Art In History Art Blog
I'm going to go back 100 years or so to an artist I passed over: Goya. In the spectrum of artists from those of structure to those of feeling, Goya is definitely the latter. But what is remarkable is the way he anticipated the romantics and 20th century expressionists, working at the height of the Enlightenment.
The Enlightment thinkers of the 18th century believed in the ultimate and inevitable perfectability of man through reason. They largely ignored the existence and power of the bestial side of man, a fatal mistake. The Greeks were wiser: thouogh they elevated reason as man's great gift, they never forgat the other side of his nature. Their image was of the horse and rider - today the Id and Ego - and understood the need to respect and control the bestial side.
Goya saw the cracks in the Enlightenment facade, and saw the bestiality hidden beneath. He has two works which address the issue directly. The "Sleep of Reason produces Monsters", the frontispiece to his etching series on the Disasters of War, shows an awareness of the irrational which is unique at that time. The later painting "Saturn Devouring his Children" (above) is much more visceral but equally farreaching in its philosophical message. Saturn, who rules Olympus before he was slain by his son Zeus, represents everything that is bestial and always ready to overwhelm the forces of reason.
Goya began his career very much in the great tradition of Velazquez, as official painter to the Court of Spain. I show you his portrait of the Royal Family which demonstrates his mastery of the ideom, while showing a marked unwillingness to flatter the subjects in any way. In Goya's prtraits, men always seem to be weak and ineffectual, while women are strong; we see this again in a portrait of Dona Isabella de Porcel.
But early on Goya turned his attention to the irrational, partucularly in his etchings, but also in a work like "Majas on the Balcony". This seemingly innocent scene is fraught with menace, as the figures of the "secorts" loom out of a sinister darkness. This has been interpretated psychologically as the menace of the irrational, and also politically, as innocent Spain menaced by the Napoleonic armies. For me the two interpretations have become inseparable in Goya's thinking.
Reality for Goya Became Spain under the heel of Napoleon, and the bestiality which is the inevitable result of war. Where his earlier etching series were aimed at uncovering the irrational suspertitions of the people and the venality of their masters, the "Disasters of War" are like the work of a photojournalist, a witness to horror. Throughout he uses black and white as a vehicle for terror and panic with a power matched at that time only by the prison fantasies of Piranesi, and not seen again until Munch at the end of the next century.