April 13, 2011

Master of the Macabre

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Goya’s visions are a strange but fitting combination of Enlightenment ideals of reason and a seemingly conflicting pre-Romantic fascination with the bizarre, monstrous and supernatural. The impressive exhibition at the Johnson Museum features an array of representative prints from perhaps the most famous Spanish artist after Picasso, whose prints are routinely appraised for more than a million dollars. Samples from all three of Goya’s best-known series — Los Caprichos, Los Desastres de la Guerra and Los Disparates — are displayed, including the iconic “El Sueño de la Razón Produce Monstruos” (“The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters”).

The painter of acclaimed works such as The Third of May, 1808, Saturn Devouring His Son and The Nude Maja, Goya’s genius is most pronounced in his magnificent repertoire of prints. Born in 1746, Goya’s art reached maturity during the height of the so-called Age of Reason, during which rapid advancements in philosophy and science propelled the notion that humans were shaped entirely by their environments, a notion that inspired many artists and writers to later revive the importance of passion and sentimentality. Goya was one of them. Borrowing images from Spanish folklore and superstition, Goya created devastating illustrations of the instability and cruelty of Spanish society. Marauding deformed soldiers, witches, nocturnal animals and dismembered bodies become disturbing allegories for power, truth, creativity and reason, etched in a dramatic style that emphasizes emotional intensity through macabre imagery.

Sadly, the stylized horrors of Goya’s art are not far from reality during the French occupation of Spain. The real terrors of Napoleon’s invasion of the Iberian peninsula in 1808 and the violent events that followed resulted in countless deaths and brutal casualties, as well as twenty thousand deaths during the Madrid famine of 1811. The restoration of the repressive, intolerant Bourbon monarchy only exacerbated the situation. The dictating power of the church and the monarchy resulted in endless poverty and misery for the common people.

The exhibition at the Johnson highlights many key characteristics of Goya’s art. Cleverly located behind a large gallery of scenic 19th century landscapes and still life paintings, 20 or so dark and unsettling prints that are crammed into a claustrophobic space confront the viewer. Etching and Aquatint are the perfect medium for Goya’s subjects, as they allow him to create both precise images as well as abstracted and murky effects. The lighting is always dramatic, yet nuanced and expressive locally. The centerpiece of the exhibition, “El Sueño de la Razón Produce Monstruos,” was intended as the cover of Los Caprichos. It depicts Goya himself snoozing at his workstation in an unbalanced, uncomfortable position, head buried in his arms frantically as if he is trying to ward off insomnia. A flock of ghastly bats, owls and cats with humanized facial expressions erupt from the vanishing point, piling upon his defenseless body like scavengers.

On one hand, this demonstrates the Enlightenment idea represented by its title, that sleep and the surrendering of reason invites frightening creatures that represent the evils of society. Yet, the owl on the left side of the print is holding up a pencil, indicating that dreams and free imagination could also be a valuable source of Romantic creative freedom. This combination of unreasonable terror and artistic freedom persist in almost every piece in this exhibition. In “Hasta Su Abuelo” (“So Was His Grandfather”), Goya satirizes the nobility’s obsession with genealogy by depicting a donkey looking at a family tree of donkeys, and in “Las Resultas,” from the Los Desastres de la Guerra (Disasters of War) series, the body of a peasant who died from Napoleon’s brutality is ecstatically consumed by birds of prey and other unidentifiable monstrocities. Although the birds are metaphors for menacing and repressive evils of society, numerous dead bodies from the Napoleonic wars were literally left to rot and decompose on their own. The reader’s experience of genuine sublime horror heightens the believability of Goya’s imagination.

In addition to Goya’s prints, the exhibition also showcased Goya’s tremendous influence in modern and contemporary art, as well as a few works from Jacques Callot (1592-1635), a French engraver he greatly admired. One cannot look at the uniformed donkey in “Hasta Su Abuelo” and not be reminded of the animals in Maus. Enrique Chagoya’s recreation of “Grande Hazana! Con Cuertos!” (“A Heroic Feat! With Dead Men!”) includes an image of a cheerful Mickey Mouse in the lower left corner, happily unveiling tortured and dismembered bodies on a tree as if it’s a new ride in Disneyland. William Gropper’s “Southern Landscape” could definitely be mistaken for a Goya print by amateurs, depicting a scarecrow covered in white cloth haunting the land and the people. Although the Napoleonic occupation has ended, the social problems that triggered these nightmarish visions and their aftermath can still be replicated in our society today.

Original Author: Lucy Li