An examination of the legendary painter’s most notorious and unsettling work.
It is difficult to square the genteel portraiture of Francisco Goya’s early works with the increasingly macabre, jaded artwork he created towards the end of his career; indeed, unless you could trace his art as it appeared, you would likely to struggle to believe that this was all the work of one man. And perhaps Goya would have struggled to believe it, too, in his quiet later moments: his early life, whilst by no means easy, could boast an array of personal successes. He was selected as a court painter in 1786, and as such his work became populated by members of the royal family, all costly dresses and coiffured hair. He ascended to the highest rank awarded to court painters in 1799 and this, together with his friendships with the great and the good, perhaps gave him the confidence to paint his ‘Maja’, a rather daring nude – even if this was deemed too profane to be shown during Goya’s lifetime. Still, being bold enough to paint it at all speaks to a certain daring, a certain sense of liberty.
However, Goya was never a well man, and a series of health issues seemed to precipitate a shift in his work; he never discussed his health in public, but without a doubt, this sensitive, morbid character would have been keenly aware of any decline and what it implied. Sometime around 1793, an illness had left Goya deaf; this later precipitated a more complete mental and physical breakdown that changed the way he painted, and what he painted. This was all exacerbated by the ‘interesting times’ in which Goya lived, with the outbreak of the Peninsular Wars a culmination of rising tensions and upheavals across mainland Europe during this time. Goya’s artwork had now dispensed with high fashion and high society; as war took hold, he became a painter of ordinary people at their lowest ebbs, execution sites, jails, funerals. As well as this, his art began to teem with monsters and fantasy: the more Goya had to contend with the inescapable, the more his imagination craved escape, albeit that the monsters he painted are anchored in the real world – symbolising shame, grief, and terror.
By the time Goya came to paint – in secret – his ‘Black Paintings’, Spain as he knew it was unrecognisable, and he struggled to see how he could find a place in it. The Black Paintings are, at least in part, a response to these feelings of alienation and finality. He never intended these works to be displayed, instead painting them directly onto the walls of his villa over a period of several years; nor did he ever discuss or describe them. It is difficult to imagine how they might have looked when first painted, and their transfer to the Prado Museum for display no doubt damaged them all to some degree or at least changed their appearance, but: based on what we do see, these are deeply unsettling pieces of work. The walls of the dark villa must have jostled with unclean things, devils, covens, aged men and women who look more like skulls than human beings, symbols of death and hopelessness. At the time the paintings were being added to the walls, Goya’s personal condition had seriously declined and he was living an isolated existence, curtailed by his disabilities, alienated from his peers and struggling to remain neutral, at least ostensibly, on state matters. The truth seems to be that he bridled under any such expectations, and modified his art to allow himself an outlet that could remain resolutely private.
One of the most important, and most chillingly effective, of Goya’s later works is widely known by the title ‘Saturn Devouring His Son’, bearing in mind of course that Goya himself never titled any of the Black Paintings at all. Based on the Greek myth of Saturn – or Cronos, a god who cannibalised his children so that they could never overthrow his rule – Goya’s was not the first rendition of the myth. In fact, it could be argued that the version painted by Rubens is more violent and more cruel than Goya’s painting. In Rubens’ piece, Saturn raises a young child to his lips and attempts to tear the flesh away from his chest, as the child screams in distress. It is in its own way a very disturbing piece of work indeed.
However, Goya turns this story into something very different and, from my personal perspective, something far bleaker. Against a dark, featureless background, Goya’s Saturn crouches, as if infirm, or perhaps poised – but his body is aged, its muscles wasted. Where we see the moment that Rubens’ Saturn has begun the process of consuming his child, in Goya’s vision the cannibalisation is already underway, the child dead and bloodied – the head and one arm appears to have gone. But is this a child at all? The body looks feminine, with a curved waist; there are some schools of thought which hold that this couldn’t possibly be an infant, and may not be a version of the Saturn myth whatsoever. Some suggestions that the painting was originally given an erect penis, later painted over, either by Goya himself or the custodian of his estate, would add more questions still, but – we can only react to what we can see.
Assuming that this is a rendering of Saturn, however, it is the facial expression that is the most palpable thing – bloodied, partially-consumed body aside. It is the look of abject, blank terror. The figure, with its eyes wide, does not appear to see anything; it does not meet the eye of the viewer, and seems, despite its actions, to be oblivious. In the twentieth century, we would come to refer to such a dead-eyed look as a ‘thousand-yard stare’, again naming a state of dissociation created by the effects of warfare, a stress reaction to overwhelming stimuli and shock. Goya’s Saturn pre-empts this, and hands this look to a fantastical being, but the advent of war may have played a part in this painting. Judging by his other works, Goya saw what was happening in Spain as a primitive regression, a downwards spiral that was dragging the country away from its new, forward-looking state. A more conventional reading of the painting could of course see it more clearly as a symbol of ageing – of an old, desperate figure trying to hold back the tides of time, prepared to do whatever it takes to continue to exist. In Goya’s case, his personal experience of fatherhood had been very troubled, with only one child making it past childhood, so it’s perhaps not aimed at his own family, which had already cost him dearly. But as a man approaching the end of his life, racked by health problems, closed off by deafness, adrift in a country which did not feel like his any longer, his Saturn could very well represent his own sense of torment – a generation no longer in tune with the world.
The artist went into exile in France in 1823, shortly after the Black Paintings were completed: it was in Bordeaux that he later died, never returning to live in Spain. He bequeathed his villa to his grandson, and subsequent shifts in ownership eventually saw the villa opened up again, by which time it had become a site of considerable artistic interest. It’s telling that Goya had to die for his latter-day work to garner this interest, but equally, it also seems to be another event that contradicted his wishes.
Again and again, ‘Saturn Devouring His Son’ can represent the powerlessness, circumvention of consent and emotional numbness which so troubled Goya: it’s also become a very well-known painting, ironically, but it’s certainly one which resonates with many, and if not quite as ubiquitous as Munch’s Scream, there’s something about Goya’s painting which has given it lasting appeal, making it recognisable nearly two centuries after it was created. You can also see echoes of it in unusual places: Ilya Repin’s painting of Ivan the Terrible and His Son has the same blank dread in Ivan’s expression, and Spanish filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro gives a nod to Goya’s Saturn in Pan’s Labyrinth, his own fantasy-satire of Spain at war.
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