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Vol. LXII, No. 40
Wednesday, October 1, 2008
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THEY HAVE FLOWN: Of this etching, “Volaverunt” (number 61) from “Los Caprichos,” Goya writes, “The group of witches which serves as pedestal for this fashionable lady is put there for ornament rather than for use. There are heads so full of inflammable gas that they need neither balloons nor witches to make them fly.” This work (c. 1798) can be seen in the Zimmerli Museum’s “Dark Dreams: The Prints of Francisco Goya, A Selection from the Collection of the Arthur Ross Foundation,” which will be on view in the Voorhees Special Exhibition Galleries through November 16.

Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum
Goya’s Book of Dreams: Sharp as the Point of an Etching Needle

Stuart Mitchner

Francisco Goya’s series of 80 etchings, Los Caprichos (The Caprices), has haunted, inspired, and repelled (instructively or otherwise) two centuries of writers and artists, composers, philosophers, and museumgoers, including the “simple artistic soul” Baudelaire likes to imagine coming to these “often terrifying” prints cold, with “no notion of the historical facts.” In other words, when the hypothetical witness meets these demons face to face, it’s a matter of pure, uncontextualized impact, “a sharp shock at the core of his brain” as Goya “plunges down to the savage level” and “soars up to the heights of the absolute,” translating the things he sees “naturally into the language of fantasy.” The analogy Baudelaire arrives at — ”those periodical or chronic dreams with which our sleep is regularly besieged” — is echoed in the title of the Zimmerli’s new exhibition, “Dark Dreams: The Prints of Francisco Goya, A Selection from the Collection of the Arthur Ross Foundation,” on view in the Voorhees Special Exhibition Galleries in New Brunswick through November 16.

If you watched the opening credits of Milos Forman’s 2006 film, Goya’s Ghosts, you saw the master’s Caprices blown up large as life on the big screen, and in the opening scene you saw the officers of the Inquisition disgustedly passing around the prints and commenting on their hideousness. Whether or not you’re familiar with Los Caprichos, when you see the whole series up close and in person at the Zimmerli, it’s as if you walked out of a bright September afternoon into the pages of a 200-year-old book that still has the odor of the profane about it. In fact, it was originally assembled in book form by Goya and published between covers with captions and commentaries that are as vivid as the etchings they accompany, the author/illustrator having sharpened his words and images to a point as fine as the tip of his etching needle. Goya was his own curator. As an artist driven by what Baudelaire rightly called “a love of the ungraspable,” he knew that for his work to be intelligently appreciated he would need to provide a provocative or intriguing verbal equivalent for each of his images; the fact that he neglected to give anything more than cursory titles to the 18 prints in his last series, Los Disparates (loosely translated as Follies or Proverbs and also on view at the Zimmerli), may be one reason why those late etchings continue to challenge critical interpretation.

Goya’s working title for Los Caprichos was Ydioma universal (Universal Language), which suggests that his words occupied the same conceptual region as his art and that he considered himself no less a wordsmith than a painter and printmaker. Accordingly, he’s a writer (“the author is dreaming”) in his comment on “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters,” the series’ central image and epigraph that shows Goya slumped over his manuscript, his head buried in his arms, a borderline whimsical phantasmagoria of owls, bats, and cats surrounding him. The owls, who look more Sendak than satanic, appear to be hooting insistently in his ear while the bats hover in the grisly sky and the cats stare. In his foreward to Goya’s Complete Etchings, Aldous Huxley describes an “enormous witch’s cat” peering at us from behind the sleeping artist, “malevolent as only Goya’s cats can be”; the cat in question, however, has a domesticated aspect and the other one looks more scared than scary. The real monsters in Goya’s nightmare travesty of the human comedy are its twisted and embattled images of humanity, an infernal procession of the deformed and distorted, of apes and monkeys in human guise, of witches, goblins, ghouls and lepers, doomed maidens and prostitutes, lascivious old men and pernicious monks displayed on the platform of each etching like freaks in a sideshow performing one starkly rendered infamy after another.

The terse language Goya uses for his captions and commentaries is in clear contrast to the verbiage he resorts to when introducing his “collection of capricious subjects” in the first advertisement for Los Caprichos, which he asserts are intended to depict “the innumerable foibles and follies to be found in any civilized society, and the common prejudices and deceitful practices which custom, ignorance, or self-interest have made usual.” He employs the same prosy, politic rationale in regard to “The Sleep of Reason” when he says that his “only intention is to banish harmful superstition and to perpetuate with this work of fancy the sound testimony of Truth.” It’s a purely tactical gesture, as if Shakespeare were to attach a disclaimer to King Lear or Hamlet as a precaution against being accused of poeticizing madness or advocating regicide. As for sound testimony, Goya’s Ghost offers something like it in the film’s first scene when upon hearing that the abominable prints have been sold throughout Europe, one of the priests exclaims, “Then this is how the world sees us!” and Javier Bardem’s Lorenzo solemnly sets him straight. “These hideous images are the true face of the world,” he says, and then proceeds to arrange for the arrest and torture of Natalie Portman’s Ines so that he can have his way with her.

Goya and Hemingway

As I walked through the Zimmerli exhibit, I kept thinking of the young American writer who first ventured into the Prado in Madrid in the early 1920s. While I knew that Goya was among the artists whose work had influenced Ernest Hemingway, I’d never before realized how closely not only the imagery but the cadence and terse, ironic phrasing of the captions and comments resembled the Hemingway style. For example, commenting on number 24 (“Nothing Can Be Done About It”), which shows a victim of the Inquisition sitting astride a mule with a yoke around her neck, Goya writes, “They have made up their minds to kill this good woman. After judgment was pronounced, she was dragged through the streets in triumph. She has indeed earned a triumph. If they do this to shame her, they are wasting their time. Nothing can make her ashamed who has nothing to be ashamed of.”

In number 41 (“Neither More Nor Less”), a monkey artist painting a mule is embellishing the subject of the portrait with a powdered wig. Terse as ever, Goya writes: “He is quite right to have his portrait painted; thus those who do not know him and have not seen him will know who he is.” In number 27, which shows a dandy courting an indifferent woman (“Which of them is more overcome?”), Goya answers his caption’s question: “Neither one or the other. He is a charlatan in love who says the same to all of them, and she is wondering how to keep her five dates between eight and nine — and it is seven-thirty now.”

These and other examples of Goya’s verbal style (in or out of translation), not to mention the curt force of the images, leave little doubt that Hemingway has been here. Edmund Wilson remarked on the link when he pointed out that the “barbarities” described in Hemingway’s Three Stories and Ten Poems (1923) and in our time (1924) have “the sharpness and elegance of lithographs [he means etchings] by Goya.” Observing in Death in the Afternoon that “Goya did not believe in costume but he did believe in blacks and grays, in dust and light, in high places rising from the plains,” Hemingway might be speaking of his own art. In the same book he makes his identification with the painter even clearer when he mentions how Goya believed in “what he had seen, felt, touched, handled, smelled, enjoyed, drunk, mounted, suffered, spewed-up, lain-with, suspected, observed, hated, lusted, feared, detested, admired, loathed, and destroyed.”

The following example of Goya-enabled imagery in Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls is spoken by the character, Pilar, who is discoursing on the smell of death and “the old women who go before daylight to drink the blood of the beasts that are slaughtered. When such an old woman comes out of the matadero, holding her shawl around her, with her face gray and her eyes hollow, and the whiskers of age on her chin, and on her cheeks, set in the waxen white of her face as the sprouts grow from the seed of a bean, not bristles, but pale sprouts in the death of her face, put your arms around her … and hold her to you and kiss her on the mouth and you will know the second part that odor is made of.”

Hemingway had to make a case for the more extreme “odor of death” passages in a letter to his publisher, Charles Scribner, writing, “No, Charley. There is a … horribleness about part of Madrid like no other place in the world. Goya never half drew it. I need that to make this book whole.”

According to the Spanish author of a memoir of Hemingway, “They should have buried Ernesto with a canvas by Goya as a shroud.”

Goya Updated

The Zimmerli has included some contemporary adaptations of several Caprichos, the most spectacular of which is Yinka Shonibare’s massive, colorful photographic staging of “The Sleep of Reason.” The work that will provoke the most interest, however, is Enrique Chagoya’s updating of Number 46 (Correction), wherein the hooded members of a “faculty” of witches under the sway of “the great Witch” becomes a gathering of the usual suspects in the Bush administration under the sway of the president and vice-president, along with, among others, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, Tony Blair as a puppy, and more than one of Saddam’s severed heads.

The Zimmerli exhibition is co-organized by Marilyn Symmes, curator in charge of the museum’s Morse Research Center for Graphic Arts, and Christine Giviskos, associate curator of Nineteenth-century European Art. Museum Hours: Tuesday-Friday: 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Weekends: Noon to 5 p.m. Admission: $3 per person for adults who are not members of the museum. Entrance is free at all times for members, all children under 18, and Rutgers University students, faculty, and staff with a valid I.D. In addition, the first Sunday of each month will be free to all.

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