By **John Sevigny**
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.
John 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