerge as a new medium of expression for a vocabulary of private desires and whims.
Goya's works are allegorical in nature and function. The images that meet the 'gaze' seem to be shaped by being filtered through a consciousness – more alive with a psychical insight and less so by rational analysis, bearing, as a result, all the telltale signs of an intensely imaginative preoccupation with existential experience. Their verity lies less in the truthful record of what the senses observe than in what the mind creates; a subconscious world; a stage for an absurd drama whose truth has been instrumentally submerged under social prevarications and artifice.
Such a vision, bears the stamp of Goya's critically reflective engagement as an 'autonomous subject,' to borrow from Foucault, in the tensions of Enlightenment with an open philosophical attitude of critiquing its project of seeking truth by employing the faculty of rationality and its concomitant socio-political accoutrements. His critical awareness of his situatedness at a specific juncture of European history coloured his visionary cultural products. Not only do his images seem to call into question the bounds of reason but also disclose livid hints of rejecting a longing for a Utopia, a necessary ambition of the Enlightenment project. Again turning to Foucault or vicariously to Baudelaire, Goya's art testifies to a search for the nuances of an 'eternal' within the context of a burlesque 'heroization' of a passing historical moment.
The year of the awakening
Goya's Spain was a historical stage upon which was played out the drama of nationalism , a strategy for locating a specific identity in a period of ravaging wars against Napoleonic France, which ran parallel to a historical transition towards 'modernization'; giving rise to a condition of feverish disjuncture, a falling apart that boiled over into a cultural crisis.
The year 1793 was the year of a seismic rupture that affected both Goya and his country, Goya's personal battle against an unknown disease that played havoc with both his mental and physical abilities seem to choreograph itself into the political drama that pitched former allies, Spain and France, into the warfront. On the home ground a strange unease fomented as the pueblo (plebian/common man) organized itself with the support of the clergy and the nobility to rise against the ilustrado (the enlightened, indoctrinated in French Enlightenment ideals, which included Goya) who bore the now despised badges of afrancesado (Francophile) in the name of a national identity.
Goya realized his loyalty was challenged, the rumbling thunders of a dark awakening kept beating against his deaf ears, and Goya with a terrific prescience responded by rousing his inner duende. On the whole, the collective psyche of the nation became enraptured with the theatre of duende, in an attempt to reconnect with a mythological past of seeming anomaly ruled over by the dark forces of the unnatural and the occult. Democratic in fervour, this marginal rogue subculture, prescribed a way of life for the pueblo, both sartorial and existential and forboding. Inspired by the spirit of Majism, transformed into an eroticized cult of licentious pursuits of plebeian heritage, with its overtures of decadence, Spain precariously stood at odds with the rationale of the Enlightenment and Reformist goals that rested on the impetus of assimilating the nation with the Grand European vision of liberal modernization. What could have been a site of popular uprising was bastardized into an anarchy paving the way for institutionalizing the Inquisition in a more severe form than ever before. Apparently, by some mischievous twist of irony Spain began its retrograde journey bearing the torch of Enlightenment into the dark regions of their past, in a clime as such the players being an odd admixture of traditional conservatism and cultural liberal revisionism. Goya, the court painter, sealed his fate with that of the pueblo, and began to carve scenes of farce upon plates after plates that depicted the degradation of a society that lurked beneath its righteous cloak of pretenses at preservation as it struggled to reformulate itself around an ambiguously decentred axis.
Now to turn to the idea of duende, which makes up the inseparable substance of Goya's artwork, has been described insightfully by Garcia Lorca as the 'buried spirit of saddened Spain'; a mysterious force, conceived not in the intellect but born of the eternal, instinctual appetite for the purely aesthetic and sublime, finding its abode in the dark continent of the artist's sensibility, his ontological mire which is also unmistakably connected through filiations with the Spanish popular culture. Goya, versed in this 'ancient culture of immediate creation' (Lorca), in its dionysiac verve and virtue used this creative tool to innovate an antithesis of the morality of Spain's cultural posturing . With the progress of years Goya began to recoil more and more inwards, his visions of fantasy and the macabre turning progressively sinister and brutally dramatic induced by his isolation as an Illustrado in a regressive society, and a personal tug-of-war between the realms of reason and wanton imagination.
Situating the trauma in the psychosocial register
In 1799 the appearance of Los Caprichos (whims), 82 etchings by Francisco Goya, which was formally advertised as a non-commissioned private initiative with an aim to sell the works by a legendary artist in his lifetime, sheds light on Goya's development, intuitive as well as political, to adapt to the democratic codes of the public domain distancing himself further from the courtly intrigues.
In Goya's own words 'fantasy and invention' fused into the spurring creative force that inspired his carnivalesque portrayal of the terrifying mortification he felt at the core of his being. His characters are contorted in grimaces of mental and physical ineptitude. The faces appear as if wearing masks harking back to the Greek dramatic conventions, the body unnaturally positioned as if sheathed in invisible straightjackets. Yet each figure seethes with a potential urge to transfigure itself beyond its current state. From bondage to a tragic celebration of life, it was a critique of absolute power and its dehumanizing forces that strip a human being of his dignity and identity. Here lies Goya's ingenuity to create what was heretofore unseen, unbeknown. Goya was a regular attendee at the tertulias (salons), his close association with the cognoscenti kept him abreast of all the latest development in art, culture and politics. Like his peers he condemned ignorance fed by belief in superstitions, characteristic indolence and depravity of the nobility, and self righteous brutality of the Church. These 80 strong plates are laden with culture specific imagery, and veiled political innuendos. It could be surmised that while handling such seditious contents Goya felt the need to resort to broad pueblo humour to cover up for his sardonic criticism of the machinations of power out of fear of persecution which later he consciously began to employ as a powerful mode of expression. As a reform enthusiast, Goya sincerely believed in the principles that could lead the nation into the light of truth and justice, and could have lifted the pall of superstition and prejudice from its psyche. His despair at the failure of the project awakened in him an intimately felt sympathy and solidarity with the pueblo, who represented the mythic integrity of a collective consciousness which irresistibly persists throughout time propelled by its 'irreducible diversity of experience.'
Medieval iconography is ubiquitous in most of the plates, featuring owls (folly), bats (ignorance), cats ( witchcraft), hobgoblins (antiques of the clergy) and so forth and derived from ecclesiastical practices that used animals to symbolize human behavior as a means of simplifying religious doctrines and making them more accessible to the mass. In Goya's hands these variegated symbols assumed a non-linear semiotic reconstruction, dialectical in essence, because they no longer remained as fixed values in representation, rather opened up rhizomes of interpretation wherein an image of an owl does not only single out the one who commits it but also brings into play the psycho-socio-political dimensions that form the matrix of a 'living' historical context. Goya's derisive stance against the failings of society as well as the failed project of utopia placed him at a critical juncture, where a new discourse, almost nihilist in ardour, began to infiltrate his optimism. Nietzsche once said:
It is a disgrace for all socialist systemizers that they suppose that there could be circumstances – social combinations – in which vice, disease, prostitution, distress would no longer grow. – But that means condemning life. – A society is not free to remain young. [ … ] – Age is not abolished by means of institutions. Neither is disease. Nor vice.
Goya's cultural moorings can very well be located in the pueblo imagination, therefore, it is this ahistorical, mythological, communal consciousness that exerted a more mighty influence on his perception of society at large than that of the Enlightenment inspired tunnel vision. The tumultuous historical events didn't leave him personally unscarred, he saw a gradual insidious atrophy of his fame and fortune coupled with his physical disability; the French imperial invasion of Spain resulting in the loss of sovereignty; nationalist often fragmentary 'guerilla' uprising fuelled by virulently misplaced faith; all paradoxically culminating into the restoration of monarchy and serfdom under renewed papal power. Unsurprisingly, his acutely sensitive mind ran riot and engaged more and more, yet less reactionarily, to the spectacle of human atrocity that manifested itself into a gory war spawning unimaginable collateral damage incurred during the struggle for Spanish Independence. Perfectly in tune with Nietzsche's claim the 82 engravings of Le Desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War), the depictions of horror, though reduced in its moral pang, often proclaimed as the greatest 'manifesto of war', that presaged the essence of Picasso's Guernica, were less invested in specific cultural monologic interpretation, and an investigation into the diabolical aspect of human condition. In contrary to the prints from Caprichos which apparently seem infused with a wry didactive intention centering on an ilustrado ideology, the Disasters show a near 'vacancy of an author', who stepped outside the historical narrative , from his position of 'distance' etching out scenes that connect all disparate moments of carnage through a common referential thread. These images share in the visual potency and urgency of a still photography. They also delete all signifiers inextricably belonging to a particular locale. Myths are thrust out of focus in an effort to see events through the lens of 'realism', yet not quite detached from the undercurrent of a critical enterprise. Was not Goya's depiction of his 'present' pregnant with the premonition of neurosis and sadomasochism so boldly hoisted in 'future' events in Vietnam, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria?
Between the unconscious and the visible
Goya retreated more and more into the dark cocoon of the interior, a recluse debilitated in resource and ability left with a vivacious will producing images refracted out of the prism of the subterranean recesses of his being. The plates of Los Disparates (follies) returns to the fantastical and the anarchical, forming a bridge between the unconscious and the visible, felt and seen, through a performance of characters participating in disruptive ritual that counter pose all institutionalized and systematic notions of order that the reality of the socio-political structures of 19th century Spain was based on. (The dialogic interaction of a multiplicity of gestures invested with a subversive wit where mages inlaid with playfulness, a mawkish pleasure at the melting down of the conventions of social perception of art, a probability for the emergence of different ways of 'seeing' aim at creating a different readership.) These volatile attributes of a pastiched approach that is vibrant with diverse strains of artistic practices appearing at various moments on the map of art- making made Goya's works so enduring, even relevant to a contemporary aesthetico-political scenario that rejects fixed value- centric positionality.
Goya's compositions attain greater meaning through its theatricality, performance, presciently steeped in the Brechtian idiom of 'alienation effect' that purges the character in the frames and there spectators of any mystifying empathic internalization of the artificial social conditions that regulate their lives. By defamiliarizing the overarching social narrative the audience is invited to critically engage with the performance from their respective locus, thus making way for multiple alternative perspectives of re-presentation through dialectical relationship between artwork and audience.
The frontispiece of Los Caprichos depicts a self -assured stoic looking mockingly down from the frame presumably to lead his spectators into the world of contradictions he inhabited. Goya embodies a schism that pits reason against madness, vision against willful blindness, freedom against coercion and above all torment against triumph.