Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Anatomy of an Obsession

This post is I suppose about the anatomy of an obsession, how it mutters in the brain until something is written and then the noise manages to subside to the sound of heavy breathing somewhere at the back of the mind. For over twelve years I have been slightly obsessed with the artist Goya and in particular his Black Paintings and now I am busy thinking about Goya again as my sequence about his Black Paintings is going to be published by Gatehouse Press in the summer accompanied by drawings by the artist Tom De Freston.
Goya was a man who lived in two minds, official court painter and a creator of drawings and etchings that showed the dark side of war, the Inquisition, the corrupting nature of power. He feared poverty; keeping careful track of monies owed him, writing letters to remind the royal court of his pension payments whilst spending his final years in France for fear of retribution by the king and government. In his seventies after the death of his wife he lived with his mistress Leocadia Weiss, forty years younger than himself and a known supporter of the liberal cause, who had a child Rosaria who was probably his illegitimate daughter.

His series of etchings the Disasters of War are graphic portrayals that warfare was a bloody, terrible thing and that the aftermath of famine and hunger were equally terrible. He did not turn his face away from these realities and in so doing he is seen by many as the first true war artist. His support of the liberal cause in Spain and his lampooning of the church made him a candidate for reprisals by both state and church yet he painted Ferdinand VII on his return to power after he had suppressed the brief flowering of the liberal constitution in Spain. This was the same king who beefed up the powers of the Inquisition which was a secret police that anyone could denounce people to, especially those who might be at odds with the state and church.

Goya was called before the Inquisition and a report of his behaviour during the Napoleonic occupation and his known sympathies with liberals was drawn up. He stood before a secret tribunal of the Inquisition charged with gross corruption and indecency for painting the Naked Maja. This nude was not ‘disguised’ as some goddess or myth, she was painted as a real woman gazing, unashamed, into the face of the observer and the artist. No one knows what was said at that secret hearing. Goya, who had completely lost his hearing in his forties, would have stood in silence and have been unable to hear the charges made against him. Their questions would have been written down so he could read them.

However Goya knew how to look, how to really look, at faces, his work bares testimony to that. What he saw in their faces must have frightened him enough to make him decide that staying in Madrid was not a viable option. Soon afterwards Goya bought a small house and estate out of town and retired there with his mistress and his child. The tribunal and the power of both the King and the church were not to be toyed with. As an old man he knew he was no match for the King who set about a series of bloody reprisals against all those liberals that had opposed his return to power. Typhus was also ravaging the city and life in the country would have seemed the best way for him to continue his work .

In his house, aptly named by a previous resident, Quinta del Sordo,(House of the Deaf Man), Goya fell ill , probably with the typhus, and nearly died. He painted a portrait of himself and the doctor who managed to get him through this illness by way of thanks. So, old, deaf, weakened by illness, still in fear of the authorities and still tormented by the ravages that bloody war and civil turmoil had wrought upon Spain,Goya set about painting the walls of his house.

Fourteen paintings for himself, fourteen images that seemed to come from something he could not come to terms with or ignore. These paintings were painted on a thin layer of plaster on top of adobe brick. Not the best of preparation for posterity and Goya would have known that. These paintings were not commissioned, not for sale, not created for any other purpose than to be the outpourings of something that gnawed in his brain like a rat. X Rays have revealed that he may have painted them over the top of lovely landscapes of the countryside and joyful scenes of peasants dancing.

They only survive now because of extraordinary coincidence and the skill of the conservator who managed to lift them from the walls in the late 19th Century and put them onto canvas so they could be transferred to The Prado, where they remain. These paintings allow us to become a peeping Tom staring directly into the head of the artist, who some regard as the bridge between Romanticism and modern art,the last of the Great Masters.

Who knows, Goya may be appalled that these paintings still exist, that they are publicly displayed, as this was never his intention. Those that visited his villa and dined with him may have found it uncomfortable to have the image of Saturn devouring the body of his child staring down at them, or Judith swinging the head of Holifernes. Goya may have liked the idea of discomforting his visitors. There were devil goats, witches, monstrous old men and women, men up to their knees in mud hitting each other with cudgels, a scarlet woman on a flying carpet with a terrified man flying toward a citadel on a cliff above the guns of men below, strange religious processions in which the people had surreal distorted faces, a small dog struggling to swim uphill, only his head showing above the ditch dirty water. These images are not exactly the work anyone would choose to decorate their walls with, they are dark, disturbing, nightmarish and some display a dark kind of humour..

These images and Goya’s later life have fascinated me for well over twelve years and now I am getting to a point when I can somehow express that strange obsession and share it with others. Working with a painter seems so appropriate and right, Tom's response to the paintings, Goya, and the poems, make this project a meaningful exercise in examining how art and poetry individually can work together to make a different whole.

Perhaps it is in the nature of slight obsession that modern parallels between these paintings and Goya’s later life seem to keep appearing, only a while back there was a cartoon in the Bristish Press using the Black painting of Saturn Devouring his Children as a template but it was entitled Assad Devouring his Children. The constant back and forth of armies across Spain, the years of to and fro between so called liberators, liberal more democratic causes and a repressive entrenched regime intent on using religion as a means of control doesn’t seem too far away from the Middle East and Afghanistan now.

The Peninsular War and its aftermath killed thousands upon thousands of soldiers and civilians, caused famine and disease and throughout it all Goya kept painting, who ever was in power at the time could whistle and he would come and paint for them and yet he painted the Duke of Wellington complete with all his medals and regalia whilst also drawing a lampoon of him as a strutting peacock. He may not have been a nice man or even a kind man but he was complicated and I think a genius so that may cut him a bit of slack.

As a political exile in France in his eighties he would wander the streets of Bordeaux sketching ordinary people, drawing freaks in local carnivals. Totally deaf and wearing three pairs of spectacles, one upon the other, as his sight was so poor he was still driven to capture images.One of his last drawings was of an old man on a swing which was maybe lampooning the French portrait style of Watteau and others who favoured placing women on a swing to paint them. However sometimes I wonder whether this is another little portrait of the old Goya who swung back and forth between life and death, between rich paymasters and a liberal cause, shadow and light. During his life Goya said three things which reasonate with me.

'First be a magnificent artist and then you can do whatever, but the art must be first.'

'Fantasy, abandoned by reason, produces impossible monsters; united with it, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of marvels.'

'Always lines, never forms! But where do they find these lines in Nature! For my part I see only forms that are lit up and forms that are not. There is only light and shadow.'


After the Black Painting ‘Saturn Devouring his Son’ by Goya

In the dining room I have finished the grasping hands,
the air is thick with the smell and even my deaf ears
can detect the high notes of putrefaction that coat the wall.
The eyes bother me, the necessity for a shade of white,
too desperate for my palette makes the mixing of paint
another exercise in the toxic arts. The lead has stoppered
the jug of my brain enough to make the chemistry risky.
I have studied the priest in the inn eating a leg of lamb
to get the right degree of lean into the meat of the body.
The half erect penis may cause guests a little trouble.

All this power must be underlined by a sexual thrill,
besides this hard-on is only for private consumption.
Flesh that springs from our own loins is sweetest,
tender with all the hopes we baste them with.
What does he taste, this father; ripeness of muscle,
juices of a heart yet to feel the treacherous moment?
Is it salted with tears, the most ancient preservation?
Death is easily spat out but you need a strong stomach
when it comes to swallowing the whole corpus of love.
If I stop for lunch, the paint will congeal like blood.

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