Goya's Razor Sharp Precision

Goya's Razor Sharp Precision

The sketchbooks of Francisco de Goya shed light on the mind and methods of the eighteenth century artist.

Smack bang in the middle of the so-called Golden age of Spanish art and literature, Philip II’s monastery of the Escatorial sprung up on the outskirts of Madrid and brought with it a flock of foreign creative talent from Italy and the rest of Europe. Amidst the period’s architectural prints and sketches, reproductive drawings and studies of saints which chart Spain’s absorption of different graphic styles, there is a tapestry model from Goya, the most visionary graphic artist of the period, one of 42 patterns designed by the artist to decorate the bare stone walls of the king’s residence.

It’s appropriate that the word cartoon derives from the Italian cartone, a large sheet of paper used in preparation for a painting or tapestry. The impromptu quality of both Goya’s tapestries and his prints animates his carnivalesque subjects and monstrous subject matter into something still very much alive.

With razor-sharp precision Goya drew out his unformulated ideas in etchings and lithographs, often sacrificing a flawless finish for creative effect. Lithography, invented at the end of the 18th century was far better suited to the reproduction of ink and chalk drawings than aquatinted plates which weren’t hardy enough for commercial application and which introduced a sort of static into the backgrounds, an undercurrent of murkiness.

Despite this, Goya still used the technique for most of his print series including the Caprichos (1799), the Disasters of War (c. 1810–20), the Tauromaguia (1816) and the Disparates (1820). Only the Caprichos and the Tauromaguia were published during his lifetime. The imperfect prints produced by the substandard quality of plates during wartime still possess a rich, textured quality, a precarious balance of light and dark. It’s the presence of the artist’s delicate hand, perhaps shaky, perhaps firm, which elevates these private studies above the commercial paintings and techniques. Even when Goya made lithographs, he worked at an easel, the stone clamped to it like a canvas.

Goya’s contempt for the clergy surfaces in plates like “Hobgoblins”, in which they are shown as drunken, gluttonous fools. The paedophilic “Blow” featuring a farting young child, or the old witch ferrying a prostitute through the air on her broomstick in “Pretty teacher!” The most famous etching from the Caprichos series is also here. “The sleep of reason produces monsters”  depicts the artist with his head cradled, face buried in his arms, resting on a table with his drawing tools around him. Owls, bats and goblins swarm up ahead, while a wide-eyed cat watches on the floor next to him.

Even with a knowledge of 18th-century iconography, where owls represented folly, bats stood for ignorance and cats were signs of witchcraft, The Sleep of Reason is deliberately ambivalent. As a resolute outsider privileged with unrivalled access to the inner workings of the state and clergy, Goya’s path was far from straightforward. To be successful, the artist should apply his imagination to the monstrosities of his time, while simultaneously keeping his head. Goya said of it: 'Imagination without reason brings forth impossible monsters, but with reason it is the mother of all the arts'.

Both the nightmarish Disparates series and a set of eleven small pictures known as Fantasy and Invention completed during a period of recuperation from 1793–1794 including studies of punishment, feature beggars and madman. Yard with Lunatics is a horrifying lesson in the social repercussions of mental illness, a recurring theme in the artist’s work.

A few weeks after the French declaration of war on Spain, Goya’s own health was deteriorating. He was deaf and couldn’t keep his balance, the result of miniature strokes, tinnitus, Meniere’s disease or paranoid dementia. His blackest works are often attributed to the genius of a frenzied mind living through trouble times.

When aged 75, Goya purchased his own house, Quinta del Sordo ("Deaf Man's House") he completed many paintings, including Saturn Devouring His Son, in situe, applying oil directly onto the plaster of his walls. He never wrote of them, nor intended them for exhibition and it was not until around 1874, some 50 years after his death, that they were taken down, mounted on canvas and restored in the manner of the originals, several times removed. It is only in the artist’s own marks, in the painstakingly produced personal sketchbooks, that the collision of technical talent and unbridled superstition can play out most dramatically.

A selection of Goya’s prints are currently on display in Renaissance to Goya: Prints and Drawings Made in Spain at The British Museum until 6th January 2013.

Image credit: Figures Dancing in a circle from Los Disparates, 1816-23, Francisco Goya (1746-1828). Print, 245 x 355 mm. Copyright of the Trustees of the British Museum

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