One of my joys as a Mellon fellow has been researching the prints of Francisco Goya (1746–1828). Produced after the artist’s fiftieth birthday, Goya’s four mature etching series are emblematic of his technical mastery and inventiveness. The first series, Los Caprichos (1797-99), is exemplary of the artist’s satirical social criticism. Los Desastres de la Guerra (1810-20) followed Caprichos, expressing the artist’s anguish at the events of the Peninsular War and its aftermath. Shifting subject matter, Goya’s La Tauromaquia (1815-16) series then portrayed the history of bullfighting as an Iberian ritual played out between humankind, nature, and fate.
Having spent many hours with these series—all worthy of careful consideration—it is Goya’s next series, Los Disparates (1816-24), that most captures my interest. And it is that series which I wish to explore here. The twenty-two works that make up Disparates date to after the war but before the artist’s move to Bordeaux in 1824. Goya did not publish the series during his lifetime. Instead, in 1864 The Royal Academy of San Fernando produced an edition, issued under the title Los Proverbios, from the eighteen plates in their possession. Because of this appellation, scholars long sought to match the works with common sayings. Proofs discovered in the twentieth century, however, bore titles in the artist’s hand, all beginning with the word disparates (follies/ absurdities). With that revelation, the works’ meaning suddenly appeared incomprehensible. Difficultly in deciphering the series likely contributed to the comparable lack of attention, relative to its predecessors, that the series has received ever since.
Los Disparates teems with uncanny chimeras: beings at once familiar and unfamiliar. Recognizable things also inhabit the prints—cats, horses, people in sacks, soldiers, etcetera. Nonetheless, any promise of clear symbolic meaning that these things might offer is empty. Such strangeness is not unique in Goya’s output. Painted on the walls of the artist’s Madrid home (Quinta del sordo), around the same time that the artist etched Disparates, Goya’s “Black Paintings” are equally difficult to understand. Unlike those paintings, however, Goya made Disparates in a reproducible and distributable medium. For me, this suggests an important question: who did Goya make Disparates for, and what ideas did he hope to impart to that audience?
Rather than trying to discover hidden meanings in the symbolism of Disparates —a futile task, I believe—I want to consider Goya’s space. More to the point, I have been thinking recently about Goya’s backgrounds. Throughout the series, Goya typically places his action against (or in) an amorphous darkness, as with Disparate General, or else in a realm falling from light into obscurity and emptiness.
In our daily lives, background is a relative thing that supports the way we see the world. Physically near or distant, it is always that which shifts always away from our focus, acting as a substrate for reality as well as a part of it. The laptop in front of me, for instance, stands out as a form only because my mind separates it from everything else that I call background. To put it simply, without background there is no foreground.
In order for the world to appear as something stable and intelligible, our mind makes use of such systematic arrangements. Were we to experience the world in its specificity, nothing would make sense. A river flows, constantly renewed, different from moment to moment, and yet we recognize it as the same entity across expanses of time. We represent things with names and generalized ideas of their forms. Similarly, we unconsciously organize the space around us. In art, this basic need to regulate our world through representation becomes most obvious. Humanity has invented countless methods for organizing space: hierarchal registers, the upturned and flattened space of Japanese prints, the geometries of Renaissance perspective where paintings became windows, the abstracted spaces of maps, and many others.
When I look at Giorgio Ghisi’s School of Athens after Raphael (1550), I feel as if I could climb those steps and pass under those archways. The perspectival method that produces this space is a convention. Background here is a diffuse spatial symbol, reliant upon a vanishing point—a mathematical twinkling star. Every diagonal line in the print relates to an invisible point of convergence, like railroad tracks receding into the distance and meeting on the horizon. The artifice of Ghisi’s space functions only if the viewer possesses the prerequisite understanding of such coded space. By contrast, the darkness of Disparates severs the tether of that old logic. Goya sets us adrift. His vanishing point fills the world.
Shifting from the Renaissance to the modern era, what other comparisons might we make? A German contemporary of Goya, the Romantic poet Novalis wrote, “I turn away from the light to the holy, inexpressible mysterious night.” This same nocturnal womb would later haunt the Surrealists. It emerges clearly in Casting the Runes, 1951, by Leonora Carrington (1917-2011). Like Disparates, Carrington’s painting dispenses with perspectival space. Her boundless twilight-green ground supports a cast of uncanny beings. This darkness is a magical field where irrationalism speaks, and where dream and wakefulness might be reconciled.
In contrast to Carrington’s work, I suggest that Goya’s backgrounds in Disparates can be read as negations of rationalism, bereft of the Surrealist optimism for reconciliation. If Goya’s artwork retains any conceptual residue of the renaissance painting as window, it now opens onto madness and the failure of reason. Goya witnessed firsthand the challenges to the Spanish Enlightenment, ranging from abuses of power to the superstition, intellectual conservatism, and jingoism of the masses. And while the Bourbon monarchs managed halting reforms, the war caused this to falter and cease. Goya’s experiences surely shook his belief in the idea of human perfectibility under reason. After all, unreason had brutalized Spain in the name of Napoleon, France, and enlightened principle.
Nevertheless, I do not read Disparates as mere catharsis. The “Black Paintings” might have been that, but these were prints, meant to reach out into the world. It seems to me that Goya had a purpose in setting his Disparates in non-places, evacuated of coherent, rational meaning. By doing so, he revealed the unknowable void beneath civilization and world. With Disparates, Goya stood upon the threshold of the world, showing it the reflection of its essential, underlying madness.
I say “essential” because the artist knew that the formless night is equally generative and destructive. It is the primordial material from which reason and light first emerged, and it is the only background against which the rational mind can discern itself. Still, it is troubling. In glimpses of the borderless night, did Goya recognize the dissolution of all that we are? Was he unwilling or unable to forget (as we habitually do) that such darkness persists, a leviathan just beyond every limit of reason? Writer Georges Bataille once mused, “The philosopher through his discourse . . . ‘mirrors the empty sky’ with less honesty than the madman. . . .” Goya—who painted the inhabitants of Spanish asylums—might have added that since the madman’s irrational honesty is unintelligible from this side of reason, art is left to bridge the gulf, communicating the most difficult truths.
Douglas Cushing earned his BFA at the Rhode Island School of Design and his MA in art history at the University of Texas at Austin. His master’s thesis, written under the supervision of Linda Dalrymple Henderson, examines Marcel Duchamp’s relationship with the writings of the Comte de Lautréamont. Douglas is currently a PhD student in art history at the University of Texas at Austin working on exchanges between art and literature in the avant-garde. He is the Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in Prints and Drawings, and European Paintings at the Blanton Museum of Art.
For further reading:
Bataille, Georges. “Nietzsche’s Madness.” Trans. Annette Michelson. October, special issue: George Bataille: Writings on Laughter, Sacrifice, Nietzsche, Un-knowing. Vol 36 (1986): 42-55.
Breton, André. Manifestos of Surrealism. Trans. Richard Seaver and Helen Lane. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1969.
Fort, Ilene Susan, Teresa, Dawn Ades, and Terri Geis. In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2012.
Michel Foucault, History of Madness. Trans. Jonathan Murphy. London: Routledge, 2006.
Goya and the Spirit of Enlightenment. Exh. Cat. edited by Alfonso E. Pérez Sánchez and Eleanor A. Sayre. Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1989.
Harris, Tomás. Goya: Engravings and Lithographs. Oxford: Bruno Cassirer, 1964.
Herr, Richard. The Eighteenth-Century Revolution in Spain. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1958.
Hughes, Robert. Goya. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003.
La Tauromaquia: Goya, Picasso and the Bullfight, Exh. Cat. edited by Verna Curtis and Selma Holo. Milwaukee Art Museum, 1985.
Paquette, Gabriel B. Enlightenment, Governance, and Reform in Spain and Its Empire, 1759-1808. New York: Plagrave Macmillan, 2008.
Pérez Sánchez, Alfonso E., and Julián Gállego. Goya: The Complete Etchings and Lithographs. New York: Prestel, 1995.
Schulz, Andrew. “Moors and the Bullfight: History and National Identity on Goya’s Tauromaquia.” The Art Bulletin, Vol. 90, No. 1 (June, 2008): 195-217.
Tomlinson, Janis A. Francisco Goya Y Lucientes, 1746-1828. London: Phaidon, 1994.
Tomlinson, Janis A. “Francisco José Goya y Lucientes: Approaching Los Disparates.” Romance Quarterly, Vol. 54m No. 1 (2007): 3-8.