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guest writer: Christine Despas 'Francisco Goya, modern but not Modern'

Updated: Sep 12, 2022

This monograph began as my objection to a seemingly popular reference to Francisco Goya as "the last of the Old Masters and the first of the Moderns". I composed my argument speculating that highly qualified artists and experts might prove me wrong and teach me better. They have not, they confirmed my belief.

While collecting research among expert sources, I came upon Goya, the biography by Robert Hughes, a prominent arts writer and critic of indisputable qualifications. In it, at the very outset one reads Mr. Hughes deliberately not referring to Francisco Goya as Modernist (a specific term applying to an art speciality) while showing why he is modern (a general term applying to a period in history). He calls Goya modern for several different reasons in the paintings and the aquatint-and-etchings and other kinds of print. Modernity (the unexpected nearly simultaneous breakthroughs across industry and the fundamental fields of learning over the turn of the century) had this effect on culture and community: It swept through every window and every corner of every dwelling, office and studio where people lived and produced, and swept up everything – including all of physical reality – along with it. The newly discovered laws of physics had swung into view like something wholly unacceptable. The time seems like one where standing on ground humankind never envisioned nor anticipated is the daily fact of life, a ground where all previous views of existence itself get torn up and tossed aside. The past dissolves behind you, which memory and nostalgia might remind you of, but the present - reality itself - is yanked from under your feet like a carpet you imagine yourself to be standing on. The future is an abyss now, a black hole, less knowable now than ever before. Let's further distinguish between two uses of the term modern. One use applies to a development in the arts that occurred across Europe from about 1880 to 1930, much of which was likely a synergy, a spontaneous reaction to upheavals in science, industry, medicine, technology, communication, travel, demography, etc., an unexpected cultural eruption that did not proceed from the previous trends nor from tradition. That usage might be capitalized as Modern. The second use of modern, is much broader and can apply even to things that preceded the 1880s and yet are characterized by qualities, viewpoints or practices which apply then and later, down to today. One can safely say Goya was a precursor of Modern art, that plenty of his themes, subjects and treatments were definitively modern but not that he was the first Modern nor the father of Modernism. Goya painted firmly within the Romantic genre (including macabre and phantasmagoric subject matter like in his so-called Black Paintings). Many of his prints can be seen and felt in that spirit and are harrowing, macabre protests of often unspeakable actions on the part of politicians, guerrilla fighters, the clergy and general society. That kind of protest is definitely characteristic of today's protest art.

Image of Guernica by Picasso
Picasso's Guernica 1937

image of Goya's The Third of May
The Third of May by Goya 1808

For example, Picasso's anti-Nazi, anti-Franco Guernica clearly shows how affected he was by Goya’s The Third of May 1808 in Madrid, which itself turns out to be an exemplary anti-war protest work even today. If you round off the height of Guernica to the nearest foot, it is as tall as The Third of May is wide. And Guernica is a huge work, 25 feet long. I think Guernica's measurements are a statement, not a coincidence. I think they refer to the escalation of military capability and the escalated human cost of it since The Third of May in Madrid 1808. Many viewers observe that The Third of May is the first truthful depiction of the nature of war, in painting. While The Second of May glorifies battle traditionally, The Third of May in Madrid 1808 – when Napoleon's soldiers shoot down Madrid civilians by the light of a big, bright lantern – demonstrates the human cost of war. Goya's new, daring depiction is raw and photojournalistic, the opposite of the bombast in previous historical war paintings. The Third of May is anti-war photojournalism long before that pursuit existed; in this too, Goya shows modernity, writes Mr. Hughes. According to Hughes, history establishes Goya as the premier protest painter and printmaker par excellence whilst other artists of the time were creating safely within established guidelines.

image of "Josefa de Castilla Portugal y van Asbrock de Garcini" by Goya
"Josefa de Castilla Portugal y van Asbrock de Garcini" by Goya 1804

As court painter*, Goya's content charmed and flattered royals and aristocrats (and sometimes secretly derided them). His several series of prints were another story entirely.

Image of  "Because she was susceptible" by Goya
"Because she was susceptible" by Goya

He created 80 aquatint-and-etching prints for his famous Caprices series (Los Caprichos, 1799). In viewing the images, one appreciates why he found the aquatint-and-etching technique so effective for presenting his satirical, saddening social observations. Like an aura, the aquatint shading provides a background for the finely etched, razor-edge lines of the characters. They are irrevocably dramatized as if by fate itself. The Caprices are a biting criticism of Madrid society, it's delusions, superstitions and brainwashing amid its Church-enforced Inquisition. The prints illuminate the human capacity for misguided convictions in Madrid and in all societies, Goya said.

Image of plate 26 of The Disasters of War prints by Goya
“One cannot look at this” (“No se puede mirar”), plate 26 of The Disasters of War prints by Goya

The satire one sees in the aquatint-and-etchings amounts to subversion. Subversive opinion as humor and satirical accusation in art is normal now, in modernity and democracy. The Disasters of War (Desastres de la guerra)** are his anti-war protest prints that are stunning, harrowing and unforgettable in their horrifying frankness. Again, this bitter edge of outspoken truth is one reason why Hughes calls Goya 'modern'. It wasn't always so in art. Goya was the exception amongst his peers, who, according to Hughes, continued to create within established guidelines. Therefore, it's safe to say that apart from his "day job" as court painter, Goya's attitudes and themes are modern indeed. But by no stretch of the imagination can I think of him the first Modern artist, not so much because of the long stretch of time from Romanticism to Modernism but because the tremendous advances in physics, technology, industry, travel, medicine, communications and so forth – from whose synergy Modern art erupted – were yet to be, while Goya worked.

*“Josefa de Castilla Portugal y van Asbrock de Garcini 1804” is my favorite court painting of Goya’s. She is an aristocrat, apparently pregnant and the vibrancy of her look, the light in her hair make this portrait breathtaking, close to actually being there. It's on view at the Met.

**The Disasters of War (Desastres de la guerra) are prints that depict scenes from The Peninsular War involving Napoleon's invading army and Spanish civilians. The concept “etching” brings to my mind representations of ordinary or imagined human activity. The Disasters of War attack the mind and say otherwise. They contain the most horrifying and unacceptable things you could ever see even on paper, like photographs of the Holocaust that I saw in High School. References Bradbury, Malcolm and James McFarlane, eds. Modernism 1890-1930. US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand: Penguin Books, 1978. Hughes, Robert. Goya. New York and Toronto: Alfred Knopf, 2006. Hughes, Robert. Nothing If Not Critical. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1990. Licht, Fred. Goya, the Origins of the Modern Temper in Art. New York: Universe Books, 1979. The several series of aquatint-and-etchings by Goya are quite exciting; they and all of his works are viewable from the main, Francisco Goya page atWikiArt.Org/en/Francisco-Goya.

Christine Despas is a widely published UK-award-winning artist and belletrist. She has fans here, has published with the US previously and is expanding her geographic range abroad. The Painter's Eye has also published a post on ''Monet and the passage of time & the constancy of light' by Christine Despas


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