Into the Black

Until an illness drove him mad, Goya was simply a Spanish court painter. But in his portraits of the Altamira family, had the darkness already begun to stir?

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Francisco Goya was felled by a mysterious illness in 1792. He didn’t die, he just fell. The illness made him dizzy and disoriented. Goya stumbled; he teetered. He was nauseous. Voices sounded in his head. He was frequently in terror. His hearing began to fail. Soon, he was completely deaf. By all accounts, he was temporarily insane at points. Then he recovered, though he would never regain his hearing.

Before the illness, Goya had been a successful painter for the Spanish court. He was good, but unremarkable. After the illness, Goya became the extraordinary artist whose paintings — like The Third Of May 1808 — are among the most celebrated works in the history of art. In the late 1790s, Goya began working on a
series of prints known as Los Caprichos. The Caprichos are commonly interpreted as satire. Goya was making fun of society’s corruptions and stupidities. Goya himself described the Caprichos as illustrating “the innumerable foibles and follies to be found in any civilized society, and from the common prejudices and deceitful practices which custom, ignorance, or self-interest have made usual.” The most famous print from the Caprichos is number 43, which bears the inscription: “El sueño de la razon produce monstrous,” or, “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.” You’ve likely seen the print. It shows a man, presumably Goya, asleep with his head on a desk. He’s been writing or drawing something. Behind the sleeping man are a number of creatures. Some of the creatures are owls. There are also bats. A lynx sits at the foot of the desk looking directly at the sleeping man. Goya’s fascination with monsters and the edge of reason stayed with him until his dying day.

In his early 70s, Goya had another bout of illness. This second illness caused Goya to begin his final series of paintings, known as the Black Paintings. These were done on the walls of a house Goya had purchased outside Madrid. The Black Paintings are muddy and impressionistic. They depict scenes of loneliness, despair, violence, and witchcraft. Perhaps the most famous of the Black Paintings is Saturn Devouring his Son. It shows the scene from Greek mythology where Cronus (Saturn) eats his children in order to thwart the prophecy that he will be overthrown by one of his own sons. In the painting, a wild-eyed Saturn tears bloody pieces from a headless corpse. The Black Paintings are unforgettable. They are the product of a man struggling with unnamable terrors, visions from just beyond the cusp.

The current small exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Goya and the Altamira Family,” displays four portraits Goya painted in the decade before his illness. Goya painted members of the Altamira family because they were aristocrats and he was a painter of the Spanish nobility. It was a good job and, at the time, Goya was proud of his success. He was making quite a lot of money. He was hobnobbing in exclusive circles.

The exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum reunites four members of the Altamira family, all of whom had their portraits painted by Goya. There is the Count of Altamira, Vicente Joaquin Osorio Moscoso y Guzmán, a dwarf who was the Director of the National Bank of Spain. There is a young boy, Vicente Osorio de Moscoso, Count of Trastamara, whom Goya portrays with a small, annoying dog. There is María Ignacia Álvarez de Toledo y Gonzaga, the Count’s terrified-looking wife, who holds a little girl on her lap. And there is the youngest boy of the Altamira family, Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuñiga, whose portrait is the most famous of the four. It is often referred to as “Red Boy.” Little Manuel is dressed in an impressive red outfit, with silk sashes. He holds a string, which is attached to the leg of a magpie. The magpie grasps in his beak Goya’s own calling card.

At least three of these portraits (“Red Boy” being the exception) would have faded into obscurity if not for the fact that the man who painted them later contracted a mysterious illness, went more or less crazy, and then produced some of the strangest and most compelling works of art the world has ever known. It is therefore impossible, now, to look at paintings from the earlier part of Goya’s career without seeing them in the light of his later work. These portraits are no different. We find them compelling mostly because they are by Goya, and we find Goya compelling because of the art he made much later, art he could have only dreamed of producing back when he painted these portraits of the Altamira family.

But was Goya, in the 1780s, already “dreaming” about the work he would later produce? Are there hints of the later Goya to be found in these far more conventional portraits? Was the young Goya, the ambitious painter running around in the courtly milieu of late 18th-century Spain, already having strange visions?

I think we can safely say that he was. That’s because of the cats. In the portrait of the little boy, Manuel Altamira, there are cats. Two cats sit on the floor, just behind little Manuel. The cats stare intently at the magpie attached to Manuel’s string. As has oft been noted, this adds a disturbing element to the portrait. Manuel walks his magpie in childish innocence. But the child does not realize that his bird is in danger, that these housecats look upon a scenario almost too good to be true.

There is something funny about the scene. Something droll. Manuel is a child. But he is also not a child since, as a member of the powerful Altamira family, he is a scion. Just look at the finery of his clothing. This is a boy who is not allowed to get dirty, not allowed to yank or pull at his collar. He is allowed to play. But he is also not allowed to play. His form of play is walking a magpie around the house on a string. The boy is trapped in layers of refinement that he cannot possibly understand. His fate is sealed, as the saying goes, though he is far too young to realize what this means. The cats, then, are a clue to us, the viewers, that the boy is party to a drama about which he is mostly oblivious. He knows nothing about court intrigues, just as he is unaware that the cats behind him are eagerly sizing up his pet bird.

Many critics have discussed the cats in “Red Boy.” In a review of an exhibition of the painting at the Metropolitan Museum in 1928, Elisabeth L. Cary wrote, “But when we come to the foreground episode involving the two cats, a raven, and a cage full of birds, the painter seems to have felt himself on trial before the interrogations of a child’s mind.” The interesting thing about this comment is that Ms. Cary explicitly numbers the cats. There are two cats, she writes. In fact, there are not two cats in the painting. There are three cats. The third cat stands behind the other two cats. That part of the painting lies in deep shadow. It may be a black cat. It is mostly detectable by its wide eyes, which shine out of the darkness.

The third cat in the portrait of Manuel Altamira is like a visitor from the Caprichos or the Black Paintings of Goya’s later career. This cat is not involved, so much, in the drollery with the bird and the oblivious child. The direction of the third cat’s gaze is difficult to pin down. Sometimes he seems to look at the bird. But he also looks past the bird. Maybe the third cat is looking at us.

In the most famous print from the Caprichos, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, we see a number of creatures with wide, startled eyes. One creature, more in shadow than the rest, looks over the back of the sleeping man. This might be an owl. But the creature also has a cat-like quality. We don’t see any wings and the creature sits perched as a cat might sit. His eyes meet ours directly.

The fear of cats has always been different than the fear, for instance, of dogs. A dog can be fierce. A dog can attack a person and do harm. But the fear, here, is physical. The fear of cats is less tangible. Cats are strange. They are, sometimes, otherworldly. Cats operate on a plane of existence that does not always seem directly connected to our own. A cat will stare, sometimes, at nothing at all. Or is it something we can’t see?

When Goya contracted his terrible illness, he was shaken to the core. The illness changed him — it forced him to look at the world in a different way. Goya began to consider the possibility that the world contains monsters. He had seen and heard those monsters while he was sick. But the monsters stayed even after the sickness went away. In the Caprichos, Goya plays with the idea that ghosts and goblins and ghouls lurk about in the shadows. Within a few years, Goya didn’t need to draw fairytale creatures like goblins to give form to the monsters in his head. Napoleon’s army had invaded Spain. A guerilla war was raging all around the country. Goya witnessed the brutality of this war. His Caprichos morphed into a series of prints known as The Disasters of War. Many of these prints are difficult to look at.

They are difficult to look at because they force us to see what we don’t want to see. Plate 44 bears the inscription, “I saw this.” It shows a group of people fleeing. One man grabs another man and lurches forward. A woman holds the arms of his child as the child looks back. All of the people have witnessed something so horrible that they can’t stop looking, even as they know they must escape. It isn’t clear exactly what the people in the print have seen, nor what Goya saw in writing, “I saw this.” But that doesn’t matter — what Plate 44 brings into presence is horror itself.

The word “monster” comes originally from the Latin verb “monstrare.” Monstrare means, most literally, “to point out” or “to show.” From this ostensive definition it derives its more abstract meanings “to demonstrate” or “to teach.” Goya always had special talents when it came to showing us monsters, because he could really see them. Some painters use their talents for seeing to show us the true nature of surfaces or to understand something deep about beauty. Not Goya. He came to realize that his talent was for spotting monsters. We can tell from the Red Boy that Goya was already seeing more than most people, that the monsters were already with him. His third cat looks out from the darkness as if to ask, “Are your eyes open? Can you see this too?” • 21 May 2014

 

Morgan Meis has a PhD in Philosophy and is a founding member of Flux Factory, an arts collective in New York. He has written for n+1, The Believer, Harper’s Magazine, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. He won the Whiting Award in 2013. Morgan is also an editor at 3 Quarks Daily, and a winner of a Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers grant. A book of Morgan’s selected essays can be found here. He can be reached at morganmeis@gmail.com.

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