Art. History. Culture.
This month’s feature on terror now takes a twist toward the insane. Think of how many characters in our popular culture have been portrayed as sadistic madmen. The Joker, Michael Myers, Norman Bates, Hannibal Lecter, Scarecrow, Alex from A Clockwork Orange, and Jack from The Shining are just some of the many famous characters known for their various forms of psychosis. At some point something took hold of these fellows and knocked a screw or two loose. They are extreme examples of what could take over should someone with a mental illness go without help or medication. Further back in history, science about conditions of the mentally ill had not been developed, and people suffering from those illnesses were feared for their instability. No longer treated as human beings, they were usually thrown into asylums like caged animals, locked away from society for the rest of their lives. The illness would be considered as some sort of demonic possession or other superstitious evil. Today it is considered either a chemical imbalance, lack of nurture, reaction to some sort of trauma, or a combination of any similar factors. Whether you look at it through today’s lens or a lens of the middle ages or fourteenth through nineteenth centuries, the common denominators remain the same: darkness and some level of fear resulting from the unknown.
History’s images of madmen are thus generalized, and few artists have ever portrayed madness and superstition as well as Francisco de Goya.
Goya grew up in Zaragoza, Spain, but spent much of his life in Madrid once he became an established and popular painter. A few of his returns to his hometown produced visits to a local asylum. Goya was inspired to create these works by what he witnessed in the madhouse of Zaragoza. Moreover, Goya had been suffering a physical ailment. It is unknown what Goya’s actual illness was, but it left him bedridden and suffering for an extended period of time and left him almost completely deaf. During his convalescence, Goya wrote to a friend exclaiming his fear of going mad from his suffering. He spoke of a group of uncommissioned works of smaller scale which he created to occupy his imagination which was so distressed after his prolonged sickness. It is also worth noting that the issue of insanity was, among other things, a popular topic in the Spanish Enlightenment, and that Goya painted madness in its many forms increasingly more often in his later career. His reputation for denunciation of the establishment comes into play here, as well as his fascination with the destructive forces behind power and rank.
This composition is based on an actual event witnessed by Goya on one of his visits to the asylum, when he watched a pair of naked inmates fighting each other as a guard beat them with a whip. The central figures are surrounded by fellow inmates, all dressed in pitiful rags, some watching eagerly as the two men wrestle, others engaged by some other unknown stimuli. Flanking either side of the central group are two inmates making direct eye contact with the viewer. The man on the left stands in a wide stance with his arms crossed while the man on the right crouches on the ground hugging his knees. Both are gazing directly at the viewer with seemingly sinister smiles, the man on the left more sly and daring while the other grins widely and stupidly. These two characters continue to draw the eye, appearing as two lunatic bookends simultaneously guarding and framing the scene. The courtyard is surrounded by thick stone walls and even though the air above them is open and hint of sunlight shines above, the scene below is engulfed in darkness both literally and metaphorically.
This later vision of an asylum has an almost allegorical feel to it. Here, the madmen are more deep into their delusions and some even theatrically so. What is more, many of these delusions seem to relate to some type of powerful rank. A half-naked man, wearing a crown of feathers, stands in front of a group of courtiers who line up to kiss his outstretched hand. A more prominent figure to his right stands naked with his back to the viewer, completely consumed by an imaginary gun fight, a military tricorn hat on his head. Sitting against the column another man dressed in rags sings to himself wearing a crown of cards and holding a flute or an imitation scepter. In front of him, sitting on the ground and propped up against some stones, a man with a hat fashioned into what resembles a bishop’s mitre performs a mock benediction blessing. This mob of madness could be an active parody of such positions of power, turning them into ridiculous lunacy and further degrading them by surrounding them with more lowly creatures. Goya even goes so far as to paint a certain unmentionable act between two inmates, involving one on his knees and one standing, in the far right shadowy corner.
The ultimate image of the madman, not only in Goya’s oeuvre but of any in the history of fine art, comes from the group of works known as Las Pinturas Negras, or, the Black Paintings. Late in life, after more bouts of sickness, Goya was living in a house known to it’s neighbors as the Quinta del Sordo, or House of the Deaf Man. He commenced a private project of painting murals directly onto the wall of his home, which would not found until after his death. The most famous of the Black Paintings, and possibly one of Goya’s most well known works, is his painting of Saturn Devouring his Son. Saturn, from ancient mythology, is a Roman god based on Kronos/Chronos, his Greek equivalent. Saturn and his fellow Titans were the predecessors to the Olympian gods. Long story made short, Saturn, who married his sister Rheia, became aware of a premonition that one of his children would usurp his power and position. Determined to retain his power, once each of his children was born, Saturn ate them, swallowing them whole. When Rheia gave birth to Zeus, she concealed a rock in swaddling cloth in place of the baby, so he ate the rock and the child was spared. Zeus later grew to indeed usurp his father, but not before Saturn vomited up each of his other children whole and still living. Saturn’s fate was to be imprisoned in Tartarus, the place known as the end of the earth, eternally bound in unbreakable chains.
There are a few major points about Goya’s painting that are worth highlighting. Greco’s Ghosts will have to feature this work again someday, in order to do a more justified visual analysis. Until then, observe the physical features of Saturn that convey his ultimate madness: his obsessively clenched tight hands and his wide-beyond-reason eyes. The Titan was so consumed with the idea of loss of power that he murdered his own children. The act of cannibalism, probably the most inhumane and repulsive sin in existence, even further degrades this unthinkable infanticide. Here Goya conveys, in dark humor, the ridiculousness of the Saturn’s obsession. It is important to note that Goya actually painted this work directly onto the wall in his dining room. Would this be something you’d want to gaze at while enjoying your daily meal? Doubtful, unless you understood Goya’s sinister and ingenious sense of humor. His artistic career is permeated with satire and ridicule, and Saturno is just another extreme example. Aprovecha! Bon appetite! Buon appetito!