The life and times of Goya - Part One. The dream of reason

Goya was one of the greatest artists of all time.  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 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. This article is part of an important new series by Alan Woods called Art and revolution.


A self-portrait

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 Maja and the Masked Man

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.


The Injured Mason (1786 - 87)

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 Gallery). These paintings are full of humanity and a feeling for the suffering of ordinary people.

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.

The Naked Maja

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.

July 14, 2003.

See the First Gallery

See the Second Gallery.