Francisco Goya: Mortal Designs

Herbert Marder

Reviewed by Guy Tal

25 Sep 2018


Like the young goat that gives the Capri­chos their name, these etch­ings, unpre­dictable as goats leap­ing from boul­der to boul­der among the hills, evoke the painter Fran­cis­co Goya who made them after a sud­den ill­ness. At the height of his fame, he falls into a coma, close to death. The doc­tors have no diag­no­sis. He fights his way back and comes to him­self, forty-six years old, deaf, rid­den by the weight of things. His etch­ings unveil a prophet­ic vision, a lone­li­ness like no oth­er, and when they become known years after Goya’s death — timeless.


Court painter to King Car­los IV, Goya is nursed back to health by a wealthy friend. Ene­mies at court spread rumors … expect­ed not to sur­vive. At least, he’ll nev­er paint again, they say. He ridicules them as soon as he can pick up a brush, paints small can­vas­es, like a jeweler’s uncut stones, reflec­tions of the night­mare he has lived through, and the inner world his pas­sion unveils, a dark core in which the abo­rig­i­nal being is close to extinc­tion. Cab­i­net” paint­ings of real dis­as­ters; exact details for those who have eyes to see: a ship­wreck, bod­ies washed ashore; a pic­a­dor impaled on a bull’s horn like meat on a spit; a coach way­laid by high­way­men, dead pas­sen­gers bleed­ing on the ground; guards in a mad­house mur­der­ing their pris­on­ers, the liv­ing dead. In these works the painter embraces his iso­la­tion, lets his night­mares dri­ve his art. He absorbs the shock of deaf­ness, por­trays him­self as an Every­man who refus­es to be trapped in a fail­ing body. He returns to work, more con­fi­dent in his gift. The hand does not lie. There are no rules in paint­ing,” he writes. The lib­er­at­ed eye speaks the truth and makes known what God has cre­at­ed … the imi­ta­tion of divine nature.”


Cab­i­net paint­ings and final­ly a large-scale paint­ing that turns the con­ven­tions of the church cupo­la upside-down. A dec­o­ra­tive fres­co, por­traits of peo­ple look­ing down, real peo­ple in the dome look­ing down at angels at the four cor­ners of the earth. None of them sun­less, winged crea­tures, they’re real young women — vivid as the neighbor’s daugh­ter. Goya lands like a bird in the nest, piano and strings play­ing in every­thing he touch­es; the ends of his fin­gers play­ing their rhymes. The cupo­la is ded­i­cat­ed to Saint Antho­ny of Pad­ua, a priest who saved his own father by rais­ing a wit­ness from the dead to prove his inno­cence before the court. The leg­end drew crowds to hear his ser­mons, imag­in­ing such elo­quence can rule the under­world. His church — where the apos­tles come alive. When Saint Antho­ny of Pad­ua died chil­dren cried in the street.

The cupo­la shapes Goya’s mor­tal designs. An illu­mi­na­tion with­out words. The Saint in the clouds needs mate­r­i­al things to sanc­ti­fy, singing prais­es of the earth below where beau­ty is born.


Beau­ty sur­vives, knead­ed into the dough of pop­u­lar leg­ends. Goya paints six small can­vas­es, a com­ic strip of a rumor repeat­ed at every street cor­ner. A fri­ar car­ry­ing his sad­dle bags begs for alms at a big coun­try house. The inhab­i­tants are locked in a back room, hands tied behind their backs by a ban­dit whose sin­gle-hand­ed dar­ing is leg­endary. The fri­ar at the door, look­ing the ban­dit in the eye, grabs his mus­ket with both hands. Hard­ened by a beggar’s out­door life, he wrests the gun out of the bandit’s hands and shoots him in the butt with his own gun. Ah father,” says the ban­dit, who would have thought you would betray me thus?…” Alas ami­go, though I showed humil­i­ty on the out­side, on the inside I pos­sessed all the anger of God.” The crim­i­nal on the ground, hands tied behind his back, awaits the hangman’s noose. A hero sto­ry in tune with the times. The inno­cent tri­umph. Good over­comes evil.


His world upside-down, Goya’s engrav­ings of mules rid­ing on the backs of the poor tell the sto­ry of a king­dom weighed down by its after­birth, drag­ging a pri­mal mul­ish­ness on the ground. The blind­ness of the aris­toc­ra­cy as the empire rots under their feet. Eyes are deaf, minds are blind. The court painter sees it from both sides. By the light of the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion, he hears ghosts in back alleys, Goth­ic romances, haunt­ed man­sions. Goya in the light of rea­son says witch­es, hob­gob­lins, boast­ful giants don’t scare him; he shud­ders at the enter­prise of human malev­o­lence. A griz­zled witch rides with a young fol­low­er, half rot­ten before her time, the two as one, dou­ble-mount­ed on a broom by bat-light. Fear rules the night. A broom in the dark kitchen cor­ner shifts behind your back. Farm­yard ani­mals wag bloat­ed snouts as the shad­ows length­en. Goya paints a giant Bil­ly-goat lead­ing a dance of wor­ship­pers. Male witch­es fly over­head, devour­ing the liv­ing flesh of a male offer­ing — vam­pire witch­es feast­ing on blood. He writes a friend with dou­ble-edged ven­om, witch­es are as real as cats.” Vio­lence stains the streets where toughs pro­tect their hon­or with the sword, and the weak hope to pass unno­ticed. Witch­es as real as cats — the king­dom reeks with the smell of blood. Goya eyes things in the air he breathes. Ghosts don’t scare him. He fears hold-ups on any coun­try road in broad daylight.


Goya paints for aris­to­crats who rule over vast estates, a few great fam­i­lies pass­ing down their palaces from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion like feu­dal king­doms. He loves hunt­ing and can match the stead­i­est hands shot for shot. Love of killing birds on the wing cre­ates a bond to the Duke of Osuna. The Duke and Duchess rep­re­sent the avant garde wing of the Span­ish Enlight­en­ment, and the artist is drawn into their orbit. María Jose­fa de la Soledad, Duchess of Osuna, pos­es for her por­trait. The painter’s mag­ic focus­es on an in-depth study of char­ac­ter. She steps right out of the frame, the finest cloths in the world woven into her gown. She wears her fam­i­ly name as the finest orna­ment of all. The Duchess trusts Goya to paint her with immac­u­late real­ism. Face and body are long and thin. The aquiline nose ends in a snub. Her chin is long and dim­pled. The expres­sion in her eyes is direct, full of con­fi­dence. The artist has not stretched the truth. She is no beau­ty but unmis­tak­ably a great lady.

Goya’s rela­tion­ship with anoth­er great lady verges on the sen­ti­men­tal. The leg­end of the beau­ti­ful young Duchess of Alba is linked in pop­u­lar lore with the great artist, a social nobody, the pride of the Majo, a man of the peo­ple. He keeps a por­trait of the Duchess, dressed in black for her hus­band, hid­den in his stu­dio. The wid­ow points impe­ri­ous­ly at the ground. In the soil one reads the mys­ti­fy­ing inscrip­tion, Only Goya.” When the por­trait comes to light after the artist’s death it con­firms the leg­end. Alba’s fam­i­ly pride is a state of oil and water in per­pet­u­al motion. She’s known as a law unto her­self and likes to appear in pub­lic dressed up as a Maja, but the heart of the cha­rade is a pas­toral romance, ancient as time.


The Capri­chos ring with the need to step out­side one­self and proph­esy. Extreme tax­a­tion killed the vil­lages clos­est to the soil and left the coun­try­side bar­ren. The artist’s step is lighter than air, his gift like a sun and moon shin­ing with­in him. He observes the cross­roads of the cap­i­tal; there every­thing is for sale. A street­walk­er ped­dles her wares on the avenue where passers­by take her pres­ence for grant­ed. An old crone, bent halfway to the ground by hunger, tugs at her gown for a few spare coins. The young woman is glanc­ing behind her. Goya scrawls on the etch­ing, God for­give her: and it was her moth­er.” An ordi­nary street scene. Nobody pays any atten­tion. The artist con­veys form and mean­ing by the beauty’s shoes. Some alche­my of his own. Shoes point­ed in oppo­site direc­tions, her thighs ready to spread wide apart. The slight­est frac­tion of an inch marks the dif­fer­ence between one pair of ele­gant shoes and anoth­er. None of the passers­by mis­take the pros­ti­tute for an heiress.


The artist revers­es the still life. Genre paint­ing takes its designs out of nature, con­flat­ing the beau­ti­ful and the pret­ty. Goya paints flow­ers, veg­eta­bles, meat, fish with scrupu­lous real­ism. Bod­ies piled up on the butcher’s block, flow­ers wilt­ing in a vase. In his func­tion as a truth-teller, he etch­es head­less corpses and body parts strung up in a tree, among the count­less dis­as­ters of war. His gift renews con­stant sur­pris­es. Free­dom to paint a wild bird on the butcher’s block, scruffy and stiff with rig­or mor­tis. The same for the human ani­mal. No mean­ing but the dis­ci­pline of art and the painter’s knowl­edge of the body, all its pos­tures and blemishes.

The hand of the past appears in a hard light. Draw­ings of vic­tims shack­led to the wall in imag­i­nary dun­geons. A cos­tume dra­ma in a paint­ing of a court in ses­sion. The Inqui­si­tion in its hey­day when a sum­mons to appear often meant a death sen­tence. Pris­on­ers accused of heresy wear the coroza, a cone-shaped dunce cap. The Lec­tor is read­ing the charges before the court. The Chief Mag­is­trate on the bench nods, yawn­ing with bore­dom, since the ver­dict has been decid­ed in advance. Below him two monks lis­ten intent­ly — func­tionar­ies known as God’s hounds.” A mass of view­ers crowd the pub­lic bench­es. An audi­ence of ordi­nary peo­ple beset by buried mem­o­ries of pris­on­ers shack­led to stone walls. Goya draws hun­dreds of sketch­es, warn­ings of past and future vio­lence in the Kingdom.


The etch­ings backed by a mul­ti­tude of sketch­es com­pose vision-essays, declar­ing rad­i­cal out­rage. An illus­tra­tion remem­bers the past when women were con­vict­ed of heresy for hav­ing been born else­where,” and thou­sands of Protes­tants, refus­ing to renounce their faith, died at the stake. Mul­ti-lev­eled works of art, sound­ing voic­es whose protest endures. The artist uses oth­er fac­ul­ties, sen­su­al­i­ty sharp­ened by deaf­ness, vibra­tions unknown to oth­ers. The mer­ci­less bells of the Inqui­si­tion are echo­ing. Star­va­tion in war-time, a woman in the city, despair­ing, becomes a nun. Tax­a­tion wast­ing the vil­lages. A peas­ant unable to feed his fam­i­ly drops his hoe on the ground and looks up to heav­en. Goya writes, cry­ing will get you nowhere.” A woman and child are kid­napped on a coun­try road by a man with a knife. God save us from such a fate.” Killing blends into the nat­ur­al land­scape. In Los Dis­parates, the Fol­lies,” an expe­ri­enced swords­man is pit­ted against a younger foe. Each instinc­tive­ly gath­ers all his forces —“A Duel to the Death” — the elder’s cun­ning ver­sus the youth’s speed­i­er reflex­es. A sud­den moment before the remains of the day.


Let­ting go, he holds on. The wind car­ries him back in time He rebuilds, replac­ing shin­gles on a roof. Sees down through the base­ment floor and holds on to the gift. His hand impos­es its own bot­tom line. He fol­lows his call­ing — finds the courage not to curse beau­ty in the midst of war. Beau­ty lives side by side with can­ni­bal­ism. Hero­ism needs the guil­lo­tine. They’re twinned in his mind.


Napoleon comes into the coun­try to aid the fail­ing Span­ish King, but when the French squadrons are in posi­tion the Emper­or shows his real inten­tions. He makes his old­er broth­er the new King of Spain. A guer­ril­la war engulfs the nation for six years. Goya helps shape an atmos­phere, turn­ing the Penin­su­lar War into a nation­al epic. He paints a human Colos­sus,” a giant ema­na­tion ris­ing from the Span­ish soil. On the plain below him, tiny paint­ed fig­ures scur­ry in all direc­tions. The cru­sade spreads while Span­ish troops are still fight­ing the invad­ing army. In the people’s war moth­ers defend their chil­dren with kitchen knives and home-made trun­cheons. Goya’s etch­ings in The Dis­as­ters of War” are too real to be shown in pub­lic — urgent bul­letins he keeps to him­self, things he saw or heard on the grape-vine about human ani­mals, truths more sav­age than any­thing he could invent.


A pub­lic record appears in his paint­ings. Gueril­la fight­ers in the woods pre­pare to ambush mount­ed sol­diers, then merge back into their vil­lages, an entire­ly new design, under­ground resis­tance. In the coun­try­side a woman car­ries her water jug to the Span­ish troops still fight­ing. A vil­lage black­smith, the sparks fly­ing from his forge, ham­mers out the future. An itin­er­ant knife grinder car­ries the inex­orable rota­tion of his wheel from vil­lage to vil­lage, a peas­ant defy­ing Napoleon’s blood hounds.

Goya doesn’t believe bat­tle enno­bles. It’s a patri­ot­ic myth to snare young recruits. He con­fess­es him­self capa­ble of the same sins. We are all wild ani­mals. Killing is embed­ded in the human psy­che. The tor­sos with­out limbs, the sev­ered heads hang­ing on a tree wear no uni­forms. An artist for all occa­sions, he has a warn­ing for colo­nial empires. An ora­cle whose time has not yet come. Deaf­ness adds oth­er cours­es. Goya the artist stays above the bat­tle and con­ceives epic can­vas­es. An indif­fer­ent fire. The gods with­in real­ize their own exis­tence. All the sens­es height­ened by ter­ror. Napoleon’s Mamelukes, wear­ing white tur­bans, halos of a for­eign legion killing every­one in their way, mer­ce­nar­ies stamp­ing out ants. The artist’s faith calls him as a wit­ness. Truth and beau­ty roll along, sunspots gen­er­at­ing solar winds. Empires rot on the ground. The sky unfurls wings of dark­ness over Spain.


Beyond the Dis­as­ters of War,” Goya paints big can­vas­es of the rebel­lion on the 2nd and 3rd of May 1808. The first paint­ing cap­tures the fren­zy of bat­tle by imi­tat­ing chaos. For­mal form­less­ness. Fury and revenge in bat­tle con­ceal­ing none of the excesses.

The painter hon­ors life itself in the 3rd of May can­vas. An imper­son­al fir­ing squad exe­cutes a peas­ant with his arms spread high, glar­ing and defi­ant, the dead piled on the ground around him, an unknown Christ on the cross. Goya designs a paint­ing cooked in a new way that looks raw. The com­po­si­tion makes an indeli­ble impres­sion. A scene that pro­vides details an eye-wit­ness might remem­ber, nei­ther too many nor too few. A syn­the­sis of all-encom­pass­ing real­i­ty. Every­thing in the world is on fire. The mate­r­i­al world is on fire: the tame and the wild in a bull fight; the bloody spikes. The cru­ci­fix­ion is on fire.


Goya real­izes his own dark core of lone­li­ness, the liv­ing dead in the under­world. A key Capri­cho says The sleep of rea­son pro­duces mon­sters.” The ani­mals in the etch­ing — bats, owls, lynx — appear as sym­bols and images. A man of the Enlight­en­ment, Goya empha­sizes the bal­ance between night­mares and wak­ing in the light of day, every­thing stark­ly high­light­ed in this most back­ward of empires, the painter back­lit and lapped by fan­tasies, myths, as his art takes fire. The com­plex­i­ties of fable and real­i­ty spin­ning like a top.

The romance of the genius Goya and the beau­ti­ful young Duchess of Alba takes root in the earth. Gone to a dis­tant coun­try in France, sight fail­ing, the painter effaces him­self. All I’ve got left is will.” He is an instru­ment, sketch­ing minia­tures. An old man on a swing, his horny feet pump­ing high in the air, lips in a crazy grin. A leg­less beg­gar rid­ing on a cart, undaunt­ed, mouth open in an o.” A burly dancer called Fire spread­ing his arms, stub­by fin­gers high in the air over no-man’s‑land.

Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (1746–1828), plate 43 from Los Caprichos: The sleep of reason produces monsters (El sueño de la razon produce monstruos), 1799. Etching, aquatint, drypoint, and burin. Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, NY).


By Guy Tal

How should we write of the life of an artist such as Fran­cis­co Goya? Her­bert Marder’s approach to Goya takes the form of a col­lage. The text is nei­ther ana­lyt­i­cal nor com­pre­hen­sive. Dates, names, and places are scarce, and works of art receive brief accounts. Instead, Marder offers us a rapid, albeit cap­ti­vat­ing tour through Goya’s oeu­vre, one that evokes the essence of his art, both in con­tent and in tone. Focus­ing on the artist’s pri­ma­ry media of paint­ings, prints, and draw­ings, Marder does not lim­it him­self to the great­est hits”: he prefers the small, paint­ed series of The Fri­ar and the Ban­dit to the cel­e­brat­ed pen­dants of The Clothed Maja and The Nude Maja, and he brings atten­tion to a draw­ing of a ban­dit kid­nap­ping a woman and a child rather than the icon­ic Sat­urn Devour­ing his Son from the so-called Black Paint­ings.” Nor does Marder cov­er Goya’s entire career. His pre-ill­ness works, includ­ing the sev­en sets of tapes­try car­toons made between 1775 and 1792, are com­plete­ly omit­ted, per­haps because, in their pas­toral scenes and Roco­co col­ors, they strike the mod­ern eyes as less Goy­aesque” than his lat­er works. Marder’s cura­to­r­i­al selec­tions from over eigh­teen-hun­dred works by Goya nev­er­the­less result in a rep­re­sen­ta­tive sam­ple of diverse gen­res, from por­trai­ture and his­to­ry to every­day life scenes and fan­ta­sy, pop­u­lat­ed with a stun­ning cast of char­ac­ters: a vil­lage black­smith,” an itin­er­ant knife grinder,” a griz­zled witch,” vic­tims shack­led to the wall,” an imper­son­al fir­ing squad,” a great lady,” a leg­less beg­gar,” a burly dancer.”

Goya’s oeu­vre has been fre­quent­ly approached in terms of bina­ry oppo­sites. This, for instance, rever­ber­ates in titles of Goya exhi­bi­tions: Truth and Fan­ta­sy” (Museo del Pra­do, 1993), Light and Shade” (Nation­al Muse­um of West­ern Art, Tokyo, 2011), Order and Dis­or­der” (Fine Arts Muse­um, Boston, 2014), and Day­dreams and Night­mares” (Israel Muse­um, 2016). Con­sis­tent with this ten­den­cy, Marder locates Goya’s works on a fact/​fiction con­tin­u­um, using such words as truth,” real,” immac­u­late real­ism,” and scrupu­lous real­ism” along­side night­mares,” imag­i­na­tion,” and fable,” while also invok­ing con­trasts such as beau­ty and can­ni­bal­ism,” hero­ism and the guil­lo­tine,” and tame and wild.” Sig­nif­i­cant­ly, how­ev­er, Marder trans­forms this con­ven­tion by blend­ing fact and fic­tion in his prose.

For his­to­ri­ans, the abil­i­ty to parse fact from fic­tion is a basis of exper­tise, and for art his­to­ri­ans that requires inti­mate acquain­tance with images. Those who read Mor­tal Designs” in con­junc­tion with observ­ing Goya’s art may spot some incon­sis­ten­cies. But giv­en Marder’s cre­ative license, more reward­ing than mere­ly point­ing them out would be to reflect on what they sug­gest. For exam­ple, the com­ment on a paint­ing in the Muse­um of Fine Arts, Budapest, reads: In the coun­try­side a woman car­ries her water jug to the Span­ish troops still fight­ing.” Despite the con­fi­dence of Marder’s state­ment, the paint­ing is devoid of any sign of bat­tle, let alone troops. Its date and the woman’s mon­u­men­tal­i­ty, achieved by her por­tray­al from a low angle, must have led the writer (and a few art his­to­ri­ans) to imag­ine her as a war hero­ine. Anoth­er paint­ing, The Witch­es’ Sab­bath in the Museo Lázaro Gal­diano, Madrid, is described as a giant Bil­ly-goat lead­ing a dance of wor­ship­pers.” Rather than danc­ing, the witch­es are in fact seat­ed on the ground, offer­ing the dev­il fetus­es and new­born babies. This dis­par­i­ty is nonethe­less illu­mi­nat­ing. The enclos­ing ring of fig­ures, the bright col­or­ing, the min­i­mal land­scape, and the light­heart­ed atmos­phere resem­ble Goya’s ear­li­er tapes­try car­toons of out­door danc­ing scenes (Dance on the Banks of the Man­zanares and Blind Man’s Bluff, both in the Pra­do). These com­po­si­tion­al par­al­lels impart cheer­ful­ness and friv­o­li­ty to the demon­ic con­gre­ga­tion, there­by negat­ing its credibility.

The fusion of descrip­tion and inter­pre­ta­tion rais­es a broad­er ques­tion: To what extent should — or could — accounts of Goya and his works be infor­ma­tive, detailed, and pre­cise? Is it not essen­tial to men­tion, for instance, that the young woman who glances back at a poor crone in an etch­ing from the Capri­chos also gazes at the view­er? Is it suf­fi­cient to explain that the Span­ish vic­tim in the Third of May 1808 is an unknown Christ on the cross” by refer­ring only to his out­stretched arms and not to the stig­ma­ta pierc­ing his open palms? Of course, even a metic­u­lous ekphra­sis can­not be com­plete­ly iden­ti­cal to the image it describes, just as a biog­ra­phy is not iden­ti­cal to the life it recounts — though both may be true in a dif­fer­ent way, as much through what is said as what is not.


Her­bert Marder is a poet, painter, and emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Urbana-Cham­paign, where he taught lit­er­a­ture and rhetoric. He is the author of Fem­i­nism and Art: A Study of Vir­ginia Woolf (Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go Press, 1968) and The Mea­sure of Life: Vir­ginia Woolf’s Last Years (Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2000). In 1970, Marder and his wife, singer Nor­ma Marder, co-found­ed the New Ver­bal Work­shop, an exper­i­men­tal ensem­ble con­ceived as a plat­form for explor­ing speech­mu­sic.” For more than a decade, the New Ver­bal Work­shop brought togeth­er an evolv­ing per­son­nel of trained per­form­ers and ama­teurs, who devel­oped a reper­toire of orig­i­nal com­po­si­tions through col­lec­tive impro­vi­sa­tion. The ensem­ble also per­formed exper­i­men­tal music by dis­tin­guished con­tem­po­rary com­posers Ken­neth Gaburo and Ben John­ston.
Email: marder@​illinois.​edu

Guy Tal is a Senior Lec­tur­er of Art His­to­ry in the Unit for His­to­ry and Phi­los­o­phy of Art, Design, and Tech­nol­o­gy at Shenkar Col­lege, Israel. He received a Ph.D. from Indi­ana Uni­ver­si­ty Bloom­ing­ton in 2006 for his dis­ser­ta­tion Witch­es on Top: Mag­ic, Pow­er, and Imag­i­na­tion in the Art of Ear­ly Mod­ern Italy.” Focus­ing on witch­craft, imag­i­na­tion, body lan­guage, gen­der, and oth­er­ness in ear­ly mod­ern Ital­ian and Span­ish art, his arti­cles and reviews have been pub­lished in venues as Print Quar­ter­ly, Source: Notes in the His­to­ry of Art, Six­teenth Cen­tu­ry Jour­nal, and Art­ibus et His­to­ri­ae (forth­com­ing). His essays on Goya include The Ges­tur­al Lan­guage in Fran­cis­co Goya’s Sleep of Rea­son Pro­duces Mon­sters” in Word & Image (2010), An Enlight­ened’ View of Witch­es: Melan­choly and Delu­sion­ary Expe­ri­ence in Goya’s Spell” in Zeitschrift für Kun­st­geschichte (2012), and Demon­ic Pos­ses­sion in the Enlight­en­ment: Goya’s Fly­ing Witch­es” in Mag­ic, Rit­u­al, and Witch­craft (2016).
Email: guy1tal1@​hotmail.​com