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The dream of reason produces monsters

August 20, 2010 - 9:00am -- Nick Young

A day is not long to spend in Madrid, and the two hours we can spare for the Museo del Prado are hardly sufficient, so we ignore most of its treasures and concentrate on Goya.

The western world reconfigured itself profoundly during Goya’s long life (1746-1828), sketching the outlines of a modernity that would last well into the 20th century. His work not only depicts and ‘interrogates’ the era but, in the astonishing progressions of subject, technique and medium, also reflects its restlessness. It’s all innovative: from the early tapestry studies of outdoor leisure, through the court portraits, the ‘capricious’ etchings of sexual, social and religious violence, the Disasters of War etchings, to, finally, the deaf old man’s ‘dark’ period, which produced not only monsters but also moments of great compassion and enigmatic beauty (most strangely of all, perhaps, in The Dog: it beggars belief that this was painted two centuries ago.)

The portraits bring courtly soap opera to life. The Duchess of Alba, Spain’s richest and most glamorous widow, is everywhere. It’s not so much the formal portraits as the snapshot of her ladyship taunting a pious, old maidservant that shows us how besotted the middle-aged painter was. (That snapshot was in oils; dozens of quick sketches—including a particularly exquisite one of la duquesa bundling up her ample hair—are scattered across the world’s richest galleries.) And despite the lack of hard evidence to confirm the rumour, she certainly looks like the model for the famous Naked Maja, the first Spanish painting to present a woman’s body ‘full frontal’ and without the narrative veil of classical mythology or Scripture to justify the unblinking revelation of flesh. This picture, the blurb says, was commissioned by and hung in the private study of Manuel Godoy, prime minister to Charles IV and lover to his Queen, Maria Luisa. Goya also painted Godoy’s wife, the convent-schooled Countess of Chinchón: pale, pretty, pregnant, feet hidden by a long dress in the French style (as opposed to the local, maja cut, which left the feet and ankles visible and more free to move about.) Women bound, women unbound. And there’s a portrait of the royal family too, in which the cuckold King stands apart, structurally divorced from his ageing Queen and her youngest, presumably bastard, child.

How did Goya get away with painting so much truth? No doubt the celebrities of the day wanted ‘media’ coverage as much as ours do. Interesting that they were no more able to control it.

Then in blows Napoleon on a great wave of Egalité and efficient slaughter, and Spain’s not-bad 18th century reverts to a story of imperial trauma and inner strife that will continue until the death of Franco. But Goya’s canvases of war and insurrection, and the etchings that followed, are naked of historical conceit, just looking at this violence in the face. Perhaps no-one has done so much to show that bad things—bad things outside the realm of heavenly displeasure and within the realm of human stupidity and venality—can be painted and need to be.

Plate 43 in the earlier set of etchings, Los Caprichos, and originally intended as that collection’s frontispiece, shows the artist slumped asleep at his desk with owls rising nightmarishly behind. It bears the legend ‘El sueño de la razón produce monstruous’ which is generally translated as ‘the sleep of reason produces monsters.’ This does not seem right to me. Leastwise, it can easily be misheard as normative, making Goya a banal spokesman for Enlightenment, urging vigilance against unReason. Whereas I think he understood perfectly well, and meant, that Reason has a dark side, as inseparable from it as night from day, and that we cannot stay awake forever.

Kampala, August 20, 2010