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July 30, 2020

Mid-Morning Art Thread [Kris]

Goya Madhouse.jpg

The Yard Of A Madhouse
Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes


Goya’s career was slow in taking off until he married the sister of a member of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. His new brother-in-law got him a job and commissions, including some that would decorate the royal palaces. These works eventually got him noticed by the king and would lead to his rise as a court painter in 1789, and as First Court Painter to Charles IV in 1799.

Around 1794, Goya’s suffered an illness that left him completely deaf. His work became moody and introspective as a result. Among these was “Yard of the Madhouse.” He describes it in a letter as something he witnessed personally that affected him. He was acutely aware of the painting’s disturbing imagery and that people might not like it. He didn’t seem to care if anyone ever saw it or not.

“Yard of the Madhouse” is a dark work and probably my favorite Goya. It is a long, thin, vertical work with almost nothing going on in the top half. The top of the arch in the background is about the half-way point of the composition. Above this is quiet, but ominous. There’s a large wedge of empty blue sky and then two large, brown/grey walls that come together at a corner. This effect creates a bright blue arrow that drives my eye down to the lower half of the work and keeps it there, but its moody stillness does nothing to ready us for the chaos at the bottom.

The bottom of the painting is a mass of writhing, yelling forms. In the center are two grappling figures. Their muscles ripple with effort as they try to thrash the other. Meanwhile, a hospital staff member whips them. The violence of the whipping can be seen in the arc of the rod, but the two do not feel it. This scene reminds me of a dog fight I once witnessed. The viciousness of the fight was terrifying to watch and very difficult to break up. Nothing seemed to work. Only brute strength finally tore the dogs apart, but some of us were seriously hurt doing so.

In this painting, I think Goya may be using the classical nude against itself. The Classical Era was believed to be the absolute Golden Age of human civilization. Its ideals became one of the foundations of Western culture, and art would adopt the older era’s themes and motifs. By making the central lunatics nude, Goya may be criticizing the contemporary idealization of Man and Human Reason, instead showing humanity as he saw it. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the central figures are the only nudes, and that they are the most violent figures in the work. Physically, these figures are ideal male specimens, but their mind, what made them human, is gone. The ideal is shattered like their minds.

In the painting, the rest of the inmates react to the fight. They panic, scream, hoot, run around and flip out — it’s bedlam… except for one figure.

The figure in the lower right foreground, for me, lifts this painting to greatness. I cannot stop looking at him. He just sits there. Smiling. At me. The smile is a big, toothy grin. He’s probably giggling too. Everyone else is immersed in the fight; he, alone, is not. He is reacting to my presence. Now go back to the walls in the upper half of the painting. There are only two. The other two are behind me… meaning I am in the yard of the madhouse with the lunatics, and there is no barrier between me and them. Back in the day, asylums were tourist attractions, like zoos for crazy people. Goya may have went on such a tour to have witnessed this scene and this figure watched the tourist go by, and just smiled.

Goya had a fear of going insane and like many other Romantics of his era, explored the relationship between sanity and insanity. In a society that celebrated the achievements of human reason, ability, and ingenuity, the Romantics were fascinated by the deception of human ability and the dark areas of the mind and human nature. Goya would go back to this theme several times during his career. After the fallout of the Napoleonic Wars, he would withdraw from court and society all-together, create his “Black Paintings” that were intended for his eyes only, and die a near-recluse just outside Madrid.


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posted by Open Blogger at 09:30 AM

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