Treading in Goya's psychic minefield

Michael Bracewell is an author of such works as "England Is Mine: Pop Life in Albion From Wilde to Goldie" and "When Surface Was Depth."

Spanish artist Francisco Jose de Goya y Lucientes, born in 1746, is one of the supreme anatomists of human struggle, daily event and indiscriminate suffering. As concerned with the eloquence of detail -- a dropped shoe, a bottle of wine, a sidelong glance -- as he is with the deepest psychology of horror, madness and the supernatural, he is in many ways the ultimate realist. Best known perhaps for his series of etchings, "Disasters of War," and his allegory, "The sleep of reason brings forth monsters" from his satirical "Capricho" series, Goya's name is forever linked to some of the most disturbing images in the history of art.

To engage with Goya as a member of the gallery-going public, let alone in the intense relationship between a biographer and his subject, is to enter something of a psychic minefield. There is a terrifying tenacity in much of his imagery, a visceral communication of shock and unease that can stay in the mind for life. While some of his works -- cartoons for the royal tapestries, "The Naked Maja" and court portraits -- have a lighter presence and vivacity that speaks across the centuries about people not too dissimilar to ourselves, even in these there is always the proximity of disquietude and some near subliminal tic of anxiety. More than almost any other artist -- Francis Bacon is in the same territory, but for very different reasons -- Goya has the ability to confront viewers with their deepest fears.

The vivacity, compelling strangeness and sheer acuity of the artist's depictions of human unease are analyzed in Werner Hofmann's gorgeous "Goya" with its intriguing subtitle, "To every story there belongs another." With sumptuous and well chosen illustrations and color plates, Hofmann's book is a celebration of the artist's energy and immediacy, and ittracks the impact of his religious and spiritual significance through his epoch's philosophical development. It also richly details Goya's engagement with the pathology of human weakness and moral sickness, as well as the tension between the artist's vision of suffering and the role of that vision as a restorative, ultimately healing power. In its seamless interweaving of biographical insight and intellectual analysis, Hofmann says Goya is "situated between metaphors of sense and senselessness. He calls upon reason to fulfill its judgmental role, but his Angstlust [pleasure in fear] takes him back into the labyrinth of chimeras and demons."

Goya is not an artist to tackle lightly; he demands not simply insightful scholarship but some more profound sense of empathy. This is where Robert Hughes has triumphed with his superb new biography, "Goya" -- arguably its author's masterpiece -- and he seems to step from behind the shadow of his subject to offer a greater theme. In the middle of the bravura chapter "From Tapestry to Silence," in which he is tracking the effects of sudden, terrifying, inexplicable illness on Goya, Hughes tells readers he has undertaken this book in part as a response to a 1999 motor accident in Western Australia that nearly killed him:

"Any trauma makes you think of worse trauma: it sets the mind worrying and fantasizing about what else might be in store, and whether you can bear it if it comes. Much of the pain is in the slow waiting....

"To fall badly ill, sustain grievous injury, yet not be able to name what the trouble is, know whether it is temporary or permanent, or, if the former, make any guesses about how long it will last, whether it will ruin your career and your normal social relations or eventually sheathe its claws and let you alone -- all that is an experience that verges on desperation."

Hughes' "Goya," therefore, is the study and the product of pain. But in addition to the formative experience of intense trauma, Hughes introduces his fascination with Goya by projecting the contours of this theme onto the broader question of visual art's current capacity -- or indeed inclination -- to express the profundity of conflict or suffering: "[T]he fact that at the end of the twentieth century we had (as we still have) no person who could successfully make eloquent and morally urgent art out of human disaster tells us something about the shrivelled expectations of what art can do. So how could someone have managed it with such success two centuries earlier? There is no convenient answer, no wrapping in which to package such a mystery, which is nothing less than the mystery of the tragic sense itself."

With his earlier books "Shock of the New," "American Visions" and "Culture of Complaint," Hughes has defined himself as one of the great critics and cultural commentators of the postwar period. His brilliance lies not just in his erudition -- "Goya" is an astonishing example of his intellectual vigor -- but also in his rugged, keen style and eye for historical and thematic detail that can lead him to gorgeous sweeps of overarching observation.

Hughes is above all impatient with the rhetoric and perspectives of much postmodern art and theory, and this book is in many ways a defense and reclamation of the principle of artistic genius -- a concept that has been out of fashion over the last two decades of cultural debate. This reclamation, in turn, becomes a greater statement about the inviolability of subjective truth; for as Goya's art describes at times a periodic table of suffering, in which the capacity for human cruelty (as evidenced by his "Disasters") seems drawn from some dark Freudian underbelly of consciousness, so Hughes reveals the artist's almost unbearable lucidity as a witness to the age.

"He was the first painter in history to set forth the sober truth about human conflict: That it kills, and kills again, and that its killing obeys urges embedded at least as deeply in the human psyche as any impulse toward pity, fraternity or mercy. Most of all, he drives home the undeniable message that there is nothing noble about war; that, in the words rasped from the throat of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman to the graduating class of the Michigan Military Academy in 1879, 'I am tired and sick of war. Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. War is hell.' "

Hughes and Goya are admirably suited: Both share a directness and muscularity -- a machismo, in fact -- shot through with obsessive inquiry into art's ability to articulate unadorned truths. His description of Goya's "Self-Portrait in the Studio" (1794-95) is admiringly frank, applauding the artist's street style: "[I]t was natural that he should adopt the air of a tough guy in the city, like a successful artist in 1960s New York wearing a black leather jacket," he remarks, concluding: "[T]ogether with Goya's direct and level gaze, it makes its statement clearly: I can't be fooled, I'm tough, I am a man of the people, I know what I see."

This could double as a description of Hughes as a critic, staking out a terra firma of critical and artistic meaning beyond the jargon-sodden flatlands of issue-led critical theory. Hughes, perhaps, sees his reflection in Goya -- certainly his biography of the artist is driven by far more than simply the calm pulse of artistic respectability. In his opening chapter, "Driving Into Goya," Hughes recounts a dream he had while in intensive care, in which Goya was taunting him in a dank, steel-sided subbasement. As his dream was refracting the actual enclosure of his shattered leg into a surgical frame, so Hughes realized that "I had hoped to 'capture' Goya in writing, and he instead imprisoned me."

He describes his subsequent urgency to write about the artist in terms of Goya's relevance to the modern world: "But the kind of modernism I mean is not a matter of inventiveness. It has to do with a questioning, irreverent attitude to life; with a persistent skepticism that sees through the official structures of society and does not pay reflexive homage to authority, whether that of the church, monarch or aristocrat; that tends, above all, to take little for granted, and to seek a continuously realistic attitude to its themes and subjects: to be, as Lenin would remark in Zurich many years later and in a very different social context, 'as radical as reality itself.' "

Reality, for Goya, must have been a grim affair. War, religious persecution, witchcraft and lunacy provide not just some of Goya's principal subject matter but also the hard tracery of suffering and anxiety upon a volatile age in a cruel country. Hughes follows a precise, richly detailed, linear chronology of Goya's life, keeping pace with the artist's thematic progress, through court and church, to war, disaster and the eventual darkness of his so-called "Black Paintings." No fragment of information that might aid us in understanding Goya is considered too small to contribute its significance to the overall picture: With forensic acuity, Hughes records the narratives and characters in Goya's art, bringing them to life for the modern reader.

With his customary eye for anecdotal detail, Hughes ends his book with the note that Goya's skull was never found, subsequent to the removal of his remains from France to Spain. There is no great summing up or elaborate intellectual flourish. Rather, he has already made his case in the meticulous detailing, commentary and critique of this biography: that Goya is an artist well suited in vision to our troubled times but that contemporary culture, to date, has yet to produce his equivalent.

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