Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Romantic Era (pt. 5)

Francisco de Goya was an official court portraitist painter in Spain who had a promising career ahead of him in the late 1780s and early 1790s, but then the unthinkable happened.  The artist went deaf by the year 1793, and his condition left him increasingly meditative and introverted.  After the French invasion of Spain under the leadership of Napoleon in 1808, Goya witnessed the brutality of warfare first-hand.  Shortly after, his wife of almost forty years died, and in his middle age, the artist was left alone, debilitated, and scarred by the wartime atrocities which he could not erase from his mind.  He took to isolation, spending hours by himself in total seclusion, and during the last decade of his life, his art changed.  A new spirit was awakened in him, and his art turned very dark.
When Goya became more bitter and disillusioned in his old age, he focused more on subjects not found in the real world, such subjects as can only be found in the deepest recesses of the tormented human psyche.  He attempted to show these supernatural objects in demonstration of his otherwise inexpressible feelings and thoughts—perhaps the beginning of Expressionism (which comes much later, and which we still live in largely today).  Others did not always understand his dreams and visions, but Goya didn't mind rebelling against all formalities, given his own neurosis, spawned from his tragic life.  His inspiration now came almost purely from himself; and as an old, lonely, deaf man, battered in his mind from the military captivity of his own country, he drew inspiration that was only of the darkest and most macabre nature.  Some of these "Black Paintings" are quite nightmarish to look at, gruesome and horrific, and perhaps they should only be viewed under the context of psychoanalysis.  Some elements of human psychology cannot, and should not, be explained through artistic theory.  (Unfortunately, this distinction is often crossed in Expressionist art philosophy, but we are too early to get into that just yet.)
To look at just one of these late works of the artist, Goya's The Giant is among the most famous.  This apparently simple etching is full of dark meaning.  That it is etched so simplistically, with a very primal hand, almost lends to its eeriness.  A mysterious and unidentified form sits on top of a bare, unmarked bed of land that has been scratched and scraped with harsh strokes of the artist's hand.  Above this earth, the night sky with its glimmering moon and stars shines above.  The blackness at the top caps it all, as if to suggest itself as the highest authority over everything in the print: the Unknown.  The monster sits on top of the world in a position of dominance, looking huge and menacing.  While the rest of the world sleeps under the cover of moonlight, this figure sits quietly alone, musing to itself or peacefully slumbering—what thoughts or reveries cross its mind we shiver to guess.  But something has awoken or startled it.  It turns its head—and our imagination is left to fill in the rest.  The awakening of a monstrous colossus in the night is certainly a motif from the subconscious world of nightmares and dark dreams, but the subject may also be understood to represent much nearer realities, and more terrifying.  The giant could be a symbol of war.  Or it could be simply a frightening incarnation of Goya's own somber forecast of the future.
You can see how this type of artwork is uniquely independent of its contemporary technique, and perhaps, having looked at Goya's personal life, we can understand why that is.  But this is not exactly Romantic art, though emotionalism is involved here.  I have to bring up Goya because he lived during this time period, but we can discuss his artistic style and impact on the art world better as we go along.  For now, we'll get back to the Romantics.

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