These days, in which we have been getting ready for Halloween, I decided to go and see Goya and his Black Paintings to understand why they cause so much terror.
Francisco de Goya y Lucientes was born in Fuendetodos, Zaragoza, in 1746, and died in Bordeaux, France, in 1828. He is one of the greatest geniuses of universal painting and a pioneer of many art tendencies that came later. His work includes easel painting, mural painting, cardboard for tapestries, engraving, and drawing. In all these facets, he developed a style that initiated Romanticism. Goya’s art is the beginning of contemporary painting and the precursor of the pictorial avant-gardes of the twentieth century.
Understanding Black Paintings: Goya’s Artistic Career
His teachers and the historic moment are key to understand the work of an artist. Allow me to make a small summary to better understand how and why, in the midst of a sordid disease, Goya painted the Black Paintings.
In his youth, his work was optimistic and luminous; his paintings were colorful and strong. Most of the works during this time were cardboards for tapestry, since Goya worked in the real Tapestry Factory (1775-1792). The topics he painted about were pilgrimages, games, sports, and popular dances. His landmark was Velázquez. Goya used Velazquez’s ingenious light touches, aerial perspective, and a naturalistic drawing style inspired in the seventeenth century’s great master.
Throughout the 1780s, he came into contact with Madrid’s high society, becoming its trendy portraiture.
In 1785, Goya was appointed Lieutenant Director of Painting of the Academy of San Fernando, and in 1789, after painting the portrait of the newly ascended King Carlos IV, he was named King’s House Painter, which allowed him to perform official portraits of The Royal Family.
He also did paintings about religious, social, and political topics. In his paintings, Goya reflected an incipient preoccupation for the working class. He spoke not only of pre-Romantic influences and concerns, but also of his level of assimilation of the ideology of the enlightened he frequented.
In a speech at the Academy (1792), Goya expressed his ideas regarding artistic creation. It was a declaration of principles in favor of originality, of giving free rein to invention, and a claim of an absolute pre-Romantic character. Goya professed the predominance of feeling upon reason, the rejection of “rules” upon free invention, and his preference for esoteric and mysterious topics in his paintings upon nature topics. He was taking the road that would culminate in Black Paintings.
Emergence of Black Paintings
In 1793, after his illness, Goya did his best to create other works that weren’t related to his obligations acquired by his position in the Court. He resigned from his academic duties at the Royal Academy of San Fernando, in 1797, but he was named academic of honor in return.
In 1799, Goya created a series of satirical prints: The Whims. This engraving had a romantic and contemporary style. Goya created a dramatic and disturbing lighting legacy of Rembrandt’s work by combining etching with aquatint. With these “capricious matters”, he tried to spread the ideology of the intellectual minority of the Enlightenment. They denoted a clear anti-clericalism and a criticism of Spain’s universal and particular vices at the time.
Unlike the prints, in the Black Paintings there are no slogans to guide us, and the canvas has an interpretative ambiguity.
Goya and Black Paintings
Goya witnessed one of the most intense periods in the history of Spain. It was a time of struggles and tensions, in which attempts were made to reform the Ilustration, the conservative reaction following the French Revolution, the Court’s conspiracies, the War of Independence, the abolition of the Constitution of 1812 and absolutism, the Liberal Triennium, and, finally, the absolutist restoration, with which the Inquisition was also reinstated.
Goya, who is a court painter, lived these events very closely. His work is under too much tension, economic concerns, and physical, emotional, and conviction crises. Goya supported profound changes in the country, which lead him to join the Enlightenment, the Francophiles, and, finally, the Liberals, ending in exile.
In the final stage of his life, his deafness increased, he had problems with the Inquisition, he isolated, and he ended up self-exiled. In his work we can see a remarkable contradiction between his public and private production. In the latter he didn’t have to protect himself from the conservative, clerical, and monarchical censorship. He manifested his critical spirit in the topics he chose to paint, and he experimented without fear, painting courageous chronicles of his time. On the other hand, in his public work, he was more coerced by the clientele’s demands, but little by little he also introduced in there the innovations of his private work.
During this time of seclusion, isolation, and deafness, he made the Black Paintings (1819-1823); he painted with dark, somber colors on the walls of his country side house, “Quinta del Sordo” (“Deaf’s House”). In this series of oil paintings on dry wall, he anticipated contemporary painting and the various avant-garde movements that would mark the twentieth century.
The Black Paintings are fourteen mural paintings in which the search for the phantasmatic manifests through dark tones with a deliberate distortion of the figures, which brings Goya’s expressionism. He painted old age, madness, death, he satirizes religion, denounces civil strife, and painted the State devouring its subjects (Saturn Devouring His Children). In Black Paintings, he painted duelists, assumptions friars, nuns, the Inquisition; all of this is represented by an old world, prior to the French Revolution’s ideals.
Truth is, Black Paintings were painted over landscape and rustic images he had already painted on the walls, like in Duel with Cudgels.
They are badly damaged, especially the larger ones, due to the process needed to uproot them from the walls (using the “strappo” technique), take them to Paris, and finally transfer them to Madrid as a donation from the baron Fréderic Emile d’Erlanger.
Almost a couple of centuries have passed since its production. Some elements are missing and some others were added during the restoration process. There are many studies going on to determine the differences between what the murals look nowadays and how they were back then, before being “doctored”.
Black Paintings and The Freedom of Contemporary Art
Technically, these paintings represent a total mastery of plastic with astounding audacity. With them, Goya takes a step forward into art history, since the black stain makes the line disappear and most colors and symbols displace solid and real shapes. The brushstrokes are pasty, thick, long, fast, and expressionist; he even uses the spatula to apply color.
The composition of these pictures is new; the figures are usually off-centered (Heads in a Landscape). Such an imbalance is a sign of its compositional modernity.
Black Paintings are nocturnal: they show no light, day dies, and black predominates as background, directly relating to the death of the light. All of this generates a feeling of pessimism, tremendous vision, enigma, and unreal space.
The chromatic range is reduced to ocher, gold, earth, gray, and black; white is only used in the clothing to give contrast; blue is used in the skies; and green is barely used. Goya painted with intense emotionality; actually, what matters the most to him are not the bodies, but the characters’ expressions. Their factions represent reflective or ecstatic attitudes. To this second state, the figures respond with eyes wide open, the pupils surrounded with white paint, and open jaws as in caricatured faces of grotesque animals. Ugly is shown, the terrible, beauty is no longer the object of art, but the pathos and a certain conscience to show all aspects of human life without discarding the most disagreeable.
It can be said that, in this series, Goya went further than ever with his revolutionary and new art conception.
Black Paintings and Weekly Workshop
As you might know, every time I approach art, I share this experience with a group that includes my daughters, my father, my friends, and whoever is interested in joining us.
It’s almost Halloween, and we celebrate it every year: it’s one of my daughters’ favorite time of the year. This Halloween we will do it my way. We are going to visit Prado Museum in search of terror. In the room of Goya’s Black Paintings, we will find darkness. I will propose a game to them: look for the most terrifying face. Then, at home, at our experimentation table, they will have watercolor paper, pencils, and watercolors to capture what that face inspired them.
Would you like to join us?
Photo: Olha Turukina
Concept: Carolina Verd