Capturing a spirit in the oppressed

Goya
November 23, 2001

The Caprichos (1799), the harrowing Disasters of War (c. 1815-20) and the unfinished Disparates ( c . 1815-20) are among the most celebrated and widely studied series of etchings and aquatints in western art. Less well known is the fact that sometime around 1770, Goya bought a pocket notebook in Italy and began the practice of doing brush-and-ink drawings of his countrymen, usually singly, sometimes in groups; mostly from observed reality, but occasionally as types. During the last 30 years of his life, he filled eight albums of varying length and size with some 550 drawings. An exhibition at the Hayward Gallery earlier this year united 100 of these drawings from all eight albums for the first time. Not considered to be preparatory studies for paintings and etchings, although they do anticipate many themes, the drawings stand on their own as a visual diary and an example of Goya's skill and relentless eye for fraud and institutional imbecility.

With his usual flair for attractive generalisations, Jose Ortega y Gasset once noted that Goya had to be lived to be understood. The same could be said of many painters, but the observation is particularly fitting in connection with Goya, whose range and power to both attract and repel is especially intense. Even such a strong figure as Picasso chose not to "live" too closely with Goya. Guernica denies any debt, however recondite, to Disasters of War .

The eight albums run the gamut from dainty drawings of women done in SanlNocar de Barrameda, to the crude, ugly satire of the Madrid album, the cruel lampooning of the church and the pitiless portrayals of lunatics and of what today would be called in Spain ancianos (the aged). Tom Lubbock's essay undertakes a lively deconstruction of the drawings, which is a helpful way of seeing them with a painterly eye and which underscores Goya's technical triumph.

Although there are crowd scenes in the drawings, the subject matter is largely of single figures that teeter, stumble, dance and dodder. The stance is short of being upright, except in the case of young men and women. Instead, the subject is the body in toil, and in its struggle to stand, to defy gravity, the body displays an amazing tenacity. Many of the figures are given form by a consistent use of a triangle shape for the upper or lower torso, outlines against which the body struggles in the case of cripples, lunatics or the old, or which it can follow with grace in the case of the feminine figures of SanlNocar.

Ortega complained that in Goya's sketches there are no faces, only masks, and that the figures are often doll-like - making the picture itself the protagonist. Lubbock's analysis tends to corroborate this assertion, but at the same time he bestows a strong sense of humanity upon the creatures of the etchings. Goya's modernity stems partly from the face-to-face encounter between tragedy and the grotesque.

Yet in this stunning collection, the grotesque takes second place to the artist's compassion for many of his subjects. Witches and cats tempt Goya's penchant for the grotesque, the books of chivalry engorge Don Quixote's dreams with bizarre couplings, but what haunts most is the humanity of many figures, trodden on by circumstances and society but persisting with grim strength.

The suffering of Spanish peasants, kept under the thumb of the landowners with the connivance of the church, strongly affected Goya. The Black Border album (1816-20) contains two well-known figures. One is the drawing of a barefoot man who has cast his hoe on the ground and is raising both hands to the sky, fists clenched, mouth open. The title reads "Crying out will get you nowhere". A separate drawing that appears sequentially after the man is that of a subdued woman, probably his wife. She is dressed in the mourning typical of Spanish families. Her face is calm and handsome, and there is a suggestion of a grove of trees or perhaps a hut in the background. The title is "Leave it all to Providence". To clamour politically, to raise one's voice and rail against the gods is of no consequence. The wife's attitude of acceptance is a way of saying the same thing: rescue will not come, indeed not for a century or more.

By way of highlighting Goya's mood, one need only contrast it with the most readily recognised French painting of its time, The Angelus (1854-59) by Jean-Francois Millet. At the sound of the bells at nightfall calling for devotions to commemorate the annunciation, the peasant couple drop their tools and stand with heads bowed reciting the prayer. The French land was fruitful. There are few agricultural landscapes in Goya.

"An aged man is but a paltry thing," said Yeats, "unless/ Soul clap its hands andI louder sing." Figure 2 in the Black Border album depicts an old and toothless woman, clasping castanets, smiling concentratedly and, although her right foot is firmly planted on the ground (that tenacity not to collapse that Lubbock sees), she looks as if she were about to whirl and click her heels as mandated by a Spanish folk dance.

Juliet Wilson-Bareau's impressive knowledge of Goya's drawings informs every page of this catalogue. The provenance and detailed description of each drawing will keep specialists happy for years. One can indeed live Goya in many ways.

Howard Young is professor of Romance languages, Pomona College, California, United States.

Goya: Drawings from His Private Albums

Author - Juliet Wilson-Bareau, with an essay by Tom Lubbock
ISBN - 0 85331 804 2 and 1 85332 216 4
Publisher - Hayward Gallery in association with Lund Humphries
Price - £35.00 and £17.95
Pages - 206

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