One hundred seventy-six pages into his new biography, Goya, Robert Hughes writes: “And it is Goya’s ability to see that leaves one silent with admiration.” See what, exactly? Well, the horror, as Kurtz says at the end of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes was the great, lacerating, visionary artist of the terrible things that people do to one another. From the mid-18th century through the first third of the 19th, his life was thick with despotic kings and the Inquisition, with bullfights, scandal, and war. It is Goya’s ability to see that has changed the way we see the world and the way that we see Goya, too.
In fact, the famously opinionated Hughes has been anything but silent. His book, at more than 400 pages, has a tumultuous flow that matches his subject’s life and the largeness of Hughes’ own volatile mind. Throughout, Time magazine’s notorious former art critic Hughes displays his talent for weaving history and artistic biography together with philosophical complexity and drama. Goya is not without a Hughesian machismo—there are numerous musings that go beyond explication regarding women and sex. Of Manuel Godoy, the much-reviled prime minister to King Carlos IV, he writes, “at least you could have some admiration for his sexual potency.” These comments are as distracting as they may be unnecessarily revealing. And for so scrupulously observant a writer, Hughes can be careless about reintroducing people and facts; and at one point he notes that two cats stare hungrily at a bird in the painting Don Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuñiga, when there are clearly three. But these are ultimately small failings in a generously thoughtful book: Hughes is alive to Goya’s powers, and, most important, to the artist’s invention of a cold-eyed clarity in his depictions of war and madness.
Goya’s renown would not be as great if we had only his elegant portraits of the aristocracy or his light-soaked pictures of the gentry at play—so much in the spirit of Fragonard—or his unblemished Christ. The work that helped transform our vision began after he’d gone stone deaf in the early 1790s, when he was in his 40s. Hughes suggests that the isolation brought on by deafness fueled the fury of his art. He became a consummate observer, picturing social folly and lethal havoc, the patrons and the pueblo, the soldiers and the courtesans, with humor, pity, and ruthlessness. His view of the world can seem as much Falstaff’s as Lear’s, with a corrosive bit of Titus Andronicus thrown in. This would be true to the end of his days, when he made his immensely powerful and dour late pictures called the Black Paintings (whose questioned authenticity goes unmentioned by Hughes). But Goya first unleashed the range of his excoriating vision in two series of etchings. There is “Los Caprichos,” done in 1793-96, with its society swells transformed with acerbic wit into donkeys, monkeys, and ghouls. Then there is the awful realism of the hanged, garroted, and hacked figures of the “Disasters of War,” 1810-20 (though unpublished till 1863). And of course there is his Third of May 1808, painted in 1814, whose brushwork has the speed and immediacy of gunfire and a subject—Napoleon’s men putting down a Spanish uprising—that is full of outrage and terror: rape, mutilation, cannibalism, insanity, witchcraft, hypocrisy, corruption … no subject of man’s depravity was left untouched in the brilliant highlights and cavernous darkness of his pictures or in the black-and-white severity of the etchings.
How we see these images today is an issue that interests Hughes, who notes that his mature thinking about Goya began when he came to America from Australia during the Vietnam War. He found that no contemporary American artist spoke as directly and fiercely to the devastation of war as Goya had nearly 200 years before. Hughes calls the “Disasters of War” images “the true ancestors of all great visual war reporting,” and he sees these pictures as finally redemptive. They can lift us out of jadedness into prolonged feeling, as they do for him.
I think otherwise, and I think so precisely because of Goya’s success. The world hasn’t been silent in response to his astonishing images, to the compelling, new way that he saw; it’s been overrun with journalistic pictures of suffering. By now it is a cliché to say that the onslaught of these images in newspapers and magazines, and the broadcasting of war footage on television and on the Web, have made it nearly impossible for any image of suffering to have lasting impact. But it is also true. To look at Goya’s pictures with the rawness of feeling that Hughes claims he has—and I don’t doubt him, I envy him—seems as much a historical artifact as the works themselves. In this regard, Susan Sontag’s recent book-length essay, Regarding the Pain of Others, which features on its cover Goya’s etching Tampoco of a soldier idly pondering a hanged insurgent, is a good companion to Hughes’ biography. Her scrutiny falls primarily on photographs of war, but she asks in essence what has happened to our ability to feel the impact of images of suffering after the advent of Goya. The picture of suffering is meant to evoke sympathy and indignation, even to impute guilt. You should feel this. You should do something about this. Her book is an impassioned dissection of our eventual numbness to the sheer number of these images of conscience and the replacement of engagement with passivity.
Yet Goya’s impact has continued in another way. His imagination for conjuring the craziness buzzing in people’s heads—the fears and violence and perversions—was so deep and detailed that the unruly forces of “Los Caprichos,” the “Disasters of War,” and the Black Paintings have never stopped haunting Western culture. Goya captured this notion of the volcanic force of the irrational in the title of arguably his most famous etching, with its slumbering figure surrounded by bats and owls, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters. From George Grosz to Dalí, from Picasso’s Guernica to David Siqueiros’ Echo of a Scream, up through the Viennese Actionists—whose liberal use of blood and animal entrails thrilled and sickened their 1960s audiences—to Joel-Peter Witkin’s contemporary photographs of mutilated people and Jeff Wall’s dreamlike photo-tableau of dead soldiers talking, and even to Alien, just re-released, whose monster is so much an heir to Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son, the Spaniard’s pitch-black vision is very much alive, or should I say undead.