Thursday, December 27, 2007

Francisco Goya: a life in art

A New Jersey truck driver pleaded guilty last week to the theft of the Goya painting “Children with a Cart” in November 2006. Steven Lee Olsen faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a fine of $250,000 under the reduced charge of theft of an object of cultural heritage. The painting is worth over a million dollars and is owned by the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio. It was on its way to an exhibition at New York’s Guggenheim Museum when it was stolen from a truck as the drivers stay overnight in a Pennsylvania motel. Olsen was one of the drivers. The painting itself was recovered after Olson told the FBI to say he had found the painting in his basement. It didn’t take long for authorities to conclude it was an inside job.

"Children with a Cart" was considered one of the FBI’s top ten art crimes. Goya painted it in 1778 as a model for a tapestry planned for the bedroom of a Spanish prince. It depicts four colourfully-dressed children and a wooden cart at the base of a dark tree, with a billowing cloud in the background. Francisco de Goya (1746-1828) is considered one of the world's greatest artists and one of the first "modern" painters. But he defies easy categorisation. Robert Hughes said it was the difficulty of pinning Goya down that keeps him alive and fresh.

Goya was born on 30 March 1746 in the village of Fuendetodos near Zaragoza in what was then the kingdom of Aragon. His mother, Gracia Lucientes, came from the lower ranks of the landed gentry - the Spanish hidalgos. The family moved to Zaragoza where she married Goya's father; a member of the Goldsmith's Guild. Aged 13, young Francisco began an apprenticeship to the painter Jose Luzan. He fell under the influence of fellow painters the Bayeu brothers, Ramon and Francisco. He also met their sister Josefa with whom he would fall in love.

Goya’s earliest jobs were religious works for the churches in and around Zaragoza. In 1772 he gained a big commission. This two-year job was to paint a cycle of scenes in oils of the Life of the Virgin Mary on the walls of Carthusian monastery of the Aula Dei near Zaragoza. Though some of this work was later damaged by leakage and seepage. It was then restored by French painters and the seven of the eleven panels that survive are his largest extant work. In 1774, aged 28, he married Josefa Bayeu in Madrid. He joined her brothers at the Royal Academy of Fine Art where they procured him work for the Royal Tapestry Workshop.

Over the next five years, he would paint designs for over forty patterns (including “Children with a Cart”) for the workshop. The tapestries would eventually decorate the royal palaces. And as Goya established himself, Madrid would become his city. Over the next 40 years he would paint its life and make portraits of its royalty and ordinary citizens. In the end he would leave over 130 paintings to Madrid’s magnificent Museo Del Prado.

Back in 1783 Goya was not thinking of the end but he tired of the limiting scope of the tapestries. He eagerly took the commission when the Count of Floridablanca asked him to paint his portrait. This work would prove to be his entry into regal circles. His patrons included the Duke and Duchess of Osuna and eventually King Charles III. In 1788 Charles died and his son Charles IV succeeded him. Young Charles would reign for almost two decades and made Goya his chief court painter. Yet Goya never overly flattered his new patron. The French novelist Theòphile Gautier said of Goya’s true-to-life 1792 painting of the royal family: "It looks as if he has painted the corner baker and his wife after they have won the lottery."

Tragedy struck in 1792. With Goya seemingly at the height of his fame and success he was struck down with fever. The illness was cured but left him permanently deaf. Isolated by his inability to hear, his painting retreated back into himself. They became intense and incredibly dark. Goya became increasingly preoccupied with fantasies of his own imagination and with critical and satirical observations of mankind. He evolved a bold new style that was very close to caricature. The religious frenzy of that style is exemplified by Burial of the Sardine (1816) which was a stark depiction of the Saturnalia of the Ash Wednesday festival in Madrid.

In 1799 he plunged deep into his inner self to produce perhaps his greatest work, Los Caprichos. They were a series of 80 aquatinted etchings that satirised human folly and weakness. Caprichos means caprices or whims, and they are astonishing, fantastical ideas. About 20 are about witchcraft, while another 25 treat the problems of sex and marriage and the miseries of love. The most famous of the series is the nightmarish plate 43 which he called "The sleep of reason produces monsters". While the artist sleeps, his fantasy is no longer controlled by reason and he is exposed to horrific beings that threaten to overcome him. Too satirical and too dark (and dangerously subversive), the series flopped with the public.

But more pressing political problems entered Goya’s life with the rise of Napoleon. Spain initially supported France in their continental blockade of Britain but withdrew in 1805 after the Battle of Trafalgar. Though Spain tried to switch sides again after France defeated Prussia in the Battle of Jena, Napoleon was now distrusting of the Spanish and sent 100,000 troops across the border to signal his intent. In 1808 Charles IV abdicated in favour of his son, but Napoleon installed his brother Joseph as king. The ensuing Peninsular War would lead to Napoleon’s downfall.

The war began when the people of Madrid rebelled in early May 1808. They attacked the French on 2 May and on the next day, the French shot most of the insurgents. These two days would become important in Spanish history. The Spanish would go on use irregular tactics to defeat the French and brought the word ‘guerrilla’ (from Spanish ‘little war’) into existence. The now 62 year old Goya painted his series called “The Disasters of War” that chronicled the battlefield horror of these tumultuous times in the fashion of a vicarious war correspondent.

His two most famous paintings (both 1814) of the era document the symbolic events of initial Madrid uprising. His “The Second of May 1808” also known as The Charge of the Mamelukes depicts the beginning of the uprising when the elite Egyptian Mamelukes of the French Imperial Guard charge and subdue the rioters. The painting is dramatic and chaotic. But for sheer impact, it is dwarfed by his depiction of the events of the following day “The Third of May 1808” when rebels are lined up and shot by the firing squads. This nighttime painting is grand and tragic with the central whiteclad defiant figure reminiscent of the crucifixion. It is Goya’s masterpiece.

In later life, Goya went into semi-retirement when he bought a farmhouse across the river from Madrid named Quinta del Sordo ("Deaf Man's House") named not for him but for its previous owner, also stone deaf. While he no longer worked at court, his passion for painting continued. Goya’s late style is frightening and mysterious. He painted a series of 14 nightmarish paintings known simply as The Black Paintings. Most famous of these was Saturn Devouring His Sons. This scene of the god Saturn consuming a child was a coded reference to Spain's civil conflicts.

In 1824, he left Madrid after 50 years. He could no longer bear the misrule of Spain under the autocratic Ferdinand VII and went into surreptitious exile. He went to a French spa to take the waters before settling in Bordeaux. He died there in 1828 aged 82. He was initially buried in Bordeaux before his remains were exhumed and returned to Spain in 1901. He was moved again in 1928 to his final resting place. This was the church known as Real Ermita de San Antonio de la Florida. It is called Madrid´s Sistine Chapel for its ornate ceilings painting by Goya himself in 1798. The frescoes portray a celebrated miracle by Saint Anthony of Padua. Goya’s remains (minus his stolen head, never recovered) now lie under the beautiful angels he painted. As Robert Hughes aptly puts, Goya was one of those uncommon artists that had the daring to take on the whole of human experience. Few artists before or since have approached his vision and talent.

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