Good evening, happy haunts of Los Angeles. It is I, Astor, beckoning you in from the whispering chambers of Speakeasy Tattoo, wishing you a joyful (belated) autumnal equinox. Did you all catch a glimpse of that harvest moon last week? In honor of Spooky Season, I wanted to discuss an artist who has been very influential in my work: Francisco Goya. Specifically, I’m going to talk about the Black Paintings.
The Black Paintings are a group of fourteen visually intense paintings completed between 1819 and 1823. At this time, Goya was in his 70s, he was nearly deaf as a result of an earlier near-fatal illness, and, following the bloodshed and devastation of the Napoleonic Wars, he’d become a paranoid misanthrope. Suffice to say he was going through it. So, when he moved into a house in Madrid which locals called “Quinta del Sordo”, or, ‘Deaf Man’s Villa’ (not after Goya himself—the previous occupant had also, coincidentally, been deaf), he was poised to create some pretty heavy work.
The Deaf Man’s Villa was Goya’s hideout. Firstly, Goya was increasingly convinced he was going to get sick and die, having survived two serious illnesses and a stroke, which left him with the aforementioned deafness, along with tinnitus, dizziness, problems with his sight, muscular weakness in his right arm, weight loss, hallucinations, and delirium. Secondly, he lived there with a married woman, Leocadia Weiss (possibly the subject of one of the Black Paintings), with whom he may indeed have had an illegitimate daughter. Thirdly, whereas Goya had been painter for the court of Spain some twenty years earlier, there had been some fairly serious political upheaval in those two decades. Napoleon ousted Charles IV and installed his brother Joseph Bonaparte on the throne. The Spanish rebelled. The French suppressed the uprising, rounded up the rebels, and slaughtered them in the streets. Human bodies were rendered as animals, butchered before their countrymen. Furthermore, when Napoleon fell in 1814, it was Charles IV’s son who would take the throne, as Ferdinand VII. Ferdinand abolished the Constitution, arrested those responsible for writing and adopting it, and declared himself absolute monarch. Goya did a number of paintings for him, but Ferdinand did not like Goya’s political leanings, nor his sympathies for the common people of Spain. He threatened to have Goya hanged, and said that it was only out of respect for his art that Goya was spared the noose. It was around this time that Goya painted The Third of May, 1808, a monumental and heartbreaking work commemorating those Spanish freedom fighters who were cut down in the streets of Madrid. With these internal and external pressures, Goya felt the need to escape, and fled to the Deaf Man’s Villa. There, as ever, he painted.
It is not clear in what order he completed the Black Paintings. He did not officially title the works. In fact, he did not even paint them on traditionally prepared canvases. They were painted as murals, on the walls of the Villa, in a sort of frenzied whirlwind of sickly tallow whites, and ponderous shadows. He never spoke or wrote of them, and did not sign them. It is as if he was working neither for business nor pleasure, but instead exorcising some thing which haunted him, and pinning it to the walls where it could be monitored and observed.
The paintings don’t have any specific thematic unification. They are symbolic, but while some incorporate fantastical elements (a large he-goat dressed in black robes, the titan Saturn, levitating figures engaged in overland flights), others at first glance appear to depict common scenes. They are not treated as ‘genre paintings’, despite the mythological and allegorical features. The handling of the paint and the figures is excited, more frenetic than earlier works, and the staging is energetic and crowded, as opposed to the more posed, more smooth treatment typical of allegorical genre paintings. It is only through the meditations on death, futility, fear, and anguish, and the bleak color palette present in the works, that they are brought together. Over the past two centuries, they have been analyzed over and over. They are like an artist’s mystery, with no notes from Goya himself to illuminate meaning or intention. Are they psychological, or political? Are they symptoms of hallucinatory disease, or of desultory disillusionment? Is that the face of Napoleon, in A Pilgrimage to San Isidro, cheeks hollowed as those of a desiccated corpse, or is that projection by some art historian wanting to prove a thesis? Are they studies on the artist’s own mortality, his terror and his grief? These questions will forever go unanswered.
As a teen I saw these paintings in person, where they now hang in Madrid’s Prado Museum. Their scale adds to their visual impact; they are encompassing and visceral. Energetic and violent as they already are, the effect is heightened by the knowledge that Goya may not have intended these paintings to be shown publicly at all, considering the fact that he painted them on his walls, and never discussed nor wrote of them. They were cut away from the walls and transferred to canvas fifty years after Goya’s death, and were eventually donated to the Spanish state. But, thinking of that process— excising them from their context and resituating them— as yet another violent act is as much a supposition as the rest of the conversation about these paintings. They are some of the most famous paintings in the world, and yet their mysteries went with Goya to the grave.