Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do


If any painter went through not only social and political, but also personal conflicts during a most contradictory time in Spain with here the Enlightenment, there the inquisition, it was Goya.

He entered the court of the King upon having become famous but then realised more and more that the conditions under which common people were forced to live, was such a contradiction that he became disgusted with what he saw, heard, and felt while at court. Like Watteau he turned more and more towards the poor people who were still showing openly a honest face. That got him into trouble with the Inquisition, and thus he preferred exile to recanting his beliefs. Again it was a matter of coming into conflict with the then dominant authority, the church, for painting what he saw.

Carlos Fuentes wrote about Goya when the exhibition "Goya and the Spirit of Enlightenment" was shown first in Boston, then at the Metropolitan back in March and May 1989 respectively:

"Looking at Francisco de Goya through his deformed mirror, one sees the artist embrace precisely the marginal, the forgotten, the outraged, so as to include them in a vision of humanity that enlarges our own historic and human possibility by looking at what we also are, but have perhaps forgotten. Children, idiots, savages, abandoned, slaughtered, forgotten, come back to center stage through Goya's work. His parade of the Spanish people tears them away from their collective unhappiness and makes them share it with a world that is always in danger - in the 18th or the 20th, the 19th or the 21st centuries - of believing its own pieties. Goya's marginals have now become central. Like all great art, Goya's makes the past part of our present - actual, searingly contemporaneous."


   Francisco de Goya y Loucientes, Saturn Devourone of his children

During these turbulent times, the strong voice of Voltaire could be heard. As key supporter of the Enlightenment, it meant turning away from the "infamy" of religion, and therefore get rid of everything which is ignorant, filled with superstitions and in reality of savage brutality. Likewise the French philosopher the Marquis de Condorcet was convinced constant progress of mankind would lead toward final perfection. Yet he was murdered by agents of Robesspiere in 1974. Again Carlos Fuentes stated that "Saturn, once again, had devoured his children."

Goya depicted this in an amazing picture which left the viewer no other choice but confront with his or her own eyes the horror of terror and counter terror which was eating up the children of the French Revolution if not by the guillotine, then by other means as was the case with Condorcet. All that eruption of sudden violence cried for more than an explanation. It evoked all kinds of responses, including that of Hegel who condemned the French Revolution by saying first the people would be creating an institution to ensure civil life, and then they would tear it down again as if children who would in sudden anger destroy everything they had created in the children's room.

Goya's Saturn tells a lot about himself alone through the stories of the eyes. The look seems to link that of a hungry one with the one who is horrified by realising what he is doing but cannot stop it. This pleading for innocence reflects a typical attempt at escape from crimes against humanity which have been committed often by just following orders, as would claim many Nazi perpetrators when confronted by the historical question, but why they became mass murders of Jews and others? Definitely Saturn wishes to avoid such a confrontation but as savage he does what also some animals do where the father can devour one of his own children, if not safeguarded sufficiently by the mother. Somehow it must be connected to the father copying the role religion gives to the almighty God and father of Jesus. Here too the question remains unanswered why did the father allow Jesus to be cruxified if he was so almighty and therefore could have easily prevented this from happening? By allowing it to happen, it created a deep scar in the human tissue and left human conscience exposed to the rough winds of seas. 

There came the turbulent times which were created by the church instigating the inquisition as if a belief system could only be upheld by not shying away from violent means. Dostoevsky more than any other writer exposes with his description of the 'Grand Inquisitor' what Carlos Fuentes calls the paradox of the 18th century: an enforced belief in religion more than just in God for the earthly institution of the church required its own legitimization while the inquisitor himself was anything but a believer. The hypocritical nature of the power holder meant a specific strategy to keep the masses under control. The Enlightenment sought to break out of this prison by ways of reason, and more importantly, by not resorting to violence. That latter aspect has received until now but scant attention even though without non violence the Enlightenment would not be nearly that, what it claimed to be.

Francisco de Goya y Loucientes, The Royal Family, 1808

This painting of the Royal Family is remarkable due the lack of "visual diplomacy". Goya saw that Louisa, the wife of Charles IV, had the real power and therefore he placed her at the center of the group portrait. (Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francisco_Goya).

Anyone familiar with the interpretation by Michel Foucault of Velasque's Las Meninas (The Maids of Honour) painted in 1656, will understand immediately that Goya indicates likewise through the positioning of the main actors a political description of the real relationships. It amounts to a subtle assessment of the shift of power away from the king. The fact that he includes himself at the back to the left of the painting underlines furthermore that he chose this vantage point, so that he could observe better the underlying corruption and decay of the Royal Family. 

Most telling about Goya withstanding to tell a lie and instead painted the truth is what paintings he left behind after having spend some time at court. Pointedly Carlos Fuentes describes what conflicts he had to go through inside of himself, in order to stay true to his nature as an artist who does not close his eyes and paints what he sees. The personal conflicts he went through began "when he was appointed court painter in 1786, (for) he entered a world of corruption, elegance, sensuality and deceit. Beautiful duchesses, brilliant philosophers, stupid kings, ungly and unfaithful queens, venal court favorites, dashing bullfighters, and actresses on fantastic ego trips surrounded him. He would paint on command but when he did, he told the truth. Look at yourself in this mirror: you are not pretty, even if your dress is elegant. Look: you think you are a woman; you are really a serpent. You think you are a dandy; you are truly a monkey." (Carlos Fuenstes, "Goya and the Spirit of Revolution" in: ARTnews January 1989, p. 93)

Fuentes thinks that when Goya was asked to give happiness and light, he complied, but he did so with the intention to introduce the people to the aristocracy.


     Francesco de Goya y Lucientes, The women with the flowers, 1786


Peninsular War (1808–1814)

One of the most difficult conflicts to resolve for any artist is to take a clear position against war while not being pulled into the need to take sides with one or the other party involved in the conflict. Like all famous painters throughout history, they cross borders and undertake commissions given from both sides. In the case of Goya, besides doing paintings for the Spanish royalty, he painted portraits for French patrons and sympasizers. When the Peninsular war broke out in 1808, it was suspected that Goya had some connections with the court of Joseph I, the brother of Napolean Bonaparte, and the intruder into Spain. Goya mainted, however, a neutral position. Nevertheless once Ferdinand II returned to Spain in 1814, relationships between him and Goya were anything but cordial. Goya did continue to paint for the Royal family but never made any direct painting of the king himself. As a Liberal he was not in agreement with the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy. Since these historical facts are well recorded, there is no further need to extend upon them, except to acknowledge that Goya had to take great care not to be misunderstood in what was his intention as painter.

Instead it is wise to focus more closely on this painting depicting the execution of those who had been involved in the Dos de Mayo uprising, and which triggered off the Peninsula War.


   Francisco de Goya y Lousientes, 3 May 1808

The most amazing aspect of this painting is that there is not one person using the same expression of horror or looking in the eyes of what is about to happen in the same way. Aside from the already killed person lying on the ground at the front of the painting, the main figure is certainly the man with the white shirt. He stands out since he has raised his arms to show that he is not armed. It may be even a plead to spare his life. His eyes tell, however, another story. They are literally horrified what they see. For he stands vis a vis the spear headed rifles pointing in the direction of him and the other fellows by him. The contrast between the left and the right group could not be greater as if the right group either does not wish to witness as to what is about to happen or else the one holding both hands in front of his mouth at the book looks in a suspicious way as if he hopes not to be detected as having been the traitor and whose revelations has led to this calamity.

In the left group the figures can be singled out by what pose they take up. At the front there seems to be a monk like figure just judging from his attire. He looks downward but is clutching his fists as if a boxer ready to go into a fight, but if one follows the direction as to where his eyes look, then it is the ground covered already in blood. Alone all of that are significant details to understand better how Goya portrayed the human psyche in such a crucial moment, and he did not generalize but showed different responses are possible. They manifest the different attitudes people can adopt towards conflict and war.

The man beside the monk like figure and before the man with the white shirt, his eyes look upward. If one would follow the concept of Rodin who portrayed Balzac in three different poses as far as the head is concerned, looking down would mean still thinking, looking straight ahead of having found a solution and looking up to be full of inspiration which can transcend everything. But this is not the case. There is an amazing quiet tone in that simple face. So calm that his face allows the viewer to enter his psyche to realize that he believes in God who will save him, or at the very least will have to answer the question why. It is a steadfast look in an upward direction that startles.

Behind these three front figures of the left group, there are three more. One should notice as well this subtle symmetry in how Goya allows the entire drama unfold in front of the eyes of the viewer. There is the more courageous one who clutches his fist but who is in the second row and therefore a bit more safer from the onslaught about to happen. The one completely to the left just covers his eyes. He has given up and is clearly in despair. The third figure, hardly noticeable at the back, looks in another direction as if this entire drama does not concern him.

It is possible to ponder when looking at each individually what they go through. There is no suggestion of a unity in the group, but still they do constitute a group. As such they stand vis a vis another group with the soldiers about to do the shooting not in the picture. Their presence becomes as a result all the stronger through the rifles which are pointed at the group on the left. All of this underlines the great division war creates and only a stream of blood seems to bring the two sides still together even if no one takes notices of such huge waste of life.

In second painting related to the May 1808 uprising, Goya depicts a fierce battle. He paints as if someone who had been a witness and gives now an account by means of a painting which speaks loud and clear against war.

Francisco de Goya y Lousientes, 2 May 1808, 1814

Goya depicts these men with dagger ready to slain anyone as fighting not only against an outer enemy, but against themselves out of fear of having forgotten who they are really. The desparate note in the painting underlines the fact that there seems to be no turning around once a war has started. No one is willing to admit it was a mistake to start it in the first place, never mind would have the capacity or willingness to do so. Even though 'turning around' figures as key category in Hegel's philosophy when he develops his ideas on how experiences are made possible.

Again there is an interesting asymmetry involved with one side on horses, while the other approaches in a determined manner to demand with their upward looks what do you horsemen want here? It seems also not clear from the image of the painting who is really friend, who is foe? Naturally war like a tidal wave sweeps over many body who end up lying lifeless on the ground. Most dramatic is the white horse from which slides off a slain man. Again Goya uses the colour white to flash something into the eyes of the viewer. If that colour is followed, then there appears the head of another horse while three men have in their turbans a white ribbon. They are distingjuished from the officer with helmet and who is ready to strike with a sword. The cutting through the air can be heard. This time drama is on both sides and no one knows at that time where this outburst of brutality would end. As is known in history, the uprising was but the beginning of the Peninsula war which lasted from 1808 until 1814, that is six years.

Fantasy and Invention

One does not need to be a psycho-somatic doctor to be convinced that at times paintings are like psychogramms of the mental state. Goya was afraid to grow mad. He did go deaf and withdrew consequently from painting at the court to a lonely farmhouse known as "La Quinta del Sordo" (The House of the Deaf Man) There he would paint subject matters which were not commissioned and yet which was like an introspection into his imagination running wild at times not because of a delerium, but because in his search for beauty he confronted instead the horrors of war and the poverty conditions in which ordinary people were forced to live. Typical for this phase is a huge giant who sits naked on a plain and who looks back to see what is coming.


    Goya, The giant, Etching, about 1820

There is still a further interpretation, less psychological, far more art historical in nature. After all Goya lived in the era of the Enlightenment and as a Liberal, he was disappointed that once the Bourboun monarchy was restored in 1814, it rejected the Spanish constitution of 1812. It reaffirmed the old hierarchy along with the church. The crown had given it because it did not wish to lose its heads as it did in France after the French Revolution. This fear put Spain on a path of development with which Goya could hardly agree.

Yet these etchings reflect still another preoccupation for the Peninsula War had meant violence, and contrary to the aspiration of the Enlightenment, the sources of conflict lying underneath everything could not be resolved in a peaceful way. In Germany, Kant would attempt to break out of all innovations of this century and think about 'permanent peace', but he too failed to work out solutions or rather name conditions under which conflicts could be resolved through dialogue and not by means of becoming entangled in endless acts of brutal violence.

Thus the etching itself may reflect an over 'exaggerated fear' by being way out of all human proportions which Vincent Van Gogh called later the greatest of all art if it manages to observe the law of proportionality. Somehow Goya turned to internal battle fields and tried to resolve them with what Fuentes has called "a critique of reason, uncritical optimism, and unbounded faith in progress." Yet this is not enough when the question can conflicts be resolved peacefully, that is without having to resort to violence, remained largely unanswered by the advocates of the Enlightenment. Kant had stipulated everything begins with having too much fear of oneself and hence there is this tendency not to listen to the voice of reason. That may be true but is again too idealistic to be applicable in situations as Goya had witnessed and by painting scenes of war made it even more evident to what extent this question is still an open one, and which has remained largely unanswered.


Hatto Fischer

Berlin 28.2.2017

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