IF MICHELANGELO Merisi da Caravaggio, known today simply as Caravaggio, were our contemporary, he would be often in the news. Violent, captious, cruel, and reckless, he was notorious even by the standards of late 16th-Century Rome. A good source on the Italian capital circa 1600 is John L. Varriano’s “Caravaggio: the art of realism,” which catalogues “a level of sadism that would be shocking in any age.” But to give you an idea of the sort of man Caravaggio was, I can think of nothing better than to cite his flirtation with the Knights of Malta, who soon having deemed the painter “foul and rotten” expelled him from their ranks.
The foremost recollection is as an eight year-old confronted with “Saturno Devorando a Su Hijo” [Saturn Devouring His Son], from the series commonly known as The Black Paintings, examples of which sat on the bookshelf of my parents’ house. From thence forward my apprehension of Goya has been inseparable from this initial horror, and yet his paintings have lasting positive appeal. What is it that makes Goya so compelling to me?
There is something peculiar about the mental character of the child to which Goya especially appeals. He is the painter of monsters, of nightmare, and in particular of The Colossus, a figure I expect every boy will have encountered in sleep.* Indeed, Goya captioned his 1799 series Caprichos with the phrase “the sleep of reason produces monsters.” His monsters were of the adult variety: revolution, murder, hate. Thirty years after first seeing Saturn devour his son, and well familiarized with the really-existing monsters of our world, I drove to Montreal to see his “Caprichos” at the Musée des beaux-arts.
The eighty prints constituting the Caprichos were described by Goya as depicting “ … the innumerable foibles and follies to be found in any civilized society, and from the common prejudices and deceitful practices which custom, ignorance, or self-interest have made usual.” This occupation, one might say preoccupation, rather suggests the satirist. And in his use of caricature, as well as his recourse to the grotesque, Goya does to a good degree fit the designation. Macaulay wrote that “the best portraits are those in which there is a slight mixture of caricature,” but Goya is not an artist of restraint where his subjects are concerned. He has a point to make, and a slight anything simply won’t do.
His work recalls Orwell’s “power of facing unpleasant facts,” specifically the facts of war and self-serving human pretensions, and my response to his representations of human endeavours are nearly characterised in Orwell’s discussion of his response to another satirist, Jonathan Swift, in the essay Politics vs Literature:
Swift falsifies his picture of the world by refusing to see anything in human life except dirt, folly and wickedness, but the part which he abstracts from the whole does exist, and it is something which we all know about while shrinking from mentioning it. Part of our minds — in any normal person it is the dominant part — believes that man is a noble animal and life is worth living: but there is also a sort of inner self which at least intermittently stands aghast at the horror of existence. In the queerest way, pleasure and disgust are linked together. The human body is beautiful: it is also repulsive and ridiculous, a fact which can be verified at any swimming pool. The sexual organs are objects of desire and also of loathing, so much so that in many languages, if not in all languages, their names are used as words of abuse. Meat is delicious, but a butcher’s shop makes one feel sick: and indeed all our food springs ultimately from dung and dead bodies, the two things which of all others seem to us the most horrible. A child, when it is past the infantile stage but still looking at the world with fresh eyes, is moved by horror almost as often as by wonder — horror of snot and spittle, of the dogs’ excrement on the pavement, the dying toad full of maggots, the sweaty smell of grown-ups, the hideousness of old men, with their bald heads and bulbous noses.
I say “nearly summarised” because I do not think that Goya “falsifies his picture of the world.” He exaggerates, and he selects. It seems apparent from the way he painted that he felt deeply. Disgust and outrage were among the emotions. However, Goya manages the essential challenge of satire in a way which differs from that of Swift. This essential challenge is to make one see, and whereas Swift’s choices involve a depiction of human nature in a condition of irredeemable debasement, Goya’s habitual strategy is to focus on human actions and to characterize them by their proper names. It is in the service of human drama to which the caricature is submitted. Although it is the case that Goya typically refuses to depict man as heroic, his nature as such is in any case unsettled and separate from the matter of action and its context in human choices. What people do is the principal concern, and it is according to this nature/culture divide that we may assign Swift to the conservative wing of satire and Goya to the liberal.
Nonetheless there is a morbid streak throughout Goya’s work. He is not an uplifting artist, but rather a disturbing one. The preponderance of war, rape, torture, cannibalism, and debasement as subjects is to be expected from an artist who lived in the time and place in which Goya himself lived, but even the deviations from this universal theme of “Man’s inhumanity toward Man” are telling: a Goya still life invoking the butcher shop as well as butchery, the subtle suggestion of human torment and degredation in the genre paintings (for instance “El pelele”), or the odd use of composition in the Tauromachia series, which displaces human forms from the works’ focal point.
The effect of these and other compositional decisions is to subject human society to profound skepticism. Goya paints a butcher’s table the way he paints a scene of battle, with an awareness of the social meaning of a particular subject. Just as the butcher’s table can not be separated from the universal human fact of eating, so too war is inseparable from the pomp and circumstance of Civilization. The individual act too is social in nature, and the “sleep of reason” is compelling as metaphor because brutality is extravagant but sleep is ordinary. His obsessions are doubtless rooted in an awareness, hence also fear, of this.
Goya seems to paint according to the principle “homo sum: humani nihil a me alienum puto” [I am a man, I consider nothing that is human alien to me.] The sleep of reason is not an academic or theoretical problem, but a condition to which the painter himself is not immune. Goya’s own dichotomy, as a reflective and organising artist who is also an outraged and impotent observer, materializes the larger dichotomy of a society which ostensibly manifests Enlightenment ideals while sponsoring the depravities of the Inquisition. Goya employs his rational intelligence to the purpose of ordering the disorder, expressing with clarity his churning indignation. His world is one of impossibility, of great forward strides into backwardness and barbarism. This explains the depths of Goya’s darkness, for it is in service of the potential but adandoned heights of human achievement that the depths are rendered. John Berger puts the matter this way, in his 1954 essay “The Honesty of Goya”:
The despair of an artist is often misunderstood. It is never total. It excepts his own work. In his own work, however low his opinion of it may be, there is the hope of reprieve. If there were not, he could never summon up the abnormal energy and concentration needed to create it. And an artist’s work constitutes his relationship with his fellow men.
This paragraph nicely captures both the social nature and hopefulness of Goya’s work. Goya is engaged in an act of solidarity, decrying the wicked acts of fellow human beings to his fellow human beings, who he must assume will have the capacity to participate in his disappointment. Berger concludes that “no artist has ever achieved greater honesty than Goya: honesty in the full sense of the word meaning facing the facts and preserving one’s ideals.” I think Berger is correct, and furthermore I think it is this honesty which has made Goya’s work compelling to me for over thirty years.
* Note: there is some controversy concerning whether The Colossus was indeed painted by Goya.