Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828) was one of the greatest artists of all time. But he was more than just a painter. His paintings are a priceless document of the history of the Spanish people. He painted the world in which he lived, and he painted it in terms of uncompromising realism. His entire outlook was shaped by the dramatic events that were unfolding on the world scale. Goya's work is not that of an isolated artist but of a great human being committed to the cause of humanity. He was shaped by great historical events - the French revolution, the Napoleonic wars, the ferocious struggle for national independence and the movement for liberal reform that followed it, a movement that was brutally crushed by the forces of darkness, obscurantism and reaction.
The old world in Europe was destroyed by the French Revolution, which aroused the hopes and sharpened the aspirations of the best elements in Spanish society - including Goya. They longed for progress, for liberty and a constitution. But the invasion of Spain by the French set in train a series of events that were a living nightmare for the Spanish people - a nightmare that found its mirror image in the paintings of Goya.
Born of humble parents in the poor, stony village of Fuendetodos in the region of Aragon, he studied under José Martinez in Zaragoza, from where he was forced to flee after a conflict with the authorities. This man, apart from an artistic genius, was a born rebel. There is a strain of stubbornness in the man that is a typical trait of the Aragonese character. At the age of 29 he went to Madrid, which became henceforth the centre of his personal and artistic world. In 1785 Goya became the sub-director of the Royal Academy of San Fernando. Then in 1788 came his big breakthrough: Charles IV ascended to the throne, together with his Italian wife, Maria Luisa, and Goya became court painter to Charles IV and later to Ferdinand VII.
It is impossible to understand Goya without some knowledge of the situation in Spain at that time. By the late 18th century Spain was a very backward part of Europe, lagging economically, politically and culturally behind England and France. Having lost most of her empire, Spain settled down into what Marx called a "long and ignoble decline". As Trotsky explains:
"The discovery of America, which at first enriched and strengthened Spain, subsequently worked against it. The great routes of commerce were diverted from the Iberian Peninsula. Following Holland, England rose to great heights over Europe for a long time. By the beginning of the second half of the 16th century, Spain had already begun to decline. This decline assumed an official character, so to speak, with the destruction of the Great Armada (1588)." (Trotsky, The Revolution in Spain, 1931.)
Nevertheless, the Bourbon monarchs of Spain, like other European monarchs, had tried to introduce elements of Enlightenment, copied from the French Illustration. This was, after all, an age when absolute monarchs like Frederick of Prussia and Catherine of Russia flirted with the Enlightenment, played musical instruments and corresponded with Voltaire. It was the fashionable thing to do - at least until 1789. Charles III even passed a decree ordering the expulsion of the Jesuits from Spain. But the mass of the population, the peasantry, remained sunk in the morass of obscurantism, under the baneful influence of ignorant and fanatical priests.
Eighteenth century Spain was not like other European countries. Marx wrote that it was more similar to Asiatic despotism. The centralised bureaucratic regime of absolutism rested on a myriad of local and regional authorities, each jealously defending its particular powers and privileges. The struggle between centrifugal and centripetal tendencies began in the Middle Ages and has not been completely resolved even today. It reappears in different guises at each stage of Spanish history, first as the struggle for the fueros, then as the Carlist wars in the 19th century, and lastly as the national question of the Basques, Catalans and Galicians. At bottom, the inability of the centralised monarchy in Madrid to successfully unite Spain was also the product of economic backwardness, that manifested itself among other things by the poor state of the roads that disrupted trade and communications for centuries.
Despite its chronic backwardness, Spain was always conscious of its glorious past and attempted to keep up appearances. In 1746 Ferdinand VI came to the throne, which he occupied till 1759, and he pursued this line of cultural assimilation, but with disastrous results. Partly from national pride, but partly as a result of centuries of ignorance and superstition, the Spanish people resented the intrusion of foreign influences. They even opposed such alien impositions as lighted streets, cleanliness, etc. They trampled trees that had been planted in the streets. In this rebelliousness they were actively encouraged by the clergy and a section of the nobility hostile to the Bourbons.
The revolutionary temper of the people sometimes revealed itself in the most extraordinary manner. In the early paintings of Goya the image of the swaggering majo, with his face swathed in his cloak is a very frequent image. A typical example is the painting The Maja and the Masked Man. These men were very characteristic of Spain at the time. Although they dressed up like dandies, with fancy shoes, stockings, knee-britches, a large sash and a huge, long cape, they were really tough street-wise brawlers. The majos and majas were members of the lower class, but they did not see it like that. Proud and insolent, they were liable to explode at the slightest provocation. These were people that were better left alone.
But the foreigners at court did not have a good understanding of the temper of the Spanish people, whom they regarded more or less as barbarians. An order of the king's Italian minister Esquilache limiting the length of men's cloaks and the size of their sombreros was a just a measure intended to improve the security on the streets of Madrid, where assassins and thieves could hide their knives and their identities behind their cloaks and broad hats. But for the ordinary people of Madrid this decree was one step too far. It almost led to an insurrection. In 1766 the smouldering anger of the people finally erupted in serious rioting in Madrid against Esquilache's order.
Here we have one of the many contradictions that make the history of Spain such a fascinating kaleidoscope of conflicting tendencies, resembling the Arab mosaics that decorate the Alhambra in its swirling complexities. We frequently observe reactionary tendencies mixed up with progressive and revolutionary developments. Nowhere was this clearer than in the period of Spain's national liberation struggle against Napoleonic France. We see the same phenomenon in other European states at this time, but nowhere in such a sharp focus. The ferocious heroism displayed by the Spanish peasant masses in the struggle for national independence was mixed with a fanatical adherence to the "old ways" and the old religion. This ensured that the people's victory against Napoleon led not to freedom but to a new period of absolutist slavery, interrupted by revolutions, civil wars, convulsions and military coups (pronunciamientos). Trotsky characterised it as "degenerated absolutism limited by coups".
At the beginning of Goya's career, when he was a rising young artist, the monarchy appeared to be firmly in the saddle and even to be in a kind of late Renaissance. Charles III was not the worst of the Bourbon kings of Spain. He had renounced the throne of Naples in order to secure the far juicier morsel on the Iberian Peninsula. And he brought with him his favourite Italian architects who designed most of the best-known monuments that can be seen in Madrid today, including the celebrated fountains of Cibeles and Neptune, the Puerta del Sol and the Puerta de Alcalá. In 1788, one year before the French revolution, he introduced street lighting, sewers, and the system of night-watchmen known as serenos.
The court aspired to a cultural and artistic life on a level with Paris and Versailles and was prepared to pay for it. This explains Goya's rapid promotion. By the time of Goya's birth, Spanish painting had declined almost as much as the country itself. The great tradition of Velazquez had been lost, and the Bourbons were reduced to importing foreign painters to fill the void. With Goya we see an astonishing rebirth of Spanish art. Not only did the young Goya possess a remarkable technique. His subject matter was original, and, most important of all, rooted in the Spanish people, accurately reflecting its life-style, attitudes and traditions. However, his early career was modest - consisting mainly of designs for tapestries. He created approximately 50 tapestry cartoons that already contain the germ of his future development.
The image of Madrid at that time was conveyed with wonderful life and colour by the paintings of the young Goya. Here we find a light-hearted vision of life where the sun is always shining and the skies are always blue (see the Gallery). Here the people are all young and happy, enjoying life without a care in the world, with no thought for the future, as is the case generally with young people. The men - typical Madrid machos, or rather majos - are proud and handsome. The women - the majas - are all young and beautiful.
It is poignant to think that in just a few years this beautiful dream was to be blown sky-high. These young men and women do not realise that they are dancing on the edge of a volcano. Just beyond the horizon, invisible to the eye, black storm clouds are gathering. The Chinese say that it is a misfortune to be born in interesting times. It was the personal misfortune of Goya to have lived in an age of storm and stress. This was a period of wars and revolution. Yet from another point of view it turned a very good artist into an artist of genius. For better perhaps than any other artist in history, Goya expressed the spirit of the revolutionary times in which he lived. Studying his remarkable paintings one feels the hot breath of war and revolution, the terror and the passion, the misery and despair - all expressed with searing intensity.
However, the paintings of Goya's early period give almost no hint of this dark future. It is a beautiful world of colour, sunshine and laughter. Here we have carefree scenes of drunken peasants at harvest time, young lads and lasses courting, bunches of grapes (see the Gallery), young people playing blind man's buff, characters on stilts. Here all is sweetness and light - lots of light, the bright light that constantly streams from the sun of Spain and brightens the life of its people. The strong sunlight gives us bright colours, and these early paintings are full of colour, movement and life.
A revolutionary in life as well as in art, Goya must have resented having to spend most of his time painting portraits of the king and his family. Goya preferred to paint ordinary people, but he earned his money by painting portraits of the aristocracy and the royal family. And what portraits they were! His portraits of the royal family are exquisitely observed, down to the last detail of the lace and embroidered silk. These portraits are masterly, but it is also clear that he took his revenge on his royal patrons in the cruellest possible manner - by painting them exactly as they were. His merciless realism shows them as stupid and pompous creatures.
His painting The Family of Charles IV (See the Gallery) is a model of mockery. The magnificence of their dress, shown in every detail, cannot for a moment conceal their emptiness as human beings. The famous Bourbon trait - a "foolish hanging of the nether lip" - is much in evidence. Gautier said they were like "pictures of some grocer who has just won the lottery". But the satire was so subtly done that the subjects suspected nothing. Indeed, they accepted these portraits with gratitude. This suggests that in real life they were even more ugly and stupid than they appear in these paintings!
Up to 1792 it seems that Goya's personal life resembled that of the people depicted in his paintings. He seems to have been as carefree as they - a bon viveur and a womaniser. Goya painted numerous portraits of the Duchess of Alba, a very handsome woman and there were rumours of a love affair. These stories are unsubstantiated, though there are clues suggesting at least an attachment on the artist's part in one of the paintings, where the duchess is portrayed in black mourning clothes (her husband had just died). She is wearing two rings (see the Gallery). One of them is inscribed "Goya", the other "Alba", and she is pointing to a dedication that reads Sólo Goya - "Only Goya". However that may be, the subject of the celebrated twin paintings of the Maja, with and without clothes, was not the Duchess but another woman - possibly one of the mistress of Godoy, the Spanish prime minister. Goya never revealed her identity, but whoever she was, he made her immortal.
Today it is difficult to realise just how revolutionary this painting was at the time. Since Spain had almost no tradition of paintings of nude women (Velazquez's famous Venus of the mirror is an exception), this was a very daring thing to do. Goya was defying the orders of the Church and the Inquisition. For its enticing sensuousness the Naked Maja has few equals in world art. Here we are still in that marvellous world of sweetness and light, of youth and love, of radiant beauty and colour that celebrates the human form in all its glory, in defiance of the prejudices of religion and society. It says to us: let us live and love, for life is short. Just how short, however, Goya did not realise. For this was already a doomed world, tottering on an abyss.
Gallery). These paintings are full of humanity and a feeling for the suffering of ordinary people.Even in these early paintings, despite their generally carefree tone, there are hints of darkness and the fragility of human life. There is a wonderful painting of an accident at work, where an injured building worker is being carefully carried away by his workmates. And there is an even more remarkable painting, which in its style and content anticipates the paintings of Picasso's blue period, of a group of people struggling through the snow, against a strong wind. The sense of cold is intense and is accentuated by the presence of a small dog, cringing against the wind (see the
In 1792 he painted a self-portrait at 46 years of age (see the Gallery). He is dressed in a bullfighter's jacket - it is a depiction of the artist as a man of the people. His interest in bullfighting was natural for a Spaniard of this time, when it occupied a position analogous with that of football today. But there was also a symbolic element here: the idea of the unending struggle of man against the beast, which is developed in his famous series of etchings, the Tauromachia. The struggle between man and bull is also the struggle against the forces of savagery and animal instincts. It is a struggle that emphasises the fragility of human existence, as the isolated matador confronts the huge bulk of a bull, maddened with pain. It is a theme that was repeated and developed in the work of Picasso, notably in Guernica.
The carefree phase of Goya's life came to an end in 1792 when a serious illness left him totally deaf. The onset of deafness must have had a profound effect on his outlook on life. In place of the former cheerfulness there is a more thoughtful approach to life, a degree of introversion, or "inwardness" that was absent before. Deprived of one of the key senses, the artist compensates by penetrating deeper into his comprehension of the world and his innermost being. Whereas in the early paintings life is seen through the innocent eyes of youth, uncoloured by the tragedies of human existence, we now see a darker element. It is as if previously Goya saw only appearances, and now begins to penetrate into the essence that lies beyond the world of mere appearance. The result is not always pretty, but it is truer.
In the series known as Los Caprichos - the Caprices - there is a qualitative leap. The world of the majas and majos, of sunshine and grapes, of love and laughter, has disappeared. In stead we have already a world of witches and devils. We have the Inquisition (see the Gallery) that still dominated Spain with its tortures and autos de fe - the mass burning of heretics that filled the public squares with the acrid stench of burning flesh. Even in his earlier paintings Goya displayed his hatred of the Inquisition. His paintings of autos de fe were a silent denunciation of ignorance and superstition from the standpoint of the Enlightenment.
There is a similar darker view of human relationships. In the early paintings the relations between men and women are depicted in a light-hearted, almost frivolous manner. In the Caprices, things are presented in an altogether different light. There are scenes of rape and the selling of a maiden's virtue for money. In the picture called "What a Sacrifice!" (Que Sacrificio! - see the Gallery ), matrimony is seen not as a holy state but as a simple financial transaction.
Goya was always the enemy of irrational tendencies, especially religious superstition. His strong anti-clerical attitudes are shown in paintings such as the Procession of the Flagellants on Good Friday (see the Gallery), painted in the period when he was recovering from the illness that left him totally deaf. A similar message is conveyed by The Burial of the Sardine (see the Gallery), a scathing comment on the kind of popular superstition that exists in many parts of Spain in different forms. The mood of these paintings is already an anticipation of the dark, gloomy mood of his later work.
In another famous painting - Blind Man Playing a Guitar (see the Gallery) - we see a blind beggar with a guitar singing for a group of well dressed young ladies and gentlemen. The depiction of these characters is in Goya's usual style of that period. But when we examine the face of the blind beggar we can already discern the nightmarish characters of his later work. There is nothing human about this face at all. Behind the polite façade of genteel society the forces of ignorance and barbarism are lurking.
This is a very accurate observation, and it is corroborated by every decisive stage in history, including the present period. We like to think of ourselves as civilized human beings, as opposed to savages. However, the history of the last decade, not to speak of the last hundred years, does not supply much evidence for this belief. In reality, the civilization that has been built up painfully over the last 10,000 years or so is a very thin layer. And beneath this thin layer the forces of barbarism still exist and can burst through to the surface at any moment. Indeed, the contradictions of modern global capitalism are reproducing these tendencies on an unprecedentedly vast scale and lending them a particularly convulsive and destructive character.
Therefore Goya always speaks to us in a language we can understand. This is art that immediately communicates with us - art that connects, because it has something to say. The art of Goya has a tremendous range - from the pure, translucent light and fresh colours of the early paintings to the utter darkness at the end. The art of the later period is quite different. This is a world of humans who have been cast into the outer darkness, where the only colour is black, and the only sounds are wailing and gnashing of teeth, the only scent is the smell of death and decay. It is a picture of horror without end. The subject matter consists of corrupt priests, whores, beggars and witches. This is a world peopled by demons and nightmarish visions, governed by ignorance, superstition and chaos.
The reason why this art still impacts on us in such a powerful way is that it reminds us of the world in which we live. That is what makes these images so disturbing. They do not reflect some far distant world in a remote antiquity. They reflect the world of capitalism in the first decade of the 21st century. The impression of violence and uncontrolled brutality is forcefully conveyed in the painting of a man stabbing a naked woman. This is a world of turbulence, war and convulsions - just like our own world. Nothing has changed, unless it be that the horrors described by Goya have now been reproduced on a far vaster and more terrifying scale.
Goya was now at the peak of his fame. He was a successful court artist, well known and well-off. But his world was about to be destroyed. One year after Charles IV came to the throne the French Revolution exploded over the heads of an astonished Europe. The French Revolution with its inspiring message of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity stirred the imagination of all that was live in Spanish society. Under its influence secret societies were formed, like the Cerrillo de San Blas. The progressives yearned for change. There was a ferment of agitation.
The Spanish ruling class was terrified. Charles' minister, Floridablanca, reacted to the Revolution in France with severe measures of repression: the press was forbidden to publish any information about the events on the other side of the Pyrenees. The police was ordered to confiscate all publications from France. The authorities had good reason to be worried. The court was unpopular, especially the queen, Maria Luisa, about whom the most scandalous stories circulated. One crisis followed another. Floridablanca was replaced by the Count of Aranda, who in turn was dismissed without warning in 1794 and replaced by the notorious Manuel Godoy, the 25 year old favourite (and lover) of the queen.
Like an overripe fruit that had started to rot, the Spanish monarchy was hanging by a thread. The coming to power of Napoleon Bonaparte sounded the death knell of the Madrid royal clique. Charles IV, a weak and unintelligent man, tried to save himself by a policy of concession. In 1807 Spain signed a treaty with France, which allowed Napoleon to station French troops on Spanish soil, under the pretext of preparing an invasion of Portugal. In the end, it was Spain that was invaded. The progressive Liberal elements looked to France for salvation, since Napoleon seemed to be the scourge of all the crowned heads of Europe. But Napoleon, that adventurer, upstart and gravedigger of the French Revolution, had dynastic ambitions of his own, and Spain formed part of them.
Spain was now a seething cauldron. With the connivance of Maria Luisa, the adventurer Godoy effectively took power in Madrid. The crown prince Ferdinand conspired to oust Godoy with the support of the people and most of the nobility. He also tried to establish good relations with France. As part of the plan, Ferdinand was to marry a "princess" drawn from the Bonaparte clan.
In 1808, on 17th March, in Aranjuez, the playground of the Spanish monarchy a few miles from Madrid, the whole thing exploded. An angry crowd, with typical Spanish impulsiveness, stirred up by Ferdinand's agents, poured out onto the streets, and burst into Godoy's mansion. While the mob ransacked his home, the prime minister lay cowering in a roll of matting. Godoy only just managed to save himself by the intervention of the Guard. Though the immediate target was Godoy, the real motive was popular discontent at the presence of French troops in Spain.
From this point events moved rapidly. On 23rd March, Napoleon's deputy Murat entered Madrid. The following day Charles resigned in favour of his son who, as Ferdinand VI, was greeted by the people with scenes of wild enthusiasm. Some even threw their best clothes under the hooves of his horse, others fought to touch his person. However, a strong Spanish monarchy was no part of the plans of the French.
Charles IV sought the protection of his "friend and ally" Bonaparte, but ended up as a prisoner of Murat, who sent him to El Escorial, the traditional residence of the Spanish monarchs in the mountains of Madrid. The new king immediately clashed with the French who were behaving like an army of occupation in a defeated country. Charles was taken to Paris "for talks with the emperor".
Napoleon had kindly offered to act as an arbiter between Ferdinand and his father. In fact, Napoleon was preparing to send his brother Joseph to Madrid as the Spanish Caesar. The royal family were taken prisoner by the French in Bayonne. Bonaparte played with them like a cat playing with a captive mouse. He first forced Ferdinand to renounce the throne in favour of his father, then got Charles to renounce in favour of himself, then appointed them living quarters (in reality prisons) in France, having already offered the Spanish throne to his brother Joseph.
Napoleon miscalculated in Spain because he imagined that Spain was as degenerate and impotent as the Bourbon monarchy that ruled it. He failed to understand the revolutionary temper of the Spanish people, as Marx explained in his masterly series of articles called Revolutionary Spain:
"Thus it happened that Napoleon, who, like all his contemporaries, considered Spain as an inanimate corpse, was fatally surprised to find that when the Spanish state was dead, Spanish society was full of life, and every part of it overflowing with powers of resistance […] Seeing nothing alive in the Spanish monarchy except for the miserable dynasty which he had locked up, he felt quite sure of this confiscation of Spain. But, only a few days after his coup de main, he received the news of an insurrection in Madrid." (Marx and Engels, Collected Works, vol. 13, pp. 398-9.)
It is important to note that if it had been left to the royal family and the Spanish ruling class, Napoleon would have occupied Spain without the slightest difficulty. The Bourbons and the aristocracy behaved in the most abject manner, fawning and crawling on their bellies before the French. On June 7th 1808, king Joseph received at Bayonne a deputation of the grandees of Spain and was addressed by the Duke of Infantado, Ferdinand VII's most intimate friend, in the following terms:
"Sire, the grandees of Spain have at all times been celebrated for their loyalty to their Sovereign, and in them your Majesty will now find the same fidelity and adhesion."
The royal Council of Castile assured the French usurper that "he was the principal branch of a family designed by Heaven to reign". And so on and so forth. However, the destiny of Spain was immediately taken out of the hands of the cowardly and treacherous nobility. The masses erupted onto the scene to save their country from the foreign invader.
Bonaparte had stationed 40,000 French troops in and around Madrid. This was the source of serious discontent among the Spanish population. Spanish soldiers had to give up their barracks to the foreigners. There were clashes between Frenchmen and Spaniards, with dead and injured. A series of small incidents indicated that the situation was deteriorating rapidly. An order was issued prohibiting increases in food prices and a baker was punished for selling bread to French soldiers at higher prices. The population was now completely mistrustful of the French. There was a sullen and angry mood that could erupt into violence at any moment. The Spaniards answered the propaganda of the Gaceta de Madrid, now controlled by Murat, by posting their own notices on the walls of the capital. This fateful chain of events led inexorably to the bloody uprising of 2nd May.
The spark that lit the fuse was an attempt by the French to remove the remaining members of the Spanish royal family. This news was the straw that broke the camel's back. The anger of the people boiled over. On the second of May 1808 the people of Madrid rose up against their tormentors in a heroic but doomed insurrection. Like the workers of Barcelona in 1936 they fought with kitchen knives, clubs, old hunting rifles - and their bare hands and teeth - against professional soldiers. They attacked the French with insane courage. Murat's soldiers counter-attacked, following a prearranged plan. There followed a terrible massacre in which the Egyptian Mameluke cavalry and Polish lancers played a particularly brutal role.
The people demanded arms but were refused by the terrified authorities. By midday the French, who enjoyed overwhelming military superiority, had surrounded the rebels who found themselves corralled into a death trap in the centre of the city. Some courageous army officers began to distribute arms to the people - too late. The French ordered an all-out assault that crushed the insurgents, who were massacred without quarter. Throughout that dreadful night in the districts of Moncloa and Principe Pio the French execution squads were tirelessly pursuing their butcher's work. About a thousand people were slaughtered in these events.
The uprising is strikingly described in two famous paintings by Goya. It is said that, accompanied by his maid clutching a lantern, the artist visited the scenes of slaughter, where every monstrous detail was engraved on his memory. Whether this is true or not, the paintings depict the events with violent realism. The first shows the terrible events of the second of May (see the Gallery): a confused struggle with men blindly stabbing at each other. A desperate man attacks a horse with a dagger, while a richly dressed Mameluke struggles for his life as he is pulled off his horse. A young boy attacks the horse from the side, but seems to be hesitating to thrust his knife into the horse's flank.
The second painting (see the Gallery) is a powerful depiction of the shootings of the night of the second of May - a picture of unrelieved horror, unfolding in utter darkness, broken only by the fantastic figure of a man in a white shirt holding his arms up to heaven in protest at his fate while the ranks of the French soldiers take aim at his unprotected breast. The executioners are depicted from the rear, so that no human face is visible. These are no longer humans but only a dumb military machine, blindly obeying the order to kill. By contrast the faces of the victims are movingly human, with the Christ-like white-shirted figure as the focal point of a painting full of raw drama and pathos. The pools of blood on the ground are so real one can almost smell them. Here is committed art at its most powerful: not just a depiction of events but a passionate cry of protest. This painting has only one equal - Picasso's Guernica.
The descent into darkness
The Peninsular War (1808 - 14) was the first example in relatively modern times of what we call a guerrilla war (indeed the term was invented by the Spaniards, meaning a "little war"). The early attempts of the Spanish army to fight the French on their own terms led to a complete failure. But the guerrilla war was another matter. The Spanish countryside, with its rugged mountains and mesetas, is perfect for this kind of partisan warfare, and it is part of the Spanish tradition. Guerrilla leaders included priests, noblemen and smugglers. They fought not only against the French but also against the Josefinos - those Spaniards who collaborated with Joseph Bonaparte. The conflict therefore took on the aspect of a civil war within a war. This gave it an especially ferocious character.
"It was", wrote the Abbé de Pradt, "neither hostile battles nor engagements which exhausted the French forces, but the incessant molestations of an invisible enemy who, if pursued, became lost among the people, out of which he reappeared immediately afterward with renewed strength. The lion in the fable tormented to death by a gnat gives a true picture of the French army."
These words are equally applicable to the situation faced by all armies of foreign occupation when confronted by a guerrilla war backed by the whole population, including the US forces in Iraq today. Just like the American army, the French army of that time was the most formidable military force in the world. Yet it was finally defeated - tormented to death by a gnat, as the eyewitness points out. The guerrilla forces would stage a hit-and-run raid, and then melt away into the population, as Marx explains:
"As soon as the enterprise was completed, everybody went his own way, and armed men were seen scattering in all directions: but the associated peasants quietly returned to their common occupation 'without so much as their absence having been noticed'. Thus the communication on all roads was closed. Thousands of enemies were on the spot, though not one could be discovered. No courier could be dispatched without being taken; no supplies could set out without being intercepted; in short, no movement could be effected without being observed by a hundred eyes. At the same time, there existed no means of striking at the root of a combination of this kind. The French were obliged to be constantly armed against an enemy who, continuously flying, always reappeared, and was everywhere without being actually seen, the mountain serving as so many curtains." (Marx, op. cit., p. 421.)
Wars in Spain - and especially civil wars - have always been accompanied by the most ferocious cruelty and fanaticism. The long wars between Christians and Moors that lasted hundreds of years injected a note of religious fanaticism into these conflicts that established a tradition that outlived its original causes. The Peninsular War was characterised by extreme brutality. The civilian population suffered most. In this long and bloody conflict, which in many respects resembles the war in Vietnam. There was no such thing as a non-combatant: men, women and children, young and old, were all involved. Atrocities were the norm. Nobody was spared. The bestiality of this war is conveyed by the following description of the scene after the fall of Badajoz:
"Badajoz was a terrible place after that night. Edward Costello of the 95th remembered: 'The shouts and oaths of drunken soldiers in quest of more liquor, the reports of fire-arms and the crashing in of doors, together with the appalling shrieks of hapless women, might have induced anyone to believe himself in the regions of the damned.' Private John Spencer Cooper of the 7th Fusiliers admitted that: 'All orders ceased. Plunder was the order of the night. Some got loaded with plate, etc.; then beastly drunk; and lastly, were robbed by others. This lasted until the second day after.' Lieutenant William Grattan was equally shocked by men who would fall 'upon the already too deeply injured females, and tear from them the trinkets that adorned their necks, fingers or ears! And finally, they would strip them of their wearing apparel […] Many men were flogged, but although the contrary has been said, none were hanged - yet hundreds deserved it." (R. Holmes, Wellington, the Iron Duke, p. 161.)
It is well to remember that these atrocities were perpetrated against the Spanish people by British troops - who were supposed to have been sent to Spain to "liberate" Spain from Napoleon. This will sound like a very familiar story to the people of Iraq today. The atrocities carried out by the French against the Spanish, and by the Spanish against the French were even worse:
"One French officer saw a hospital in which 400 men had been hacked to pieces and 53 buried alive, and on another occasion a single French soldier was left alive, although with his ears cuts off, to testify to the murder and mutilation of 1,200 of his wounded comrades: the experience drove him mad." (Ibid., p. 105.)
This was the terrible reality that Goya portrayed in his black and white sequence The Disasters of War, (Los Desastres de la Guerra - see Gallery). In this remarkable series, we see scenes of unimaginable inhumanity, of frightful brutality and unspeakable cruelty, of torture, killing and rape. Although it is unlikely that Goya witnessed these things himself (he would scarcely have got away alive!) he must have based himself on reports. In any case, war is presented here as unrelieved horror, with no attempt made to sanitise or prettify it. This compares very favourably with the way the war in Iraq was presented to the world recently.
Overnight the whole situation was transformed - and with it, Goya's art. Gone were the scenes of harmless enjoyment under cloudless skies. Instead a long nightmare reigned in which men became wild beasts and everything human was banished, all light extinguished. In place of the sunlight there was darkness, instead of colour, only different shades of black. The impenetrable darkness that is the main characteristic of Goya's paintings in his later years was only an expression of the all-pervading blackness he saw all around him. The reason for this astonishing transformation cannot be found in art. It is a direct reflection of the processes at work in society.
The Peninsular war ended with the expulsion of the French army from Spain, but the horrors did not end with the return of Ferdinand VII to Madrid after the withdrawal of the French. Here we have a colossal paradox. The cowardly and degenerate Bourbons did nothing to save their country. The war against France only succeeded to the degree that it was taken out of the hands of the monarchy and the nobility and became a people's war. But the understanding of the peasant masses was primitive. In their confused minds the national resistance movement was identified with "their" king and "their" Church. As Marx put it:
"The King appeared in the imagination of the people in the light of a romantic prince, forcibly abused and locked up by a giant robber. The most fascinating and popular epochs of the past were encircled with the holy and miraculous traditions of the war of the cross against the crescent; and a great portion of the lower classes were accustomed to wear the livery of mendicants and live upon the sanctified patrimony of the Church." (Marx, op. cit., p. 403.)
The contradictions that remained hidden when Spaniard was pitched against Frenchman now came to the surface with explosive consequences. Many educated Spaniards - including Goya - hoped that somehow the end of the war would bring improvements to the political regime. Although they were prepared to fight to expel the French army from Spanish soil, these patriots were not against French political ideals. They looked to the French revolution for their inspiration. In an address of the Central Junta in Seville, dated October 28, 1809 we read:
"An imbecile and decrepit despotism prepared the way for French tyranny. To leave the state sunk in the old abuses would be a crime as enormous as to deliver you into the hands of Bonaparte."
But these ideals were not shared by everyone. Ferdinand and the reactionary court clique had no intention of sharing power, and they had powerful backers in the Church and the backward, politically ignorant peasant masses who hated everything French. After the battle of Bailen, the French were forced onto the defensive. Joseph fled from Madrid to Burgos. The revolution advanced to its high point. Simultaneously, the high nobility that had capitulated to Bonaparte judged it prudent to sneak back into the "patriotic camp" and await the return of the Bourbons to settle accounts with the liberals. The collapse of the central authority led to the emergence of local revolutionary committees or juntas, to use the Spanish word for them. In many of these juntas the liberals and revolutionaries predominated - progressive lawyers, teachers and students who longed for change.
In 1812 the tide began to flow strongly in the direction of reform: the Constitution of Cadiz was approved. In 1812 the Constitution became a cause and a banner for which men and women would later fight and die. But the debates on the Constitution quickly revealed a deep cleavage in the nation between the reformers and the conservatives - the liberales and serviles, as they became popularly known. The people of Madrid rose repeatedly against the army with the cry: "Viva Riego! Viva la Constitución!" In this heated atmosphere there was the beginning of a literary revival, led by writers like Larra, dramatists like Duque de Rivas and poets like Espronceda.
The liberal renaissance clashed head-on with the conservative forces of reaction. Goya sided with the liberals. The reactionary scoundrel Ferdinand refused to sign the liberal Constitution. His return meant the return of reaction and obscurantism. With the aid of the Holy Alliance, absolutism was restored in Spain. "The king's person is sacred and inviolable, and is not subject to responsibility," states the document that proclaimed him king. There was constant friction between the king and the Cortes (parliament). It came to a head in 1813 over the proclamation of a decree suppressing the Inquisition. The reactionary and fanatical clergy stirred up the ignorant masses against the reformers. A period of black reaction followed.
As always happens, those reactionary rulers who behave like cowards in the face of powerful enemies show themselves to be the most ruthless oppressors of their own people when they have the chance. Ferdinand behaved like a snivelling coward who cringed before Napoleon and even congratulated the French on their victories in Spain, now launched a ferocious campaign of repression against the Spanish Liberals. In a single decree he sentenced 12,000 of his countrymen to perpetual banishment. He conveniently "forgot" his promise to reconvene the Cortes, introduced strict censorship of the press and set in motion a whole army of spies and informers. Crowds of fanatical royalists crying "Death to Liberty and the Constitution" went on the rampage.
Ferdinand rescinded all the decisions of the Cortes. He re-established the Inquisition and recalled the Jesuits who had been banished by his grandfather. The death penalty was decreed for anyone who dared to support the Constitution or the suppression of the Inquisition. Liberals were hounded, persecuted and imprisoned. Prominent members of the Cortes were sent to the galleys or African prisons. Many liberal officers left for America. Finally, the most famous guerrilla leaders, Porlier and de Lacy, were sentenced to be shot.
"The reign of privilege and abuse had returned, even to the re-establishment of the seignorial jurisdiction over thousands of towns and villages […] The next six years were among the blackest in the history of Spain. Ferdinand, the most contemptible monarch ever to occupy her throne, turned back the clock not to the eighteenth but to the seventeenth century, to the worst days of Philip IV." (W.A. Atkinson, A History of Spain and Portugal, p 268.)
Goya was a true son of the 18th century Enlightenment. He consistently opposed the backward, reactionary obscurantism that characterised Spanish social life and politics, and gave this an expression in his art. He looked forward to an enlightened Spain that would finally consign to the dustbin of history all the medieval and feudal rubbish and enter firmly on the road of progress.
In fact, the spirit of freedom was not dead in Spain but only driven underground. Secret societies, including the freemasonry, flourished, organising patriotic conspiracies. Within four months of Ferdinand's return to the throne, the flag of revolt was raised in Pamplona. The insurgents demanded the Constitution of 1812. Another attempt was made in Corunna in 1815. A plot against Ferdinand himself was uncovered in Madrid in 1816. The following year there was another attempt in Valencia. They all failed and many paid with their life. But finally, on January 1st 1820 a military commander - Don Rafael de Riego - raised the cry for the Constitution and found an echo among the people and the army. The first pronunciamiento had commenced.
Ferdinand felt the ground shift under his feet. News was coming in of uprisings all over Spain: Corunna, Oviedo, Zaragoza, Barcelona, Valencia, Pamplona. But the success of the rising was only guaranteed by the action of the masses. The people of Madrid seized the palace. The king only managed to save himself by re-establishing the ayuntamiento (the democratic council of the people of Madrid). With typical Bourbon cunning, he capitulated and agreed to swear the Constitution: "Let us walk frankly, and I the first, along the constitutional path," ran his manifesto in the official Gazette.
The revolution had triumphed. The prisons were opened. The political refugees were recalled. The king had sworn the Constitution. But in practice, this was merely a rotten subterfuge. Fernando never had any problem about swearing oaths, since he possessed a royal Confessor who would always grant him absolution. Behind the scenes the king was intriguing, helped by divisions and splits in the ranks of the Liberals, who polarised between right and left. Riego was removed by trickery and many patriotic societies were dissolved.
Finally, the forces of reaction in Spain were reinforced by the French king Louis XVIII, who sent an army of 100,000 into Spain, following an ultimatum by the Holy Alliance in January 1823. The Liberal triennium was over. Restored to absolute power, Ferdinand took his revenge on his opponents. All the promises were torn up and a reign of terror unleashed that lasted for all the three years, six months and twenty days of his "most ignominious slavery". Thousands fled into exile. Riego was hanged and quartered. Hundreds of others went to the gallows and were subjected to such barbarous treatment that even the Holy Alliance powers protested in horror.
The work of the young Goya stands in complete contrast with that of his old age. It is as if we are in the presence of two different artists, or two different worlds. Take for example the two very different versions of the same subject, the festival of San Isidro, the patron saint of Madrid. The first picture of San Isidro shows a picnic on the banks of the river Manzanares (see Gallery). It is still in the French style, showing the influence of Bayeau and Mengs. Here we have a carefree scene of young people enjoying themselves on a holiday. All is sunlight and colour - young ladies with parasols and their young male admirers in dashing attire, the majos and majas.
Thirty years later he returned to the same theme, in The pilgrimage to San Isidro (La peregrinación a San Isidro - see Gallery) - but what a difference! This is another world - a world of darkness and black shadows, peopled by monsters, whores, witches, corrupt priests, murderers and crippled beggars. They creep forward in a winding, sinister procession, like some monstrous snake. The landscape is desolate and grim. There is not a single wholesome element present here. There is no God, no Redeemer. It is a picture of grim, unrelieved darkness, but it is not a fantasy. The faces are distorted out of all recognition. They are the faces of lunatics and hysterics, irrational, macabre and threatening. Here is a picture of the reality of Spain overrun by the forces of obscurantist reaction after 1812.
In reality we are in the presence of both a different artist and a different world. It is a vision of a world torn apart by years of war and revolution, a world that has been stood on its head. And it is a vision of old age, of a man who has witnessed too much human suffering and has no idea how it will all end. It is a bleak and pessimistic vision of reality. By now Goya was old and profoundly deaf. The sensation of isolation that deafness brings must have further deepened his depression. These last paintings - his greatest masterpieces - were painted not for sale or even for public display. He painted them for himself on the walls of his house. They are an expression of the anguish in the depths of his soul. It is also the expression of the suffering of a whole people.
Here we find no happy faces and laughter, but only the half-crazed face of an ancient crone with her croaking, humourless cackle. The darkness has penetrated the minds and souls of these people, who have no human attributes about them. Here we have Two Old Men, in which the main figure is a decrepit old man, his face contorted and agitated, with a demon whispering in his ear. On the other hand there is Two Grinning Women and a Man, which has an even more nightmarish feeling about it.
In the painting known as Destiny (see Gallery) the Fates appear as macabre old hags. They are hovering in the air, supporting the bound figure of a man. One of these grotesque witches is clutching a small figure. The second examines the figure through a magnifying glass, while the third holds a pair of scissors, as she prepares to cut through the fragile thread of human life. Destiny, or Fate, is often depicted as blind. It expresses the apparently fortuitous nature of events that seem to have no rational explanation. On closer inspection events that seem to be ruled by no law but accident actually can be explained in a rational fashion. The tragedy of most men and women is that they have no conception of the forces that dominate their lives and are therefore the passive victims of history, rather than conscious agents that strive to understand society and fight to change it.
In the words of Hegel, "Necessity is blind only insofar as it is not understood." But the same Hegel also wrote: "Reason becomes unreason". There are periods in history when the old society is breaking down, when all its laws, morality and religion no longer correspond to the objective necessity of the new period. Beginning with the most conscious and revolutionary layers, people feel discontented with the old ideas, but at first have no clear idea of how to replace them. Moreover, the old order refuses to die but fights stubbornly to maintain itself. The struggle of the old against the new, the living against the dead, can be long drawn out in time, producing convulsions on a vast scale. If people do not understand the reason for these convulsions, that they are only the birth-pangs of a new order, they will inevitably draw pessimistic and despairing conclusions.
Goya painted the world as he saw it - and he painted it with a fearless honesty. It was not his fault that the existing social order had outlived its usefulness and become a fetter on progress. In such periods, what once seemed rational and just becomes irrational and unjust. In such periods the minds of men and women fall prey to mysticism and superstition. Irrational tendencies flourish - just as they do today. Some people thought that Goya was mad. He was not mad, but he faithfully described the madness that he saw around him.
The supply of horrors seems unending. Here two old crones are slurping soup (see Gallery). Here are two men thrashing each other blindly with clubs as they both sink into a bog or quicksand (see Gallery). Here is Saturn devouring his own children in a bloody and unnatural cannibal repast (see Gallery). The face of Saturn, with its crazed expression, would have been disturbing enough. But to add to the horror we are shown the body of a half-eaten child, its head already devoured and the rest of its mutilated body dripping with blood. For sheer horror, this painting probably has no equal in the history of art. It is possible to paint a picture of horror with the intention of merely shocking people. The art of our own epoch is full of such sensationalism. But Goya's depiction of horror is not only intended to shock. It contains a powerful message about a world where men and women behave towards each other like cannibals, exploiting, robbing and killing.
One of the most disturbing images of this later art is the picture of a dog drowning in quicksand (see Gallery). The animal is being swept along helplessly on a huge wave, the colour of which is a dirty yellowish brown - the colour of vomit. This violent and at the same time pathetic image expresses better than anything else the feeling of impotent futility of a nation swept to its doom by forces it does not control and cannot understand. Ironically, the face of the dog, with its pitiful expression, is far more human than any of the faces of the human beings in these late paintings (see Gallery). This pathetic creature represents the fate of the whole Spanish people, and of Goya himself.
There is an etching by Goya, produced more than a decade earlier, that vividly anticipates his mood at this time. It is one of the Caprices called The Sleep of Reason produces Monsters. It depicts a man sitting at his desk in the darkness, clutching his head in an obviously disturbed sleep. He is surrounded by nightmarish creatures - owls, bats cats and the like, that loom out of the shadows to attack him. The message of this powerful etching is like a manifesto of the Enlightenment. When human reason sleeps, the dark forces emerge and threaten to engulf society. This is Goya's nightmare - but it is not a private nightmare but a social message.
This remarkable etching was an accurate anticipation of life itself. In the period of black reaction that followed the second restoration of the Spanish Bourbons, Spain was thrust back into the dark night of obscurantism. Ferdinand's hatred of freedom and progress was well expressed in the loyal address to the crown of the university of Cervera, which begins "Far from us the dangerous novelty of thinking". Yet even these tame universities were closed for the last two years of the reign, while a "Society of Exterminating Angels" gave full scope to the fanaticism and bigotry of the clergy who now ruled the roost. Spain was living through a nightmare in which the forces of progress (Reason) were being swamped in a dirty morass of reaction, ignorance, superstition and fanaticism.
In 1824 Goya left Spain, following his own phrase: "If you can't put out a fire in your own house, get out of it." Just as Picasso never returned to Spain under the Franco dictatorship, so Goya ended his days in exile in France, where he died in 1828 - just two years before the July Revolution of 1830. He was 82 years of age and could not speak a word of French. Alone and deaf, cut off from the world, he continued painting to the very end, and he wrote on one of his last paintings the phrase "aún aprendo" - "still learning".
Of all the artists of the 18th and 19th century Goya is the most contemporary - the one who has most to say to us. If it is the task of great art to look below the surface manifestations and lay bare the reality that lies beneath, then this is truly great art. For beneath the thin layer of civilization lie dark forces - forces of ignorance and barbarism - which at critical moments in history can escape their leash and threaten the very fabric of human civilization. This is true, not only for Goya's epoch but for our own also. This art is an accurate picture of our own world - the world of the first decade of the 21st century.
Why do we find these disturbing images so familiar? In Goya's time, the old feudal order was falling into decay everywhere. Above all in Spain it had outlived its usefulness and become a terrible obstacle in the way of progress. This obstacle had to be removed by revolutionary means if Spain was to advance. At that time, all that was best in Spanish society - all that was alive, honest, intelligent and noble - was fighting to replace the rotten regime of feudal absolutism with a new society. Capitalism at that time signified progress.
But two centuries have passed since then. Capitalism has passed through its adolescence and youth. It has developed the productive forces to an unheard-of extent and thereby fulfilled its progressive historical function. But for the best part of the last hundred years it has given up that role. Having divided the whole world up among a handful of imperialist powers and gigantic monopolies, it is now reduced to a permanent struggle for markets, sources of raw materials and spheres of influence. The means of production stagnate, unemployment increases, and there is one war after another.
Lenin once said, capitalism is horror without end. The horrors that stare at us from the canvases in the Prado are nothing to those that are reproduced every day on a colossal scale by the crisis of capitalism in the period of its senile decay. Millions starve to death while a handful of wealthy parasites satiate their appetite for surplus value on the blood of little children. Compared to this, Goya's Saturn seems like an innocuous old man. The impasse of the means of production produces monstrosities even worse than those depicted in The Disasters of War. In the Congo alone in the past three years, at least four and a half million people have been slaughtered, while the "civilised" world community looks the other way. Children are recruited for the purpose of murder and walk around the streets with human bones for ornaments. Such convulsions are inflicted on a potentially wealthy land by the world crisis of capitalism.
It is in the nature of art that is truly great that it does not grow old and is still able to reveal profound truths to us centuries after it was first created. The paintings of Goya's last and greatest period say more to us now, after the experience of the horrors of the last century, than they said to Goya's contemporaries. And just as in Goya's time all the living forces in society united in a revolutionary struggle against feudal absolutism, so today all those who wish to defend culture must unite with the working class in the revolutionary struggle against the new absolutism that seeks to subject the whole world to the dictatorship of Capital.
The purpose of great art is not to entertain, not only to depict in a superficial and neutral manner but to penetrate beneath the surface and expose the reality that lies beneath. In order to describe our own crazy capitalist jungle, this ugly and irrational dog-eat-dog world, we would need someone with the talent and passionate conviction of Goya. What a pity we do not have an artist of such genius in our own times! The organic crisis of capitalism is threatening the future of civilization and culture. But there are always courageous voices that will protest against the prevailing barbarity.
The present epoch is the most turbulent and convulsive in history. This is only a reflection of the fact that capitalism has outlived its historical usefulness. Sooner or later it must leave the stage of history and make way for a new and higher form of society - socialism. Out of the present convulsions a new culture will emerge. Artists and writers will understand that their place is to fight shoulder to shoulder with the working class for the socialist reconstruction of society. The revolutionary events that impend will provide ample material for the new generation of progressive artists. They will naturally take as their starting point the marvellous work of this great Spanish artist.
London, July 14, 2003.