Eating the kids

Goya's Los Caprichos at the PMA
By CHRIS THOMPSON  |  January 28, 2010

ASTA SU ABUELO (AND SO WAS HIS GRANDFATHER): Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, Los Caprichos, aquatint, 1796-1797.

Dressed in finery but an ass nonetheless, just like his grandfather before him.

What is it that he reads — family album, mating manual? The one amounts to the other.

In another image from Goya’s Los Caprichos, a baboon gives a shaggy old donkey — unsexed, one of young plushbottom’s grandparents maybe — a most sacrilegious guitar serenade. The ape does Heaven knows what to the sound hole, which, rather than facing us as it would in the hands of a proper musician, is receiving the full thrust of his spread-legged pelvis.

The baboon’s lips curl in a swoon, the dirty old donkey’s front hooves disappear between his rear legs, a pair of haggard courtiers jeer and clap.


These are two tame images from Los Caprichos, Goya’s infamous series of eighty aquatint etchings — a medium Goya pushed into technical territory as extreme as was his content and subject matter, his radical critique of social relationships, political power, the absurdities in formal education, the clichéd niceties of a world rending itself limb from limb.

On December 16, the Portland Museum of Art begins an exhibition of the series that cut without mercy, least of all for himself, into, in Goya’s words, “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.”

The show, which consists of the entirety of a first-edition set of the aquatints acquired by a Spanish duke and duchess in 1799, presents a wonderfully disturbing partnership with the PMA’s current exhibition American ABC: Childhood in 19th-Century America — so fitting that it is dangerous to look to closely at the fullness of the subterranean connections between the two bodies of work represented by each show: on the one hand the constructions of childhood in 19th-century America, rich with the belief in that childhood innocence whose sanctity the adult world will fight to the death to defend, and, on the other, the clinical disemboweling by Goya of any notion that such innocence could or should be presumed to exist in a world in which humans can so dearly relish the art and science of devouring one another.

Los Caprichos were meant to be released publicly in 1799, but were withdrawn; King Carlos IV had to issue a formal intervention to keep his court painter from the clutches of the Inquisition.

After the Napoleonic wars, with Spaniards and French trading efforts at ever more barbaric ways of eliminating one another, Goya said: “it has all been for nothing . . . the countless deaths, the misery, the rape, the pillaging, the dismemberment of Spain.”

Los Caprichos are not about parody or satire or anything so trivial. They are about methodically — which is to say, in the case of Goya’s work, by means of an associative, anarchic order, brutal in its refusal to let sleep, wakefulness, madness, illness, glory, desperation be seen as separate or separable — and strategically destroying his enemies, bankrupting them before posterity.

These were not people but forces, tendencies, various forms of willingness to be deaf to another’s cries.

There really is nothing to cling to in the wake of these images except the glimmer of hope held out by a criticality that is neither virtuous nor pure; at best it is a kind of cannibal’s indigestion. Goya too was a shit, like anyone worth his salt. And so his diehard commitment to exercising the critical faculties of the Enlightenment subject combined with his clear lack of faith in the likelihood that universal peace really would hang in the balance anytime soon makes Los Caprichos the most extraordinary exclamation point for the end of the 18th century with its revolutions — America, France, Haiti — Romanticism’s birth and, in these images, afterbirth.

The best-known image in the series is No. 43, El sueño de la razon produce monstrous (The sleep of reason producesmonsters). We know the scene: the man of reason is asleep at his desk, head in his arms, paper and quill at his elbow. Behind him the monsters crowd toward him, huddling close, taking flight. But when we look closely there really isn’t a single monster among them: just owls, giant bats, a cross-eyed lynx — nothing you wouldn’t find at the zoo.

But that’s the horrifying part. When what calls itself reason falls asleep at the wheel, abandons the remainder of what calls itself human, there’s no need to worry about imaginary things: in such moments it is your neighbor who will devour you.

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