Wednesday, August 26, 2009
Goya's Redocorations, The Black Paintings
In Madrid to see Velasquez, I had expectations. Goya was a different story: I knew there would be surprises and I knew there would be paintings I had never seen. And yet, nothing prepared me for the power and seduction of what have posthumously become known as the Black Paintings.
Towards the end of his life, at age 72, Goya redecorated by painting the walls of his two-storey house outside of Madrid. For Goya this didn’t mean deciding between egg-shell white, satin white, semi-gloss or matte. For Goya, painting the walls of his house meant 14 of his most extraordinary works. In 1874, the fresco paintings were transferred to canvas and placed in the Prado. None of them were titled, and none of them were meant for public exhibition. And despite the claims of most critics, they are not unanimously melancholy, frightening and dark. The figures might be surrounded in darkness, and the paintings may have an overall tone of intensity, but they do not all strike me as either sinister or gloomy.
To the contrary, what is so striking about them is the brilliant light that illuminates the moment depicted. In my three favorites — works that have since been titled, Reading, A Man and Two Women, and Judith and Holofernes — the intense emotion excited by a simple, everyday action is vivdly brought to life by Goya’s masterly handling of light. In stark contrast to the placement of the light in his tour de force, The Third of May, there is no light source in these paintings. It is as though the belly of the man in the modestly named A Man and Two Women by art historians, a painting if it were left up to me would be titled The Masturbator, has the light within him. And the light by which the men gather to read the paper in Reading is once again like an emanation from the man who holds it. Together with the intense grey background, this light is what these paintings are all about. The illumination at the centre of the works draws us in – it is more than an invitation, more like a command, to share the secret world of whatever is written in that newspaper, of both the women and the man’s delight at bawdy pleasures, of Judith’s sheer determination to sever the unsuspecting Holofernes' head. Within minutes of standing before them, I found myself silently creeping into the simultaneously exciting and unknown worlds of these compelling characters. Interestingly we see Judith preparing to behead Holofernes, her breasts bared, the knife in hand. This is not a painting that is about the beheading, it is about the intent to behead. The depiction of the feelings aroused as opposed to the significance of any action is typical of these three Black Paintings.
As I say, critics want to focus on the darkness of these and the other paintings. It is true that the one that depicts the witches Sabbath is more sinister because it is witches who are at work. However, as I stood before even these paintings, the darkness was in the execution of the background only. And that gray background is as exciting because it exists hand in hand with the light that inflames the canvas. Even in the stillness of the moment of reading, these paintings are about the motion and emotion of the experiences of the readers. What makes Goya so outstanding is the energy and kineticism of his paintings, at a time when portrait-like paintings were all about stasis and sitting still.
It is said that Goya bridged the classical and the modern. And if his work does indeed venture into the modern period, it can be seen here. In the use of light as though he knew that the cinema that was on its way. And like the cinema, Goya externalizes emotions in a way that painting had not yet thought to do, at least not in Spain, and never with the use of a loose, undefined brushstroke. Again, the openness of Goya’s brushstroke in these works is exciting. In official portraits and paintings of the period, the painted world is still hermetically sealed, closed off from a viewer. Thanks to the looseness of the brushstrokes and the light, these paintings reach out to us, beckon us into the painted world in a way that painting would not do for anything up to another one hundred years.
Lastly, the thing which makes Goya so exciting is that, like Velasquez, Goya’s most memorable, and powerful paintings are not the ones that are done on commission for royalty. It’s the ones he does behind their backs, the paintings he executes in contradiction of the violence that is going on in the world around him. Included among the black paintings are the bitter and horrific image of Saturn devouring his son, but there is so much more to these fourteen images than a dark depressive vision of an old deaf man.