Riff on Goya’s Painting Highwaymen Attacking a Coach

Art, Artists, Reviews

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1. Francisco Goya’s Asalto de ladrones – Highwaymen Attacking a Coach in Ingles, 1786-87. Oil on canvas. 169 by 127 cm. Currently in some lucky soul’s private collection.

2. I love this painting.

3. It’s easy—and probably correct—to call Goya’s work dark. We can see that in his engraving series The Disasters of War and Caprichos, or his famous works Third of May 1808 or Saturn Devouring His Son. And the darkness, the heaviness, in these works, isn’t just in the subject but also on the canvas, in the grooves of the etchings. The blacks and browns blister; the acid goes to work.

4. It would be wholly wrong to suggest that Goya only painted the dark—but even his most joyful paintings, like Playing at Giants or The Swing contain a dark kernel. (Or, perhaps, maybe I find that kernel there, suggested by his oeuvre).

5. The blue skies of Playing at Giants and The Swing both pale in comparison to the top third of Highwaymen Attacking a Coach.

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That beautiful bright blue sky is somehow the darkest aspect of this very dark painting, a terrible, terrible joke, an ironic reminder of glorious nature’s inglorious indifference to misery, suffering, murder, rape.

6. Moving down—the tree: long, twisting, phallically jutting into the blue sky. It seems to crookedly shift in the wind. Softly echoed by those happy little clouds it takes us down to the vernal forest floor, where we seem to be just-off-the-beaten-path.

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7. I’ll admit to a certain fascination with the concept of highway robbery—the perils of the path, the road as a dangerous place, Barry Lyndon, Robin Hood, etc.—but what Goya gives us here is shock and horror.

8. If we continue to move our eyes down from that blue sky, we find, just off-center, a gun-wielding usurper perched on a lovely gilded carriage, its mules patiently stalled.

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9. Left to right: Murder victim number one, his jacket open, torn, his ribs and breast bloodied—he’s already a corpse, but his naked skin suggests something even more sinister.

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10. Just beside victim number one, a passenger fights for his life against a bandit brandishing a knife. Their twisted, violent grappling prefigures the threat of rape that lurks under the painting.

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11. To the right of this strange couple, another couple—aristocratic mother-father team—plead for their lives, their palms facing up to that blue sky. The man’s cloak is earth-brown, and the woman’s cape black, but between them rests—I don’t know? Some pink bundle. The hem of the woman’s dress? Something bloodied? The suggestion of infanticide?

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12. We find their guard uselessly sprawled to the right, his worthless sword neatly parallel to the gun under the grappling couple, blood trickling from under his blood-red coat. As Robert Hughes points out in his long biography of Goya, the guard’s corpse figures “the same pose that Goya would repeat several times in future drawings and paintings to indicate a dead body, so that it became part of his shorthand for death”; Hughes goes on to remind us that this sprawl is the same one we can see of “the dead man facedown to the left of the French firing squad in the Tres de Mayo, his hands scrabbling palms-down to the earth.”

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13. Immediately above the guard, and to the viewer’s left of him, stands his likely assassin, his chest bared and his gun (jutting from the pelvis) now confidently trained on our hapless couple.

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14. Gunman #2 is not half so menacing though as his partner who occupies the low dark center of the painting.

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His hat cocked ever-so-slightly to the right, this central bandit, clothed in greenish-gold garb, raises a rope in his left hand. The rope signifies every awful kind of horror the viewer cares (“cares” is not the right verb) to imagine, but it’s the action that bandit performs with his right hand that is somehow the most menacing gesture of the painting: We can almost hear him coo, “Shhhhhhhh…”

15. And our poor victims? Their hands up, in supplication, what do they have to look to? Perhaps, like the attendant viewer, they return to the sky blue sky.

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Goya’s Witch/Clergy Axis (Robert Hughes)

Art, Literature, Writers

In a disguised way, Goya in the Caprichos drew a parallel between witchcraft and the activities of the clergy. He stressed the resemblance between witches and friars in their obedience to the hierarchy of their calling, the younger deferring to the older. In plate 47, Obsequio al maestro (“Homage to the master”), an apparently senior witch looks down with stony disdain at another, who ois offering her (or him) the gift of a dead baby; the supplicant’s gesture reminds one of a groveling postulant kissing the cardinal’s ring. “Es muy justo,” runs the Prado text: “This is quite fair, they would be ungrateful disciples who failed to visit their professor, to whom they owe everything they know about their diabolical faculties.”

Plate 46, Correccion (“Correction”), shows a group of brujos, male witches, as seminarians, consulting “the great witch who runs the Barahona seminary” — whatever that institution may have been. Of course, Goya could not be too explicit about this: on the other side of any public criticism of clerical practices lay the ever-watchful eye of the Inquisition, which Goya had to be at pains to avoid.

—From Robert Hughes’s biography Goya.

Cézanne: A Life (Book Acquired, 10.09.2012)

Art, Books, Writers

 

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I was pleasantly surprised yesterday to find a big ole biography of Paul Cézanne on my doorstep. I probably won’t get to Alex Danchev’s Cézanne: A Life anytime soon (at least not until I finish Robert Hughes’s Goya bio), but it looks like a pretty solid read—with lovely glossy pictures to boot:

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In the meantime, check out Evan McMurry’s full, in depth review at Bookslut.

Or, if you’re too busy, here’s the Kirkus write up in full:

A formidable biography of the Father of Modern Art bound for the annals of academia.

Danchev . . .  has researched every facet and nuance of Paul Cézanne’s life (1839–1906). His comfortable childhood in Provence, his years in Paris, where he was influenced by the Impressionists, and his dependence on the allowance from his father created the artist some suggested was “not all there.” There is a wealth of information in the correspondence between the artist and his childhood friend, Émile Zola, in which they parodied Virgil, joked in Latin and discussed Stendhal. Zola knew that Cézanne’s art was a corner of nature seen through his own curious temmpérammennte. The artist didn’t paint things; he painted the effect they had on him. He saw colors as he read a book or looked at a person, understood the inner life of an object and let his brain rework that object, sometimes illuminating it, sometimes distorting it. Danchev rightly subscribes to the theory that understanding the man is important to understanding his work, and he attempts to parse Cézanne’s psyche, digging into the background of nearly every author he discussed in his letters, quoting every writer who based a character on the man. Cézanne’s work will influence artists and confuse patrons for decades to come, especially those who have the patience to study Danchev’s comprehensive, occasionally ponderous tome.

A fairly impressive achievement of a Sisyphean task—definitely a book to keep in your library.

 

Robert Hughes’s Goya Biography (Book Acquired, 9.21.2012)

Art, Books, Writers

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I’d been wanting to read a biography of Goya for some time now. For a few years now, his art has come occupy a strange space in the back of my subconscious mind—all the pain and violence and horror of it. Maybe it’s all the Roberto Bolaño I’ve been reading. I’m convinced that if you want to understand Bolaño it helps to have Goya as a visual referent. Also, I cut up an oversized Italian collection of color prints from Goya to hang in my office, so they’re always kinda in my visual field.

Anyway, last week I went  by my favorite local used bookstore to pick up a copy of W.G. Sebald’s After Nature that they’d kindly ordered for me and went through the biographies as well to find something on Goya. There were at least half a dozen, but the recently deceased Robert Hughes’s was the most beautiful and most recent, and its opening captivated me: In the first chapter, Hughes describes how a near-fatal car crash in 1999 unlocked the Goya study that he’d been wanting to write for years. The scene unfolds as a bizarre prolonged fever dream, a horrifying narrative informed by Goya’s asylums and bullfights, with the strange layer of modern airport slathered on top.

I’ve read the first 150 pages since then. Hughes’s writing is crisp and the text is rich; Hughes builds a slow case, arguing against Goya’s reputation as a radical but also highlighting the artist’s powers of pathos (not to mention his skill, both raw and refined). Hughes had me hooked with the following paragraph, which could also stand in as a simple description of a decsonstructionist theory of identity:

Goya was in some ways the greatest of all delineators of madness, because he was unrivaled in his ability to locate it among the common presences of human life, to see it as a natural par t of man’s (and woman’s) condition, not as an intrusion of the divine or the demonic from above or below. Madness does not come from outside into a stable and virtuous normality. That, Goya knew in his excruciating sanity, was nonsense. There is no perfect stability of the human condition, only approximations of it, sometimes fragile because created by culture. Part of his creed, indeed the very core of his nature as an artist, was Terence’s “Nihil humanum a me alienum puto,” “I think nothing human alien to me.” This was part of Goya’s immense humanity, a range of sympathy, almost literally, “co-suffering,” rivaling that of Dickens or Tolstoy.