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Impossible Monsters

On Goya and Hogarth.


Goya: A Portrait of the Artist

Janis Tomlinson Princeton University Press, pp. 448, $35.00

Goya’s Graphic Imagination

Mark McDonald The Metropolitan Museum of Art, pp. 320, $50.00

Le dernier Goya, de reporter de guerre à chroniqueur de Bordeaux

Maria Santos-SainzCairn, pp. 205, €20.00

Hogarth: Life in Progress

Jacqueline Riding Profile Books, pp. 541, £30.00

Hogarth and Europe

Martin Myrone & Alice Insley Tate Publishing, pp. 208, £40.00

By Jaspreet Singh Boparai

The work of minor artists and writers is rarely a struggle to understand. Individual relationships to patrons, audiences and society in general might be fraught or complex; aspects of their work might have become obscure with the passage of time; but the work itself tends to be complicated only insofar as it might not be fully thought through. You can always figure out who or what influenced a minor figure, and how, because such writers and artists are content to borrow, imitate, copy, and generally follow fashions. Others influence them and they go with the flow.

The work of minor artists and writers is rarely a struggle to understand. Individual relationships to patrons, audiences and society in general might be fraught or complex; aspects of their work might have become obscure with the passage of time; but the work itself tends to be complicated only insofar as it might not be fully thought through. You can always figure out who or what influenced a minor figure, and how, because such writers and artists are content to borrow, imitate, copy, and generally follow fashions. Others influence them and they go with the flow.

Things are different with the great: they create, they influence, they innovate and renew, even beyond their own ability to explain how they transformed their materials into the results they achieved. But if they themselves can’t articulate the process, why should we trust others to do it on their behalf?

The Francophile man of letters Leandro Fernández de Moratín, like most of the major figures of the “Spanish Enlightenment,” remains little known outside of Spain. But he was the outstanding dramatist of his generation, as well as the finest lyric poet (which is not to say that the competition was necessarily stiff). In general Moratín’s work is accomplished and attractive, but very much of its time; even his popular comedies would be difficult to stage without commentary (or heavy adaptation), because they are so rooted in the Madrileño culture of his era. Yet his correspondence and travel journals of the 1790s are often fascinating for what they reveal about various societies in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Moratín happened to find himself in Paris on August 10, 1792, when revolutionaries stormed the Tuileries; within days he was en route to London, where he ended up spending a year. In his journals, the writer delightedly describes his discovery of eighteenth-century satirical engravings:

The English caricatures are highly amusing: there are stalls and shops in London that sell them in great numbers. All subjects are treated in these pictures: literature, morality, and politics in particular, provide material of all kinds for those who manufacture these grotesque squibs, and are thus able to bring out new inventions every day. Do you wish to ridicule a writer, the most learned and respectable of his breed? Then you need only employ one of these daubers who will hold him up to ridicule with four lines and a daub of color, then place him in the public eye so that no passer-by will fail to laugh to see him cut a clownish figure. These caricatures often complement or even exceed the criticism of the bitterest satirical attacks. I have seen the manners, customs and virtues of every country ridiculed in these sheets: . . . all the vices of man in society are exposed to laughter and public scorn.

Moratín was, by temperament and vocation, a satirist. In his journals, he analyses English satirical prints with the eye of a professional seeking to learn from colleagues who are working in another language, another medium, and an apparently freer society. Art historians have been interested in Moratín less for his own sake than for his circle of friends, allies, and patrons which included the artist Francisco Goya, who excelled in every genre of painting and drawing, but now seems most celebrated for the dark, bitter, alarming visions that came to dominate his work after he suffered a terrifying collapse in his mental and physical health in the 1790s and permanently lost his hearing. Goya’s most powerful, memorable work was produced after he recovered from this illness.

Moratín’s journals and letters have helped scholars put together a picture of a liberal, skeptical, philosophically up-to-date Goya who welcomed the French Revolution, derided the Church, scorned the Inquisition, rejected the authority of kings and nobles, and otherwise held the sort of views that, in a more enlightened age, would surely have led to a suspiciously familiar range of bumper stickers on a Prius parked in front of a university administration building. There may be an element of projection in such a depiction (not to mention wishful thinking). Much of Goya’s surviving correspondence has been translated into English and collected in Goya: A Life in Letters. The man seems impossible to pin down. We know both too much about him and too little: we can eavesdrop on all the in-jokes and intimate details included in his correspondence with his best friend, the Saragossa entrepreneur Martín Zapater; we have a great deal of technical information about his work; his social circles are well-documented; but we know next to nothing of value about Goya’s inner life, or his public persona in society, and lack the sort of clues that would enable us confidently to interpret the often-mysterious images he created in the latter half of his life, after he became completely deaf in around 1794 (the precise timelines remain unclear).

We lack conclusive evidence that Goya was acquainted at first hand with English satirical engravings; on the other hand there is no reason to assume that he was unfamiliar with the work of James Gillray, Thomas Rowlandson, Isaac Cruikshank or any of the other Georgian caricaturists. But a direct connection is difficult to trace. No expert has ever convincingly demonstrated precisely how these artists might have influenced Goya. The strongest arguments against such a possibility will be found in Goya’s own prints. Not only is their “satirical” content often difficult to interpret (or in fact to read as “satire” at all); also, they are so much richer, stranger, more accomplished—in a word, better—than anything produced by his contemporaries among the English satirical engravers.

As drawings the English prints are often awkward, or even shoddy; the subjects have become alien with time; the jokes are wholly lost on us; in fact, it takes a deep immersion in the relevant history of the period to have a chance of understanding why these pictures might have once been funny. Purely from a technical point of view, as visual storytelling, these prints tend to be incompetent; anyone who has tried to examine such images has had the maddening experience of trying to read line after line of tiny text that contains material that might have once made normal people laugh, simply as a means of understanding what is going on in the picture. What does any of this have to do with Goya, whose images are still arresting, and retain an immediate impact?

Perhaps Goya was inspired by someone greater. The father of the English satirical print, William Hogarth, is without doubt the finest artist ever to have worked in this genre. Inevitably a satirist’s work is topical and ephemeral, though Hogarth had the wit to create work that would outlast the situations that inspired it. This might have been the result of purely commercial calculations, of course: you can sell more copies of an image at full price if it turns out not to be obsolete within six months; and your market is larger if your work is comprehensible outside an audience of a few thousand political insiders in London.

Hogarth seems to have so much in common with Goya, at least superficially, that it seems impossible not to find evidence of a direct influence. As artists, both men were late bloomers, and only began producing characteristic work in their thirties; though this means that their work improved with each passing year so that many of their most durable prints and paintings were produced in the last years of their lives. Also, although Hogarth and Goya are most renowned for their engravings, perhaps their most proficient work is as portrait artists in oils. Yet each artist remains best remembered for darkly comic, satirical images of the sort that only a hardened pessimist could dream up. But all these parallels are flimsy, and do not necessarily add up to a spiritual kinship.

We know relatively little of Hogarth’s life before 1732. His father Richard was a Cumbrian of modest background who appears to have enjoyed the benefits of a classical education, such as they were for such a luckless individual. Perhaps he found solace in the bleak, gloomy, comfort-free wisdom of Seneca’s tragedies: Richard Hogarth’s Latin and Greek bought him nothing but hardship, failure and disappointment. In 1704 he famously opened a coffee-house in St John’s Gate in London where patrons were encouraged to speak in Latin; it is no surprise to learn that within a few years he was imprisoned for debt. For a while following his release, Hogarth Senior taught Latin to schoolboys, and tried to earn a little extra money by writing textbooks for children; he did not survive for very long, expiring in 1718, worn out by the exertions of trying to compile a Latin dictionary, and broken “by disappointments from great men’s promises,” as his son later wrote.

William Hogarth spent seven years as a goldsmith’s apprentice, and went into business in 1720 as an engraver. At the age of twenty-three he finally began drawing lessons at the St. Martin’s Lane Academy (which closed its doors in 1725), and was always self-conscious about his lack of formal training as a draughtsman. In 1728 he finally mustered the courage to begin painting, and in 1734 he painted A Rake’s Progress, which was published as a series of engravings in 1735, and remains one of his best-loved works.

Hogarth was at his best as a portrait painter. His self-portraits make you instantly like the man. He seems honest, frank, and worthy of your trust. You also get the sense that he was a good friend. His portrait of the actor David Garrick as Richard III captures the great man’s charisma and magnetism as a performer. When this was painted, Hogarth was acquainted with Garrick mainly from the stage. Later they became close friends: you see this very well in the portrait that also features Garrick’s beautiful Viennese-born wife Eva-Marie Veigel. He was sensitive to beauty but never merely flattered his friends: this is clear from his 1742 portrait (now in the Frick Collection in New York) of the richest woman in England, Miss Mary Edwards. What dangerous eyes she has. Yet his most captivating single portrait must be The Shrimp Girl, an undated oil sketch now in the National Gallery of a nameless cheerful subject who is balancing a tray of shellfish for sale on top of her head. Around the same time he painted this, Hogarth also produced a hilariously unflattering portrait of George Arnold, Esq., of Ashby Lodge. Hogarth brilliantly depicts the sitter’s nervous, brittle, anxious desire to be treated with respect—a pompous man, except for the fear in his eyes.

Today we think of Hogarth principally as a storyteller, who pioneered a kind of original narrative technique; whereas the Old Masters before him essentially illustrated scenes from the Bible, classical myth, ancient and modern history, saints’ lives, and epic poetry, Hogarth invented the stories that were immortalised in his series A Harlot’s Progress, Southwark Fair, Before and After, The Four Times of Day, Marriage à la Mode and so on. Perhaps there is some truth to this view, though it needs heavy qualification. For one thing, Hogarth was surprisingly maladroit at the simple business of telling a story in visual terms.

Hogarth’s engraved series must be examined in a library or in private, up close, one by one, with the aid of a bright light, and no spectators impatiently looking over your shoulder and clearing their throats as they await their turn to stand and stare at each image. They require a great deal of verbal commentary before they become fully legible. You might attribute this awkwardness to the difference between a black-and-white engraving and a full-color painted original. Yet for all the paintings’ often brilliant coloring and lively visual textures, these too do not always succeed at telling their stories.

Hogarth could evoke simple scenes and situations very well, as in The Sleeping Congregation and the seduction pictures Before and After. But even at the height of his powers, as in the masterly, dizzyingly sophisticated four-image series Humours of an Election, Hogarth never quite acquired the knack of leading the viewer’s eye around the composition in the way that, for example, Pieter Bruegel the Elder achieved in his “peasant” images. Also, despite having trained as an engraver, Hogarth could be bizarrely awkward and lacking in confidence when it came to translating his own paintings into engravings. Perhaps this was the result of having second thoughts about his originals and feeling powerless to alter the images.

Throughout his career, Hogarth seems never to have felt that his hand and eye could keep up with his imagination. You can feel the strain sometimes; he has so much to express that could not possibly be included in a single image. This quality makes some of his most celebrated work exhausting to contemplate. Yet sometimes the pendulum swung in the other direction, as in the 1747 series Industry and Idleness, which is a little too pat and predictable in terms of its storytelling. Indeed, the heavy-handed moralizing in this series reminds one of Dickens at his worst. Hogarth’s restless observation and satirical wit have not disappeared; but they sit uncomfortably on a subject that is unworthy of the artist’s genius.

Hogarth’s worst “satirical” painting might be The Gate of Calais, in which all the artist’s skill is wasted on a mildly funny anti-French joke. The execution is wholly out of proportion with the subject, which can barely sustain the weight of a cartoon indifferently sketched on a napkin, let alone a full-scale oil painting by one of the very finest English artists of the past three centuries. The picture is annoying because of the sheer quantity of misdirected talent and energy.

For all these, we should not forget that Hogarth really was a master: look at his engravings Four Groups of Heads, Characters or Simon, Lord Lovat. These by themselves wholly justify his reputation. Yet they are not even his very best work: his real masterpieces were produced in the 1750s, shortly before his body began to fail.

Among his prints, Beer Street and its counterpart Gin Lane are justly celebrated; though around the same time Hogarth produced the finest of his narrative series, The Four Stages of Cruelty, and the most unjustly neglected of his engravings, Paul Before Felix Burlesqued, in which he pokes fun at Rembrandt as well as his own work. The Bench and The Cockpit demonstrate Hogarth’s gift for capturing character and crowds better than much of his most famous work might; and one of his very last efforts, his disparaging 1763 portrait of the libertine radical John Wilkes, achieves the miracle of demolishing the subject’s reputation purely through showing what he looked like.

Yet Hogarth’s art, for all the occasional harshness or fury, is the work of a good-humoured, clubbable character. The worst expression on his face is a wry smirk; he never leers or sneers, as his portrait of the cross-eyed John Wilkes does. Hogarth depicts a world in which justice exists and self-improvement is possible; his skepticism never hardens into pessimism, despair, or a vision of absurdity and horror. In this respect he differs radically from Goya, to the point where you wonder whether the two are even vaguely relevant to one another.

Goya was the son of a guilder; he was brought up in Saragossa, which was then a city of thirty-five thousand or so inhabitants. When he was fourteen, he may have witnessed a rare public auto-da-fé for Orosia Morena, a recalcitrant heretic who had been held by the Inquisition for three years. Fifty years later, Goya drew this alleged witch in one of his notebooks, along with an inscription, which Goya’s most recent biographer Janis Tomlinson translates thus: “They put a gag on her because she spoke/and they hit her in the face/I saw her in Saragossa/Orosia Morena/because she knew how to make mice.”

Other scholars might look at this drawing and leap to the conclusion that Goya was a progressive-spirited reformer in the tradition of the French philosophes. But Tomlinson has made it her life’s work to demonstrate the many ways in which Goya’s mind is impossible to read.

Goya began his apprenticeship as an artist around the age of thirteen. Somehow he found the money to spend two years traveling around Italy; shortly afterwards, he won his first public commission, from the Archdiocese of Saragossa. His early works provide little hint of what he would later produce; much of his work at this period consists of frescoes for churches, and elaborate designs for large-scale tapestries.

These tapestry “cartoons” cannot be judged in the way that you would evaluate an altarpiece or portrait; after all, they were meant as patterns for decorative wall-hangings, not as independent works of art. Indeed, weavers at the tapestry factories often complained that Goya’s forms were not clear—so much for the “painterly” qualities that are so valued by connoisseurs of art. But at least Goya’s sense of color and composition pleased his finicky patrons; he was also a natural courtier—not to mention an excellent shot. Powerful nobles began to enjoy his company both whilst hunting and in the salon.

In 1773, Goya married the sister of Francisco Bayeu y Subías, who was a court painter as well as an influential professor of art at the royal academy. The brothers-in-law eventually fell out, and became professional rivals; but Goya owed his early success to Bayeu, who enabled him to move to Madrid and study the royal collections at his leisure.

The best way to learn the secrets of the Old Masters is to copy their works systematically; in 1778 Goya published a series of etchings based on some of Velázquez’s iconic paintings. These are shrewdly executed, though serve as a reminder that Goya rarely left fingerprints when he stole from others. We know that he learned a great deal from Velázquez; yet we have no idea what exactly he learnt, because he absorbed the lessons so completely, whatever they were.

Goya’s first great painting might be The Family of the Infante Don Luis, a large-scale group portrait that has the candour and intimacy of a surreptitious photograph. He excelled at capturing family dynamics, particularly between young children who do not want to sit still and pose, and their politely embarrassed parents, as in The Family of the Duques de Osuna. But how did he learn how to do this? There is no obvious precedent, in Velázquez, the Dutch masters of the Golden Age, or anything else he could have seen in Madrid. We are left to conclude that he simply observed things, and tried to set them down on canvas.

In 2015, the National Gallery in London held a major exhibition of Goya’s portraits: art historians strained to develop an acceptable narrative to hold the pictures together, because Goya was not tribal when it came to accepting commissions, or choosing whom to paint for; on the contrary, he appears to have liked everyone who sat for him. The pictures in this exhibition were in many ways more revealing even than Goya’s correspondence. He seems to have got along with everybody, even people he is thought to have disliked.

Scholars since the nineteenth century have preferred to emphasize Goya’s friendships with reform-minded intellectuals; but these friends do not necessarily make up a coherent grouping; nor do we have much real evidence for how far the artist agreed with such and such a friend on various issues. After all, he was perfectly capable of maintaining friendships with men who were one another’s mortal enemies. Ultimately Goya seems not to have been too concerned about what his friends thought; he was more concerned with whether or not they were good company.

In 1793 or 1794, as he began his slow recovery from the mysterious illness that robbed him of his hearing, Goya began painting again, initially for himself and close friends. He completed at least a dozen or so small oils on tin plates; these are the first of Goya’s images to focus on cruel, brutal, upsetting scenes. The most shocking of these is the Courtyard with Lunatics, a dramatic chiaroscuro image alternating between blinding light and murky shadow; two naked men wrestle, surrounded by asylum inmates who either react with great agitation, or else are preoccupied with delusions of their own.

Goya’s depictions of war, witchcraft, crime, insanity and other such potentially macabre subjects are often presented as satirical, and coherent with the “enlightened” views of French-influenced intellectuals. This is the fundamental view of the 1989 exhibition Goya and the Spirit of the Enlightenment, whose catalog remains an essential resource for students of Goya. But thirty years on scholars appear to be increasingly resigned to the possibility that Goya might not have been the logical, materialist critic of “superstition” that educated people so often want him to be. The Metropolitan Museum’s first-rate catalog for the exhibition Goya’s Graphic Imagination is all the more valuable for its tacit acceptance that Goya might not be “one of us.”

We have five albums of Goya’s private drawings, which date from between 1794 and 1823 or so. Some of these are preparation for more ambitious work; but many are simply explorations of the artist’s sometimes morbid preoccupations. One album fixates on the Inquisition; another features image after image of old women and witches. In 1799, Goya published eighty disturbing aquatints under the title Los Caprichos; these include the well-known print whose caption is as famous as the image that illustrates it: “The sleep of Reason produces monsters: imagination abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters; united with her, she is the mother of the arts and the source of her wonders.

The deaf, elderly Goya was happy to abandon his “Reason” from time to time, or at least allow it frequent, lengthy siestas, as when he produced the etchings of Los Disparates (1819) which are, if anything, even more harsh and visually arresting than Los Caprichos. These weird, sometimes frightening visions have the same nightmarish qualities as the infamous “Black Paintings” that were originally painted on the walls of Goya’s country villa, and are now in the Prado. The most horrible of these is the wild, bloody image of the god Saturn devouring his children. Not all of these paintings are quite so fantastic; but they fixate largely on vice, sin, the black arts, aging and death, and are not happy pictures.

Evidently Goya saw a connection between demonic forces and vice; the question perhaps is whether he believed “demonic” forces to be literally demonic. He did not dismiss traditional superstitions; on the contrary, he appeared to fear their power. His series of prints The Disasters of War and his astonishing bullfighting images feature relatively little in the way of supernatural elements; for the most part, Goya allows his observations to speak for themselves. But he has no means of addressing or comprehending all the cruelty, oppression and violence he observed, save through symbols that might in fact not be symbols at all.

There is nothing merely psychological or symbolic about Goya’s visions of the supernatural: He might have been cynical or prone to suspicion, but he was emphatically not a skeptic. Far from being a man of the Enlightenment or Renaissance, Goya seems to have been transplanted from the Middle Ages to a more superficially “civilized” world; he lacked the literary and philosophical habits of thought that might have rendered him more comprehensible to intellectuals and academics. We cannot talk about what “influenced” him; we can only try to guess what inspired him, and hope that the inspiration was divine. After all, nobody else has ever managed to make clear just how ugly and frightening sin and evil can become.

Jaspreet Singh Boparai is a former academic.

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Jaspreet Singh Boparai is a former academic. 

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