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John Sevigny: On Francisco Goya

December 18, 2009

By **John Sevigny**

the dog, franicis goya.jpg

Even in the age of Modern art, there was never a painter as modern as Francisco Goya (1746-1828). A thinker, a painter to the Spanish Crown, a do-it-yourself/sell-it yourself printmaker almost 200 years before punk rockers took up the act, and a master draughtsman, Goya was a Renaissance man long after the Renaissance ended. But he was more than that. On the one hand, he was a court painter for Reformist Bourbon King Carlos III, and King Carlos IV. On the other, he was the creator of works of social satire and bitter criticism of contemporary Spanish life that had no place in the palace, including Los Caprichos, an at-times moralistic and at times humorous series of prints published in 1799, and the grotesque Disasters of War (1810), depicting the horrors of the Peninsular War and rivaling anything produced by 20th Century News correspondents for their graphic brutality.

Ironically, it was not until Goya was old, deaf, bitter, and driven half-mad by encephalitis, that he turned painting upside down, driving a stake into the old vampire of the Baroque and giving birth to Modern Art. Goya was 72 when he painted the walls of his home with 14 works, never meant for public view. Taken as a group, they are as dark as anything created in the history of art, and yet, they are so modern that later Spanish painters such as Joan Miro, Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso took more than a Century to catch up with him. And none of them ever really matched Goya for combining thought, observation, passion and technical expertise.

But these comparisons are a stretch because there has never been an artist quite like Francisco Goya. Picasso was a painter, and remains perhaps the best known painter of all time. But Goya was a liberal, belonged to no artistic school, and was as interested in Enlightenment thought leaking out of Europe as he was in art. He condemned torture, willful ignorance and corruption while working away under the Spanish crown, a kind of contradictory behavior that seems impossible in today’s grabasstic art world.

Artists of genius, such as Goya, or those of merely remarkable talent, do their best work outside the bounds of capital, patronage, and today’s Great Strip Bar of Artistic Veneration that is New York City.

From Kronos, also known as Saturn Devouring his Son, to Duel with Cudgels, Goya pulls no punches in these private but now legendary works which have since been transferred to canvas. They are marked by his own fear of impending mortality (he had been mortally ill twice before), his lack of faith in humanity, and his condemnation of the irrationality of violence and superstition.

The black paintings present a powerful argument for doing away with patronage-based art systems (which exist even today in the guise of know-nothing, influence-everything collectors such as Charles Saatchi, who has championed such dubious art-world Paparazzi targets as Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Richard Prince, and Stella Vine, a stripper turned painter).

The Dog is the most unique, modern and remarkable of the group, in part, because it is the least shocking and the most spare.

It is a quirky, brightly colored work, almost a cartoon. Polish it up and enhance the colors and it might be taken for a Miro. But this is a deadly serious work that depicts a near-drowning dog, swimming against a cresting wave the color of dried blood beneath a fiery yellow sky. The animal is doomed, soaked and fighting to survive. It contains almost no illusions of depth. Flatness as a positive attribute of Modern painting, which Goya can be said to have pioneered, did not otherwise arrive in the arts until almost a half century later. What frustration was Goya expressing when he attacked the walls of his home with brushes and paints and created this simple masterpiece? We can speculate about political tensions, the crisis of old age, or simple, artistic and human exhaustion but there are no clear answers.

No matter. It is a work of artistic prophecy.

The two vast swaths of negative space presage one of the main qualities we’ve come to expect in contemporary painting – attention to surface rather than portrayal of literal subject. From the Color Field painters who followed to Abstract Expressionists, to newer artists such as Cy Twombly and Anselm Kiefer, all owe a great dept to Goya, who may not have invented minimalist abstraction, but certainly magnified and perfected it with this perfect, visceral and perhaps unintentional homage to the Myth of Sisyphus, a mythological Greek king cursed for eternity to push a boulder up a huge hill, only to watch it roll down again (artistic representations of the myth are painted on pottery dating back to 530 BC). What could be more sisyphean to a land animal than swimming headlong into a wave, with the certainty that another wave will follow, and another, and another?

There is a great lesson here for Saatchi and the other mafiosos of the art market, from Miami to Madrid.

Artists of genius, such as Goya, or those of merely remarkable talent, do their best work outside the bounds of capital, patronage, and today’s Great Strip Bar of Artistic Veneration that is New York City, and to a lesser and lesser degree, Paris. Autonomy of creation relies on autonomy of thought and production. The idea of a painter headed out to the countryside to create his or her works may seem tired and Romantic, but there were real reasons that Paul Gauguin, a banker, went to Tahiti to paint, and Mexican novelist, photographer and genius Juan Rulfo, known to every grade school student south of the border, spent half his life wandering the Jalisco countryside with little more than a notebook, a camera and a few sandwiches.

Indeed, our greatest artists have frequently been outsiders initially rejected by the establishment. They include Claude Monet, Eduoard Manet, and Jackson Pollock, just to name three from the 19th and 20th Centuries. Hirst, Koons, Prince and Vine can hardly be expected to be remembered in 50 years, much less two centuries.

But Goya was no outsider. He worked inside and outside the parameters of the Royal Court. But with nearly every work he created, lightning struck. His formal portraits of the Royal figures who signed his paychecks are as impressive as his prints of witches, bullfighters, corrupt judges, and whores. That Goya was a better painter than the earlier, more popular Peter Paul Rubens, or a more intelligent artist than Diego Velazquez, Michelangelo or Rembrandt hardly seems worth mentioning. That he created the Black Paintings, and The Dog, the most thoroughly modern piece in the group, in utter solitude, is food for thought in this age of Artistic Prostitution.

______________________________________________________________________

sevignyphoto.jpgJohn Sevigny is a photographer and writer who lives and works in Mexico. He is a former Associated Press and EFE News correspondant. He has published photographs and articles in the Houston Chronicle, the New York Times, People, the Dallas Morning News, and many other newspapers and magazines. He has exibited his photography in Florida, California, Louisiana, New York, Minnesota and Illinois in the United States, and in Monterrey, Saltillo, Guadalajara, Xalapa, Cordoba, Zacatecas and other cities in Mexico. He has a blog called Gone City.

Copyright 2009 John Sevigny

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22 comments for John Sevigny: On Francisco Goya

  1. Comment by EmmaG on December 18, 2009 at 3:52 pm

    Nice job. All of your blog entries are great!

  2. Comment by HR on December 26, 2009 at 8:52 am

    Good piece. I’ve always wondered why there aren’t more pieces about non-entities like Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Richard Prince, and Stella Vine, and how those are the ones that become rich and famous artists due to sensationalism and networking. These artists, and the people who follow them, are on the level of reality TV – they have no substance.

  3. Comment by John Sevigny on January 2, 2010 at 7:27 pm

    HR,

    Thanks for the kind comment. As a friend said, Damien Hirst = the emporer’s new clothes. The art world, unfortunately, is in sad and sorry shape. But it’s always been that way. Monet had to fight for years to be recognized. He was rejected by the Paris Salon. Manet suffered a similar fate a few decades earlier.

    Unortunately, by dumping millions on wrk by false artists such as Koons, Prince, Vine, etc, collectors such as Saatchi create an artificial value for art that as you say, has no substance, and otherwise would never see the light of day, much less make it into prestigious museums and commercial galleries.

    But keep the faith. There are contemporary artists, alive and well, who are making meaningful work. Anselm Kiefer comes to mind at present but there are others. Hmmm. I need to write something about Kiefer soon.

    Best,

    JS

  4. Comment by ron yrabedra on January 10, 2010 at 11:03 pm

    brilliant insights into Goya…..renewed my interest in his late works.

  5. Comment by Anthony Steyning on March 29, 2010 at 6:10 am

    Well I’m pleased somebody reminded us of Goya. The first political artist and visual social commentator of our times. Be gone Madonnas and halos but not yet Kings and courts. A cartoonist avant la lettre and an important presence in our cultural landscape. Yes, we don’t know how he juggled the Palace with the trenches, so he did a bit of whoring on the side himself, so what, who hasn’t? Yet calling him a superb draughtsman is being overly venerating. The man couldn’t draw for dick. Those dwarves, those horses, everything out of proportion. The nude Maja’s head glued on, her right breast siliconed and pointing the wrong way, her lower body totally unnatural. He was bleak, and he was good, even nicked the Duchess of Alba, the mightiest noble of the land, but let’s not make the misguided error of mistaking him for an artistic saint.

  6. Comment by john on March 29, 2010 at 4:55 pm

    Although I agree with much of what you have said, Goya would not have had the great success without the support of guilds and patronage, both interconnected. His patrons allowed him to paint later in life and allowed the true scope of his skill to blossom.

    I do not see any great work coming out of patronage based on contempoary publicity but i do see great work being promoted by curators in survey shows around the world. Documenta to name one.

    It is too simplistic to think that patronage does not produce great art. Think for a moment about work created prior to Goya’s Black Paintings before you comment.

    To develop as a great artist, funding must come from somewhere.

  7. Comment by Jesse Glass on March 29, 2010 at 5:03 pm

    The unfortunate thing about this article is that it does not take into account the recent findings that the Black Paintings may not have been by Goya at all, haunting though they are. Experts have recently begun to question these works and some suggest that an unknown painter took up brush in Goya’s old house after the painter’s death.

  8. Comment by predrag on March 29, 2010 at 10:06 pm

    It would be difficult to imagine Goya experience in this time, now , present life. Today even not best painter have life in normal condition and also many of great guys are poor but reflex of evolution is the paint that come from inside of us. So after alll respect for this construction i have to say that i am happy also for us people because we have great freedom of painters after Goya

    ( i think also Goya himself would be touched if he was able to see work of any great guy after him…) and new and new versions of our understanding of time. I have to say that Goya maybe was dreaming life of Milan Konjovic…?

  9. Comment by Yosemite Semite on March 29, 2010 at 11:00 pm

    I find it highly ironic that the creator of Los desastres de la guerra — intensely horrific images of war — should be chronicled in Guernica, the toponymic, anodyne pastiche by Picasso.

  10. Comment by Walter P Komarnicki on March 29, 2010 at 11:52 pm

    Goya was ahead of his time and right in the midst of it, amongst the horrors of war and patronage.

    A giant amongst pygmies, with only a backhanded compliment via Guernica by whatshisname.

  11. Comment by gene schulman on March 30, 2010 at 7:45 am

    The best book I ever read on Goya was by Robert Hughes. He also has some interesting things to say about Warhol, Koons, et al. All negative. For the most part, contemporary art is an indication of our contemporary society – ignorant and empty.

  12. Comment by Almasy on March 30, 2010 at 2:59 pm

    “But Goya was no outsider. He worked inside and outside the parameters of the Royal Court.”

    Contradicts you’re whole argument in one sentence.

    I don’t know if this duality is key to understanding Goya’s work or not, I don’t know that anyone need do anything but stand in front of one of his paintings to understand them. I do think your article is romantic spewage; your attack is on a market, not the retailers who take part in that market, and have been successful in it, (and art has always been a market, from before Goya’s day, make no mistake about that. There was never “purity” surrounding art, that’s the biggest lie of all.)

    My point is, outside the context of the free market whose values you detest (and i’m making no judgement on you for this, there are many reasons to dislike it,) I could almost guarantee if you saw any one of the works by the artists you listed as “frauds,” you would at least be struck by them as creative endeavors and not superficial con jobs. Why is everyone so scared of being conned by art, anyway; as if they are being duped into calling something art? You’re free to like it or not like it, but the fact is there are gatekeepers to any market in any age, and these gate keepers have chosen these artists as giving a window into our world in unique ways. Have they been chosen for charm, networking ability, how good they are in bed?

    Like, Duh.

    When has it ever been different? I could list any number of artists you probably love and respect who did exactly that. But that doesn’t mean the work isn’t interesting, unique or genuine. You talk about Kiefer, yeah, he’s great, but he’s got his downside, he certainly ain’t subtle, he’s never going to be confused with Morandi; I mean, how many times can you exploit Germany’s role in the 20th Century? Apparently endlessly, and that’s cool, he’s giving us a view into his identity, and it’s exotic and sufficient enough to satisfy you and the same gate keepers who chose those “frauds.” By the way, I’ve never read one piece of derisive criticism of Kiefer’s work in the last twenty years. Personally, I think it’s because no one actually understands his work, it just looks pretty “punk rock,” and he talks a good metaphysical game. I mean, he’s obviously a good talker, and he also works BIG.

    Anyway, what I’m saying is your problem is with the money paid for certain works of art, not the art or the artists themselves.

    That is a great painting by Goya, though. Absolutely. Incredible in any age, in any market.

  13. Comment by John Holt on March 30, 2010 at 7:23 pm

    Thank you for this article. The experience of entering that room full of Goya’s at the Prado is overwhelming, one of the great experiences of my (no doubt pathetic little) life and up there with the Scrovegni Chapel. I agree with Yosemite Semite about Guernica – to walk across the road from looking at the Goyas it is hard not to see Guernica as a put up job, melodramatic and without an ounce of genuine emotion – Goya on the other hand throws the viewer into turmoil.

  14. Comment by virginia bryant on March 30, 2010 at 7:23 pm

    interesting article- HOWEVER, the last paragraph is extremely bothersome to me, as a painter with a lifetime practice, an art history enthusiast and one who wearies of the old paradigm judgements concerning better and best.

    how can one say that goya is “better” than rubens- its apples and oranges, or more suitably, like comparing a bayonet (goya’s orientation) to a monstrance (rueben’s orientation)

    and as for goya- more “intelligent” than the artists listed, or more pc?

    finally, Picasso was a draftsman and exquisite at the art of line, and as a painter not nearly so supreme as the history books would have us think. he was a ruthless misogynist who personified the destructive currents of the times in his work, as careerist as any artist living today, which is the largest source of his over inflated regard. Kandinsky was a far greater painter too far ahead (or perhaps out of) his time.

  15. Comment by Fred Reade on April 1, 2010 at 3:03 am

    Wonderful blog. Personally, Goya is my favorite. His paintings have an incredible visceral power. I’ve often walked into a particular room at the MET in nyc and the one goya has the pull of a black hole. It obliterates everything else. He had an tumultuous life and his painting reflects the changes. Robert Hughes may be a bit of a blowhard, but he’s got it right about Goya.

  16. Comment by LOP on April 1, 2010 at 9:17 am

    what does ‘grabasstic’ mean?

    did Juan Rulfo really eat sandwiches in Jalisco?

  17. Comment by LiesAwake on April 1, 2010 at 1:49 pm

    Well said.

  18. Comment by John Sevigny on April 7, 2010 at 10:51 am

    Enjoyed reading all of your comments.

    A couple of thoughts: ” … let’s not make the misguided error of mistaking him for an artistic saint.” Agreed. Caravaggio is the artistic saint, if only in a Jean Genet sense of the word. :)

    “The unfortunate thing about this article is that it does not take into account the recent findings that the Black Paintings may not have been by Goya.” Anyone who has looked at Goya’s previous prints, paintings, drawings and/or etchings will recognize his unmistakable line in the Black Paintings. Can we kill off this conspiracy theory now?

    Regarding patronage, Goya’s better paintings were created outside of that system, which is the larger point. His court portraits do not come close, for example, to those executed by Velazquez. But DV never did anything as gutsy as Los Capricios or Desastres. Obviously great art has been created by kings and queens with money and power commissioning it. But the patronage system has been dying slowly since the 1860s, and today, many galleries are closing down their brick-and-mortar locations and just doing business online. Art is being made and bought by people again, not politicians or glamorized used-car salesmen.

    Finally, Anselm Kiefer: Kiefer is one of the great painters to come out of the repulsive and money-crazed 80s. At a time when we had to deal with crap like Julian Schnabel, Kiefer, who got a very good contemporary education in art under Joseph Beuys, was creating visceral, but also, intelligent and conceptual pieces. He’s still doing so, but he doesn’t make the cover of the slick art mags anymore, but that’s only because the art press has labeled him and 80s artist (In any case old Ansel’s got plenty of 80s cash stashed away so I’m not shedding any tears for him:))

    Thanks to all of you for reading and writing.

    js

  19. Comment by Suellen on April 17, 2010 at 4:50 pm

    Thank you for a well-written and insightful article. At a time when imagery created on computers is foisted upon the public as art, when perhaps 99.9% of the population doesn’t even know the name of the world’s best contemporary artist, Anselm Kiefer, when content and meaning hold no one’s interest, it is good to read a piece that touches on the insanity of the art world today.

  20. Comment by joe on May 10, 2010 at 8:50 pm

    cool painting dude

  21. Comment by Dorseyland on May 11, 2010 at 4:53 am

    “From the Color Field painters who followed to Abstract Expressionists, to newer artists such as Cy Twombly and Anselm Kiefer, all owe a great dept to Goya …”

    Your “b” has fallen over. In “debt”.

    I’d use glue. Duct tape would probably make it look like a whole different letter.

  22. Comment by john sevigny on May 15, 2014 at 2:01 pm

    Just getting around to reading some of these comments – years later.

    First, thanks to all of you for the nice comments and to the person who pointed out the typo. I appreciate post editing more than you can imagine. That’s sincere.

    Now, for the rest of you:

    1) Put aside revisionist theory about Goya not having made the Black Paintings. What one Spanish scholar says does not change the obvious. Goya lived in the house. When he died they found the paintings there. There were prints, drawings and sketches of the same subjects in the paintings created by Goya years earlier. Don’t drink the Kool-Aid stirred up by academics who want press.

    2) Mr. Freemarket person: I’m well aware that art has always required capital and I have no particular dislike of capitalism. In fact I’m a beneficiary of it (if you’d like to buy one of my photographs, capitalistally speaking, which means with cash, drop me a line).

    Getting away from economics, which does not interest me unless it’s me getting rich (and for the moment it isn’t), the quality of commissioned art by Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, and hundreds more, compared to the sheer lameness of candy-coated single-gesture spectacle, which is acquired, not as art, but as a commodity to be stashed out of view in hopes that its value goes up, is proof that past patrons of art, first, had better taste, and second, bought work because they wanted it to be seen. Take a walk through Art Basel. You’ll see more than a few dim bulbs flickering in the intellectual darkness.

    3) In defense of Kiefer, it’s a wild simplification to say his work only deals with Germany and WWII. The “Palmsontagg” installation is Biblical. He’s also done conceptual works that reference Piet Mondrian, Paul Celan, as well as the flight out of Egypt. He is, however, a neo-expressionist, which would imply a Certain Link to wars and Germany’s role in them. Go figure. If that’s not your thing, fine. Stick with the Schnabel pieces you’ll never own because they’re so over-valued, and will never enjoy because they’re so miserably bad. There is little doubt that Kiefer is among the best painters working today, alonside Terry Winters, perhaps, who is Really Very Good. I don’t expect most people in the age of six-minute Youtube videos to “get” Kiefer, so you are forgiven for your brief attention span and typically American lack of depth.

    4) Grabbastic – an adjective formed from the two words, grab and ass.

    Grabastically yours,

    js

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