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In Pursuit of Goya

OLD MAN GOYA: By Julia Blackburn, Pantheon Books: 240 pp., $23

October 06, 2002|BRIGITTE FRASE | Brigitte Frase is critic at large for Ruminator Review.

It's difficult to pin a label on "Old Man Goya." It's not a book of art criticism, though it describes his work and contains reproductions of etchings. It isn't a biography either, though Julia Blackburn offers a fair amount of information about his life, particularly the years after age 49, when an illness left him completely deaf. It is, like her previous books about Napoleon in exile and the eccentric Englishwoman Daisy Bates among the Australian aborigines, an imaginative attempt to penetrate the feel of their minds and the quality of their experience of the sensuous world.

This modest book is a digressive ramble alongside Francisco Goya (he later added the ennobling "de"), who lived to be 82. Blackburn retraces his journeys, from the village of Fuendetodos, where he was born in 1746, to the places he inhabited in Madrid, Zaragoza, in the countryside and finally in Bordeaux, where he died in 1828. She looks for faces and bodies that resemble his subjects, fancies him sitting by her side as she watches a bullfight and tries to imagine the creative process that went into his "Tauromachia" series of etchings.

Blackburn's book is also a ruminative essay on resilience and mortality. She begins with her own artist mother's dying and recalls that her first childhood encounter with Goya came from looking at her mother's copy of a series of etchings called "Caprichos." Despite their name, these are not whimsical caprices but ambiguous, sometimes ugly depictions of people, animals, nightmarish creatures. They, along with a later series he called "Disparates," or nonsense tales, anticipate the eerie and sinister atmospherics of Surrealist painters such as Max Ernst and Giorgio de Chirico.

Goya was an amazingly inventive artist. He became the court painter to King Carlos IV and painted single portraits and group scenes. What Blackburn notices but does not attempt to explain is that Goya not only doesn't flatter his subjects, he shows them as the inbred feebleminded family they are. (Amazingly enough, they didn't object. Maybe they only noticed Goya's attention to details of clothes and backgrounds.) And he paints heir Ferdinand with the prescient look of an artist who has studied faces and recognizes an evil mind behind a bland face. It's in the eyes. Ferdinand restored the Inquisition in Spain after France sacked it; Spain was a sideshow to Napoleon's war with England in the years 1808 to 1812.

The only reason I know what those portraits look like is because I went to a bookstore and looked them up in a glossy art book. Blackburn only describes them. Also, she's made the rather viewer-unfriendly decision of reproducing the copper plates of Goya's etchings rather than the final black-and-white images. So the hues are reversed, which makes them hard to decipher; all the more difficult because the reproductions are in dull dark and pale grays. Her reasoning is that she wants us to see what Goya first looked at in his etching process, but her decision blunts the force of the pictures; we're looking through fog.

When war came to Spain, Goya was living in his country house west of Madrid with his mistress Leocadia and her or their daughter Rosario. He began to cover every wall of the house with strange and terrible pictures. When he went to Madrid and Zaragoza, he saw the pillage and destruction, the mutilated carcasses, the obscene hangings and maimings that became the subject of his paintings and etchings called "The Disasters of War." Here Blackburn makes an interesting point. He could hear nothing, but his pictures seem full of noise, guns, shouts and lamentations. It is as if his eyes were doing double duty. His pictures gain a terrible intensity from that synesthetic merging.

When Ferdinand's Inquisition began asking questions about Goya's loyalty, he fled to Bordeaux. Old, often sick--even a bout of yellow fever--he kept working and experimenting. He began carving ivory miniatures and learned lithography. He wrote, "I lack everything but my will power and that I have in excess."

Blackburn's impressionistic approach to Goya is too lax. She admits her Spanish is rudimentary and claims, "Goya leaves everyone free to make their own interpretation of the kind of person he was; what he believed in or did not ... who he loved ... whether he was tormented by savage nightmares ... or was simply a witness ...." In other words, "Old Man Goya" is a personal memoir with a novel about Goya woven into it. She wrote what she liked, but whether she has truly served Goya is doubtful.

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