Goya’s late work: art and mortality

In his late work Goya’s painting presaged and influenced the art of the next centuries. It was informed by the same themes as in his life’s work, but also by his old age and by his impending death.

So there I was, trying to decide what to write about in this post, since I couldn’t figure out how to make the bombardment of sub-atomic particles at the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN) an issue about aging artists, nor the Einstein statement: “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science” an issue with specific reference to growing older. (I haven’t given up making a case for the Einstein quote in a later post.) Anyway, I was thinking about stars, nebulae and black holes when I ran into a wonderful critical essay about Goya, the artist who perhaps more than any other looked into the black hole at the heart of much of what we call civilization. (The metaphor isn’t that much of a stretch.)

Le sabbat ou le Grand bouc 1797-1798. Fondation Galidano Madrid. Photo by remaudjoel. Creative Commons license.

The author was John Sevigny, and the essay, “On Francisco Goya,” in the current Guernica magazine, is an exquisite look at Goya’s art, and especially that of his late years.

Ironically, it was not until Goya was old, deaf, bitter, and driven half-mad by encephalitis, that he turned painting upside down, driving a stake into the old vampire of the Baroque and giving birth to Modern Art. Goya was 72 when he painted the walls of his home with 14 works, never meant for public view. Taken as a group, they are as dark as anything created in the history of art, and yet, they are so modern that later Spanish painters such as Joan Miro, Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso took more than a Century to catch up with him. And none of them ever really matched Goya for combining thought, observation, passion and technical expertise.

Verborgen hond/Hidden dog. A late painting on Goya's wall. The dog is swimming into the waves, and we know that the dog is doomed: the waves will keep coming, and coming. Photo by mooste. Creative Commons license.

The essay has as its main point that Goya, a painter with royal patronage and simultaneously, profoundly, an outsider rejected by the establishment of his day, was centuries before his time, and may still be ahead of ours. Further, that the best art since his time is deeply indebted to him. The man’s age is only a minor theme. But isn’t it fascinating that the wall paintings were not painted to influence or to be remembered, but were made simply because Goya had to do it? It’s a motif that’s repeated again and again when we look at aging artists.

At another place in this engrossing essay (please check it out for yourself!), Sevigny writes:

Saturne (1820-1832) rez de chaussée. La romeria de San Isidro. Musee de Prado. Photo by remaudjoel. Creative Commons license.

From Kronos, also known as Saturn Devouring his Son, to Duel with Cudgels, Goya pulls no punches in these private but now legendary works which have since been transferred to canvas. They are marked by his own fear of impending mortality (he had been mortally ill twice before), his lack of faith in humanity, and his condemnation of the irrationality of violence and superstition.

The themes of his work are the same as they were throughout his life; only “his own fear of impending mortality” is contemporaneous with the wall paintings. I think it goes without saying that “fear of impending mortality” must be present in the work of any older artist. And that, though it may be discomfiting, is one of the themes of this blog.

Author: latefruit

I am forever writing the great American novel, practicing the piano (in hopes of joining an amateur string quartet someday), gardening, and now, since I've gotten old when I wasn't looking, trying to figure out what that means.

3 thoughts on “Goya’s late work: art and mortality”

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