Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Paint It Black

What happens to an artist when one of their senses begins to fail? Do the other senses truly compensate? Or do they feel the agony of a door forever closed? Beethoven dealt with the seemingly crushing blow of deafness and continued to write inspiring music, including his final, Ninth Symphony, which is literally an “Ode to Joy.” When Beethoven’s near contemporary, the painter Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, lost his hearing around 1792, he painted works better called “Odes to Despair.” Born March 30, 1746, Goya increasingly withdrew from society because of his deafness and mental instability. In 1819, Goya moved to a house known to locals as Quinta del Sordo, in English, "House of the Deaf Man," named for its previous owner, who was also deaf. Between 11819 and 1823, when Goya fled to France in self-imposed exile, Goya covered the walls of Quinta del Sordo with bizarre and macabre paintings now known collectively as the Black Paintings. The most famous of these Black Paintings, and the best preserved, is Saturn Devouring His Sons (above). Goya chose the Greek myth of Saturn, also known as Cronus, who ate his children as they were born rather than have them one day defeat him, to symbolize the self-devouring world of warfare and cruelty that surrounded him. Goya had just finished the group of etchings known as The Disasters of War, so the horror of war and the inhumanity of mankind weighed heavily on his troubled mind.

Some authorities now doubt whether Goya actually painted the Black Paintings, claiming that the walls upon which the works were painted didn’t exist in the house when Goya lived there. Several of Goya’s works are currently being reappraised as works by his hand or by the hand of one of his followers. I tend to believe the theory that Goya did paint the Black Paintings primarily on the shared sensibility of those works and the contemporaneous Disasters of War. Another Black Painting, Duel with Cudgels (above) captures succinctly the senseless struggle to the death of the world around Goya at the time. The technology that surrounds and almost sanitized warfare today hides much of the core brutality of the act of organized murder. Duel with Cudgels presents the truth in all its simple beastliness. Two men literally want to beat each other to death with sticks. Put knifes, guns, or remote controls to drone planes in their hands and the essential facts remain the same.

Saturn Devouring His Sons and Duel with Cudgels present the plain, undeniable facts of the situation. Goya’s The Dog (above), however, presents the pure, unfathomable chaos of war. A dog peaks his head up over a hill as the brownish sky dominates the image. We know nothing about the dog and the painting offers nothing. Is this dog searching for its owner, now dead? Has the canine been snacking on the remains of the fallen? We don’t know. It makes no sense, just like war itself. Goya never intended for others to see the paintings. He left them behind, expecting the next owner to destroy them. Fortunately, later owners preserved them as best as they could. In the 1870s, the Black Paintings, which were deteriorating in the house, were transferred from the walls onto canvas to be moved to the Prado, where they hang today. Trapped in the silence of his own thoughts, Goya walked the razor’s edge of madness and painted the nightmares playing in his head. Goya may never have meant for us to see them because he couldn’t bare the thought that, even after seeing them, the world would still not heed them.

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