The life and times of Goya - Part two. The descent into darkness

In the second part of his article Alan Woods deals with the profound changes in Goya's paintings in his later years. The Peninsular War transformed the whole situation in Spain overnight - and with it, Goya's art. In place of the sunlight there was darkness, instead of colour, only different shades of black. This impenetrable darkness 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 (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:

Dog Trapped in Quicksand

"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.

Saturn devouring his Son

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.

The Sleep of Reason produces Monsters

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.

See the First Gallery

See the Second Gallery.