Blog about Goya’s Straw Man

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El pelele is a painting composed between 1791 and 1792 by the Spanish painter Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (1746–1828).  El pelele is often rendered in English as The Straw Manikin, but Robert Hughes translates it as The Straw Man in his 2003 biography Goya.

I like Hughes’s translation, which carries a perhaps-unnecessary connotation of a certain logical fallacy. Hughes pegs the painting as a genre piece, one of the “bucolic amusements” of Goya’s patrons Charles IV and Maria Luisa, King and Queen of Spain. The Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid describes the painting like this:

Four young women laugh and play at blanket-tossing a doll or manikin in the air. The latter´s movement is the result of their caprice. Its carnival origins are visible in the use of masks and joking, but the blanket-tossing of a doll is used here by Goya as a clear allegory of women’s domination of men.

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Hughes also sees The Straw Man as Goya’s take on “what seemed to him [Goya] the waning of traditional Spanish masculinity,” noting that the motif was repeated throughout Goya’s work (notably in Goya’s etching Disparate femenino).

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Hughes perceives a “disenchanted edge” to Goya’s Straw Man. The edge here is what most engages me about the image. To this scene any contemporary viewer—by which I mean any post-postmodern viewer—must bring a certain horrific viewpoint. The free and freeing sky juxtaposes with the wobbly jelly limbs of the empty hero at the core of the painting. His face is a literal mask, a mask itself painted into a mock ebullience of servitude. The manikin is a big nothing painted as a happy something, a doll to be tossed around for amusement. The creeping fun under the whole business is undeniable. What’s key here, at least for me, is Goya’s composition of expression in the manikin’s face. Hughes points out that the figure is a mockery of the French court and all its foppish manners, Goya’s satirical jab at his benefactors’ pretensions — “silly French pigtails and spots of rouge on its cheeks…vacuous to perfection” — but there’s also a strange humanity to the face that I don’t think a contemporary viewer should overlook. The eyes assert themselves to the grayblue Spanish heaven above, even as the body fails to resemble all but the idea of a body—an idea most heavily felt in the body’s own gravity, the force which will return it to be tossed again and again—without hope of transcendence.

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The Dog — Francisco Goya

The Dog, 1819 by Francisco Goya (1746-1828)

Fantastic Vision — Francisco Goya

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Asmodea (Fantastic Vision), 1820-23 by Francisco Goya (1746-1828)

All Will Fall — Goya

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Todos caerán (All Will Fall), 1799 by Francisco Goya (1770-1828)

They’ve Already Got a Seat — Goya

Goya’s The Disasters of War

Refuse Heap (after Goya’s Dog) — Dragan Bibin

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The School Scene — Francisco Goya

Pretty Teacher — Francisco Goya

A Woman and Two Children by a Fountain — Francisco Goya

Leocadia — Francisco Goya

Happy Father’s Day!

The Straw Manikin — Francisco Goya

Leocadia — Goya

The Pop Art of Goya — Van Arno

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Singing and Dancing — Goya

Immaterials, August Cross’s Contemporary Take on Goya’s Caprichos

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August Cross’s Immaterials—new from indie Inpatient Press—is a dark, strange hybrid of art and poetry. Cross offers 32 chapters here, each combining a stark, rough black and white and gray watercolor with a spare (not-quite) haiku. Cross takes his lead from Francisco Goya here—specifically Goya’s black and white aquatint series, Los Caprichos, and the later etching series The Disasters of War. Cross’s contemporary riff on Goya is apparent in the opener “unmanned,” where Goya’s witches turn into drones:

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The text accompanying the image introduces the biting, cruel irony that courses throughout Immaterials:

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While the phrase “unmanned” refers overtly to the drones themselves, it also reflects back on the attempt to completely depersonalize modern warfare—to unman, unperson both the remote pilot and the target, who becomes “no human life.” That spirit of irony and criticism, often oblique, informs all of Immaterials.

In “monolith,” Cross updates Goya’s The Third of May, 1808, ending the accompanying poem with the line: “a warning to whistleblowers”:

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In “dat capitol,” Cross transmutes Goya’s Colossus into a bizarre, dark-eyed lover, a politician gripping the capitol sensually, violently, sucking from its teat. The tone is simultaneously playful and ominous (just like Goya’s work):

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That same dark, violent humor is readily apparent in many of the pieces, like “selfie,” where a grinning cop  takes a selfie with his miserable captive, or “big game,” where “the tie is a leash / the boot is a lack / uniforms trick young men into shocked shells”:

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There’s a roughness, a rudeness to Cross’s work—a splattering of ink, a muddiness to the grays, a blurriness of line that causes the viewer to have to intensify his gaze in an attempt to resolve the picture (or perhaps look away). The poems too at first appear simple, rude, rough—Cross opts for the monosyllable, the German root. But again, an intensified gaze—a review, a reread—reveals the second and third meanings of each phrase, where the inelegant alliteration of “shocked shells” hides the vacant human subject—the shell, its immaterial essence choked out.

Immaterials presents a sharp if oblique critique of contemporary American society, perhaps summed up best in the two faces in the center of this detail from “gaol over-crowded:

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Might the howl of the center left figure turn into a laugh? A bark? Either way, it’s tempered by the grimace of the man center right, who focuses intently away from the gaze of the viewer, aiming sights on something the viewer cannot see, can never see.