For a so-called “Romantic,” the great Spanish painter Goya (Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, 1746-1828) took a decidedly dour, if not bleak, view of mankind. He was no soft-hearted sentimentalist or rosy-eyed dreamer, swooning around the coffeehouses and countryside of Europe looking for love. Instead, in his vast output of paintings and prints, he probed the darker side of human emotions and tore apart the pretensions and foibles, the vanity and stupidity, the savagery, injustice, folly, and ignorance of allegedly civilized Man.
Nowhere does he do this more horrifically than in Saturn Devouring his Son, which peels back the cherished veneer of human rationality to expose a dark and monstrous core that is—perhaps—potential in all of us.
This was one of Goya’s so called “Black Paintings,” a group of 14 disturbing scenes painted directly on the walls of his house during the last years of his life, after illness had left him deaf and the turn of political events in post-Revolutionary Europe had left him disillusioned with humanity and most everything else. It is almost impossible to recognize in these works the sunny Rococo designer he began his career as, or the astute portraitist and successful court painter to Spanish royalty into which he matured. Apparently never meant to be exhibited, they are a remarkably unfiltered expression of what must have been a troubled soul.
A Savage Myth
Saturn, typically identified with Cronus in the Greek canon, was the youngest offspring of Uranus (Heaven) and Terra (Earth). Hoping to escape his prophesied downfall at the hands of one of his sons, Saturn (who himself had come to power by deposing and castrating his father) killed and ate each of his children as soon as they were born. Five perished this way, but the sixth, Jupiter, was hidden from him by his wife, who fobbed off a stone swaddled in blankets (which Saturn ate anyway). Jupiter later returned, and after a terrible war (the Clash of Titans), did indeed overthrow his brutal father, who was—depending on who’s telling the tale—either castrated or cut into pieces and cast into the underworld.
Goya’s portrayal of Saturn’s appalling act of cannibalism is executed with gruesome candor and painterly freedom. The brushwork is vigorous, the details sketchy, the proportions inexact. Saturn’s eyes bulge with lunatic vacuity. His fists clutch at the limp, partially consumed body of his son (who seems significantly older than a newborn). Nothing gracious or hopeful relieves the eye. Though his strategy to retain power could be construed as coldly rational, Saturn is depicted as a degraded creature whose fears and obsessions have deprived him of reason.
An obvious lesson to take from this is that art need not be pleasing to look at, a point worth repeating to those tempted to turn from what they don’t like. Possible interpretations of the Saturn myth may be worthy of reflection: that those who covet power or give free reign to their passions will destroy even their own, for example; or (if we accept the unwarranted, though ancient, equation of Cronus with chronos) that “time consumes all.” Both interpretations have applications to the raging civil conflicts in Goya’s Spain and the debilitating effects of his old age. The fact that only one of Goya’s six children survived infancy adds a profoundly autobiographical dimension—recall that Saturn was also the emblem of melancholy. But there are additional lessons to be drawn from the piece itself, particularly from its painterly style.
Style Is Substance
The crude technique Goya uses would have been anathema to cerebral neoclassicists like his contemporaries David and Ingres, who did all they could in their art to project an air of impersonal restraint and objectivity. Imagine their analytical approach to composition and anatomy applied to such a ghoulish scene: The result would be something absurdly fussy and inappropriate. Goya’s wild style is exactly what is called for.
But the idea that the way a work of art was executed could, or should, be squared with its meaning was novel in Goya’s day, even revolutionary. So too was the notion that the artist’s state of mind could be the real subject of his creations. To be sure, every work of art expresses the artist’s disposition in one way or another, even when it seems inexpressive. But some artists make their emotions, especially their stronger and more turbulent ones, the entire point of what they do. The general name for this style of art is expressionism, and the pioneering work of Goya and his fellow Romantics was followed by ever more expressive varieties of art in the later 19th and 20th centuries.
This movement contrasts with much of the history of visual art, which had been basically “illustrative.” Meaning was communicated mainly by the forms and figures pictured in the work of art—images of Jesus and the saints, gods and heroes acting out well-known narratives, symbolic bowls of fruit and glasses of wine, etc.—not by how artists handled their paint or other materials. Stylistic choices were most often based on standards laid down by the artists’ clients and the guilds and academies, none of whom encouraged self-expression or individuality. Artists were primarily hired hands, and nobody wanted their temperamental whims to dishevel the expected appearance of a Madonna and Child or a formal portrait.
In the Black Paintings, though, Goya only had to please himself. The old patronage systems were breaking down at the dawn of the modern era, and artists enjoyed more and more freedom to do what they liked. Very often, what they liked was to make art about what was going on inside their heads—that is to say, their hearts. For artists like J.M.W. Turner, Vincent Van Gogh, and later, Henri Matisse and Wassily Kandinsky, self-expression was what being an artist was all about, and they found that the best way to achieve that expression was in sweeping strokes of the brush, bold, unnatural colors, and thick, piled-on paint. The choice of subject matter, on the other hand, became increasingly irrelevant, since what mattered was not the artist’s connection to the meaning of some conventional artistic theme, like a portrait or a landscape, but the artist’s direct connection to himself through his art.
In a way, this was the triumph of style over substance. In fact, it could be said that in expressionistic art, style is substance. Not only did this art need no recognizable subjects, it didn’t even need recognizable imagery. After all, what does an emotion look like? Eventually, the exaltation of emotion initiated by the Romantics produced the completely non-objective styles of 20th-century modernism epitomized by the likes of Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings and Mark Rothko’s floating clouds of pigment. Color and paint had become the “pure” embodiment of the artist’s inner, subjective life—“pure” because unencumbered by the distraction of imitation.
Cry from the Heart
The hazard of all this expressive soul-searching is that it can make art an exercise in narcissism—art and artist feed off each other and leave everyone else out in the cold. But its potential to fulfill what may be the deepest purpose of art—communication—is what redeems it, for art itself is the fruit of some of the deepest motions of the human spirit: the desire to be known and to be understood, to give of self, to bare the soul to the world. Self-expression is revelation.
Emotions and feelings are not the only measure of human existence, of course, no matter how powerful their role in life may be. But whereas ideas-based schools of art like neoclassicism provide an outlet for the rational side of human nature, expressive art aspires to offer proof that the artist is personally invested in what he does, that he has “put himself into” the piece and “made it his own.” It also seeks to evoke a sympathetic response in the viewer. How all that gets worked out in art (or life) can come down to nuances and small gestures as much as to broad and general impressions. Often it can be difficult to put a finger on what makes something human, a work of art moving, a musical performance great, but imagining their mechanical, robotic opposites may hint at how a living personality can emerge from the unique character of a line or a stroke of color, from the little surprises and imperfections, from the organic variations in stress and intonation that appear wherever there is a beating heart. A toneless “I love you” is ineffectual, but the same words expressed “with feeling” can turn the world upside-down.
Not by Appearance Alone
Still, whenever we judge by style or appearances there is the danger of misinterpretation. Performers routinely express emotions they don’t actually feel, hypocrites and liars do so in order to manipulate our responses, and both can be very effective at it. Even when well-intended, doubt and ambiguity are ever-present, making style alone an uncertain guide in any search for meaning. The person kneeling next to us in church, with eyes and hands tightly clenched, could be deeply devoted or in agonies of doubt—or just resting his eyes. Fidgeting and slouching might betray a spirit insufficiently in love with God, but charity demands that we not pass judgment. Priests don’t have much leeway to express themselves in Mass, but whether or not a priest’s liturgical style is to our taste, how he conducts himself has no effect on the substance or validity of what he is doing (assuming his intentions are in line with the Church’s).
When we are confronted with the passion pouring from a work like Saturn Devouring His Son, which fairly howls with anguish, we can hardly doubt that the piece meant something momentous to its maker, but the full details may remain forever beyond our knowledge. The artist himself provided no commentary for the Black Paintings; he didn’t even title them. Yet it seems safe to say that Goya’s Saturn demonstrates the dangers of unlimited expression of emotions. Perhaps this was of personal concern to Goya: It is known that he feared insanity. Ironically, Goya let himself go completely in the Black Paintings, though he prudently confined these expressions to the privacy of his home—which is another irony, given all this talk about communication. It was not until decades after his death that the Black Paintings were cut from the walls and transferred to the Prado, where they now speak to a worldwide audience.
God alone searches the heart, but at its most authentic, the outward show of style is for us an expressive symbol of what would otherwise remain locked within the walls of our souls.