Goya and the Enlightenment

Francisco Goya (1746-1828) is typically seen as supportive of the Enlightenment in terms of his scepticism about religion, monarchy and hierarchy. He is held up as a member (or at least fellow traveller) of the reformist liberals of Spain, who sought to reduce the influence of the Catholic Church and supported the French Revolution. It was this group that was riven by mixed responses to the Napoleonic occupation and the French-imposed client kingship of Joseph Bonaparte (r. 1808-13). Although Goya decried the sadism of the Peninsular War (1808-14) and protested the deaths of Spaniards at the hands of the French and their supporters, he also served that regime. Nonetheless, despite Goya’s late pessimism and apocalyptic visions, he is seen as aligned with the Enlightenment.

Professor Anthony J. Cascardi of University of California, Berkeley discerns contradictions in the way Goya is viewed in the context of the Enlightenment. “I take exception to the standard view that relies predominantly on Goya’s darkest images to establish his relevance for modernity, and I suggest instead that his work invites us to consider the critical role of art with respect to the modern social and historical worlds, worlds of which it is nonetheless a part.” In Francisco de Goya and the Art of Critique, Cascardi argues, “Goya’s position was one of distance both from the superstitions and backwardness of the Spanish past and from the promises offered by the Enlightenment. It seems quite plausible that the project of critique that runs throughout his work was informed by the need to maintain a distance from both these alternatives.” Cascardi detects this distance in the way Goya complicates and contradicts pictorial conventions, most particularly in the forms within which Goya worked. Cascardi takes one definition of Modernism as the critical distancing of the art from the ”social and material bases on which it is made.”

There is implicit criticisms of men who become foolish by attempting to be what they are not and cannot become – found in images of people acting in foolish ways and animals adopting pretensions to humanity. Goya’s exposure of their foolishness is an implicit rejection of the Enlightenment’s assertion that men are equal in potential and that their natures are formed by circumstance. To aspire to a station and nature that is not assigned by birth is worthy of mockery, Goya’s art asserts. While Goya may condemn the excesses of superstition and human fallibility, he recognises that they are unavoidable and not elements that can be left behind following sufficient advances in knowledge, education and social change. He is sceptical about the power of social restraint to alter man; he sees dark, destructive potential for violence latent in man, perceptible in his nightmares and his responses to crime, war and chaos.

Goya has a tragic view of man, as inherently flawed by sinfulness, weakness and mortality, doomed to fall short, never perfectible. So although Goya may have been troubled by what he characterised in his art as the excesses of religion, his outlook is closer to that of a religious person than an atheist humanist. It must be admitted that his partiality to the liberal faction situates Goya as a natural sceptic rather than a man of faith. Suspicion of the rationalisation of existence and desacralisation of human life that the Enlightenment brought may have led Goya to paint his History paintings The Second of May, 1808 (1814) and The Third of May, 1808 (1814). In the former, madrileños rise up against the mameluke cavalry supporting the Bonapartist regime and, in the latter, these rebels are executed by a firing squad by night the following day.

[Image: Goya, The Third of May, 1808, oil on canvas]

Once the human being is no longer a child of God and an ensouled being, rationalism finds no bar to the greater good being used to justify selective brutality by authorities (in these paintings), just as the absence of charity and mercy allows the savagery of extra-judicial killings and torture (in the Disasters of War).

Goya’s criticism of mindless adherence to tradition can be found in many areas of Goya’s output. In the Caprichos suite, a supercilious donkey studies a family genealogy, finding other donkeys like him. He seems to condemn corporal punishment in a an etching of a child being beaten, with a comparison between the ugly mother and the innocent boy, who (in this eternal chain) will become ugly in turn, beating his own children. Insensibility to evidence and logic leads to ignorance and baseless fears. As the title states, The Sleep of Reason Breeds Monsters, people are prey to instincts when conscious thinking is absent. This view can be both an endorsement of Enlightenment values (man must be educated and liberated from irrationality) and in conflict with them (man will never be free of ingrained fears and untrammelled imagination). Goya sees lack of self-knowledge as a key trait distributed throughout society, even in the educated classes. As critics have observed, this is perhaps more sceptical of the Enlightenment than an outright rejection of the validity of its project. As Cascardi notes, the Enlightenment itself had unresolved contradictions, so support for the Enlightenment is fraught with ambiguities. Not least, “Goya was aware of the grim irony of a situation in which the forces of “Enlightened” France were the perpetrators of bestial violence [during the Peninsular War specifically].”

Cascardi takes Kant as his exemplar of Enlightenment thought, with particular focus upon Kant’s centring of reason as essential to value judgments, specifically in art and morality. For Goya too, reason was central to his views of humanity, with a more pessimistic outlook distancing him from Kant’s idea of the primacy of rational autonomy. Goya is not only sceptical but also unruly, disrupting what is expected. His narratives often contradict the ostensible subject of the picture, not least in the way the depicted people fall short of their roles as noble, judge, priest and so forth. Cascardi notes that Goya’s sense of reason is not simply related to his social criticism but to his distanced responses to the conventions of Renaissance art, which were grounded on rationality, reason, clear narrative and illusionism.

To explain this, here is a passage on the technique distances viewer from subject:

“[C]onsider The Third of May, 1808 and some of the Disasters of War […] Through a technique that uncannily anticipates the ways in which mechanically reproduced images are cropped or cut in the photographic and cinematic fields, the effect of the frame in such works is to implicate art itself in the very violence it helps disclose. Because the perspective of the unseen perpetrators of the violence is as compelling as the perspective of the viewer external to the image the viewer is implicated in the violence of these images in a remarkably unsettling way. Thus, rather than read Goya’s efforts in The Third of May, 1808 and the Disasters of War solely in moral terms – as claiming secure access to a universal perspective on good and evil that would allow him to criticize the atrocities of history from the “outside,” it is more promising to consider the ethical challenges they pose and especially to consider those challenges as epitomized in the vexed relationship between the external spectator and the implicit violence that the exercise of any autonomous framing power seems to create.”

[Image: Goya, Witches’ Sabbath, 1821-3, oil on plaster]

For Cascardi, Goya is either the first modern artist or an analogue or prototype of the same, something he shies away from stating plainly, instead asserting this indirectly by writing, “Goya may not be described not as the first modern artist, but as an artist engaged in refusing to adopt an independent ethics for painting or, indeed, for art in general. […] A certain self-consciousness is of course integral to this effort.” The author thinks that the Black Paintings – murals made by Goya at La Quinta del Sordo, his private farmhouse outside Madrid, notable for their dramatic, brutal and pessimistic content – may have been inspired by a viewing of an early magic lantern projection device. The series may also have been painted by the artist after meditating on Burke’s treatise on the sublime, translated into Spanish in 1807. The book concludes with thoughts on Goya’s treatment of beauty, a subject much less pressing or dominant in the literature than that on ugliness. Cascardi relates Goya’s art of beauty to that of sympathy, linking Goya to Enlightenment philosophy David Hume.

The author is well informed, thoughtful and writes with the minimum of jargon. Although the ideas are perhaps a little too complex and philosophically-based to resonate with all readers (that is, the casual Goya enthusiast), readers not conversant with the ideas of the Enlightenment and later will gain more understanding of the depth and ambiguity of Goya’s art. The illustrations are plentiful, the book (with fine paper and a cloth binding) a pleasure to handle. Overall, this book can be recommended to anyone intending to investigate Goya beyond the common facts and landmark events of his times.  

Anthony J. Cascardi, Francisco de Goya and the Art of Critique, 2022, Zone Books, Brooklyn, distr. Princeton University Press, 368pp, mono/col. illus., £35, ISBN 978 1942 130697