Abyss of the soul: a journey into the veiled depths of the human soul.
The exhibit entitled “Goya. Madness and reason at the dawn of modernity” currently underway at the Civic Museums of Pavia until June 10th, 2018, is an opportunity to learn about a lesser-known aspect of the great Spanish artist. In fact, there are 200 engravings taken from the 4 graphic series created by Francisco Goya throughout his artistic career: Los Caprichos, the Disasters of the war, the Follies, and the Tauromachia. For these pieces, the Spanish painter gave some of the darker reflections on the human soul, inside that deep foundation of mankind where we harbour madness, violence and barbarism. In fact, Francisco Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828) albeit chronologically part of the Age of Enlightenment, at the time of the polished and rational neoclassical style, he actually anticipated romantic sensibility, attracted by the abyss of the human soul, the dark face of mankind, our distortions and aberrations.
The oldest collection is made up of the 80 tables of the “Los Caprichos” [The Caprices] published in 1799, where nightmares, witchcraft rituals and superstitions are put on display, unveiling the disturbing traits of the rather backward Spanish society of the time. However, there is a surprisingly acute and profound analysis with which the human soul is gutted and opened – an investigation based on the enlightenment aimed at making clear the forms and behaviour that up until that time had remained obscure. In Goya’s words, he defined this as a “lack of reclarification”. However, his enlightenment is not optimistic. He does not believe in the strength of reason and its victory over darkness, because in mankind he sees an obtuse and violent nature that prevents any hope. This series includes the famous engraving “The sleep of reason generates monsters”, which was intended to be a cover piece.
Even darker are the series of 85 engravings entitled “Disasters of War” (1810-1820), never published by the artist perhaps due to their bitterness and hard tone. These engravings are the ancestor of the nineteenth-century war reports, as they realistically document, without any remorse, the unspeakable brutality in Spain between 1808 and 1814, during the Spanish war of independence – a bloody clash between makeshift Spanish forces and the occupying Napoleonic army, the first warning of the new type of war that would last into the next century and see for the first time the massive involvement of civilians, the unarmed victims of men in arms.
Goya, with a cold stare that borders on that of a scientist, reveals all the barbarity and brutality of war – a vision far from the encomiastic-celebratory tones of Napoleonic propaganda, prevailing at that point in time. War is not heroism but rather as a succession of massacres, violence and rape that is common to all, French and Spanish. A good example of this is found in the engraving “Lo mismo” [The same] as well as the impressive series of pieces entitled “mutilations”.
In some ways the incisions made between 1815 and 1823 entitled “The Follies” are even darker, rather obscure and difficult to understand. These are the years of solitude, his progressive deafness, the impressive series of deaths in the family, as well as the disillusionment with the betrayal of liberal ideals with the retrograde Bourbon restoration, all pushing him towards isolation. Then, in 1819, unpopular with the new rulers and suspected by the Inquisition, he withdrew to the countryside. This is the period of “Black painting”, dark and hallucinatory images fill the walls of his home and at the same time his engravings show this “detachment” from reality. The images in this series are almost dreamlike visions, showing enigmatic settings, contorted figures and scenes full of violent allusions. Some have defined this as “genre scenes” related to the Carnival, although it is likely that this work is social satire and political allegory.
In a league of its own, we find the series of “Tauromachie“, bullfighting scenes that in the traditional interpretation have always been considered as an exaltation of the national show, but now a shrewd and more careful criticism has shown how the author here has also put the accent on the violence, blood and ferocity of the show.
Lastly, Goya’s incisions are a lesson of courage – the courage to look with a firm yet clear-cut mindset at the dark and brutal side that exists within us, when we do not exercise our control of reason and what is right. Some of these incisions, above all “Los Caprichos” were published in such as way to allow for a widespread publicity and circulation, something unthinkable in the context of traditional painting.