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Art Movements in Art History - Romanticism

Art Movements > Romanticism > Romanticism in Spain

Romanticism in Spain

Although not part of the mainstream of French, English or German Romanticism, the late works of Goya should not be ignored when discussing the Romantic period.

Goya was an almost exact contemporary of David and also recorded the Napoleonic era - but from a vastly different point of view. He was court painter to a succession of Bourbon monarchs who attempted, come what may, to reestablish a prerevolutionary society in Spain.

Goya was trained in the Rococo tradition, but soon abandoned this predominantly frivolous and buoyant style and began to explore the collapse of great religious and monarchic traditions in the West. Not only did he question the divine right of kings and the rituals of the Catholic Church, but he was also increasingly drawn to the irrational realms of human behaviour. In works like The Fire (c 1793) he gives expression to the nightmarish hysteria and confused terror of an anonymous crowd who, horrified and directionless, try to escape the flames and smoke of a fire which threaten to engulf them. The free and swirling painterly approach, and the sharp contrast between flickering, uncanny light and menacing darkness, contribute to an atmosphere of doom and chaos.

In his Caprichos (1799), a series of 80 etchings, conceived in the didactic tradition of Hogarth and Fielding, Goya delves into the depths of human behaviour as dictated by contemporary realities - exposing in haunting and disturbing images the world of witchcraft, asylums, prisons and cannibalism. Goya, according to Rosenblum, here "redirected the eighteenth-century tradition of moralizing social commentary from a world of empirical observation toward the threshold of a dark, private imagination". The etchings are accompanied by Goya's own commentary.

By 1815 the heroic Napoleonic era had ended. Yet the Congress of Vienna tried to reestablish the pre-Napoleonic rulers of Europe and recreate a situation resembling that of the pre-Revolutionary wars. Through the restoration of (among others) Louis XVIII to a throne, royalist illusions were created - illusions suggesting that nothing had happened in the years between 1789 and 1815. In the nationalist and royalist associations thus evoked, artists sensed inherent contradictions. The attempt to revive an old world within the realities of the nineteenth century seemed hypocritical and false.

In his paintings of the newly restored Bourbon king, Ferdinand VII, son of his former patron, Charles IV, Goya exposed with ruthless accuracy the hollowness and decadence of a ruling class, continuing unchanged the pomp and ceremonies of a pre-Revolutionary court. In his acute observation of The Family of Charles IV (1800-180 1) the corruption and promiscuities of the royal family are poignantly revealed. Goya selects unerringly what he wishes to expose and so expresses his personal vision of
each individual. The royal family here is seen as a group ofordinary human beings, at once
feeble and pompous, ugly and decadent.

Between 1808 and 1814, Spain was occupied by Napoleonic forces. In courageous guerilla warfare the Spaniards resisted their invaders. In a series of 80 etchings, entitled Disasters of War, Goya recorded the rape, senseless murder and pillaging he saw during this period of Spanish resistance. These prints were not published at the time, possibly because they were too harsh an indictment of war itself to be generally accepted. They were (posthumously) published only in 1863.

To commemorate the beginnings of the Spanish War of Liberation, Goya in 1814 painted the Spanish insurrection against French mercenaries at the Puerta del Sol, Madrid, on 2 May 1808, as well as the famous The Third of May, 1808, in which he recorded the shooting of all Spaniards suspected of complicity. In this intensely emotional and dramatic work, Goya gave expression to one of the most heroic moments in the Spanish struggle - the shooting of nameless civilians, who died with their
compatriots in a noble cause. Disturbingly ambiguous, his work has stimulated a great variety of interpretations. Goya makes use of well-known metaphors, such as the Crucifixion. The burnt-out monastery in the background recalls the death of Christianity. In a characteristically Romantic way, the artist reinterprets such concepts as Christianity, nobility, heroism, courage, life and death. Goya, says Rosenblum, "revealed a new view of history, in which the ideal moral and political structures of the West have crumbled, leaving as raw fact only the collision of anonymous masses".

In the Junta of the Phillipines (1815) Goya also comments relentlessly on a world of empty rituals. With spine-chilling insight he exposes the corrupt morals of an officialdom that determines the destiny of others.

After 1815 Goya retreated increasingly into the private, irrational world of the individual, and created images in which he totally rejected all principles of reason and rationality. Although Goya's vision is consistently fed by the facts of reality, both imagination and fantasy play a predominant role in these works. In a series of 14 paintings, the so-called Black Paintings with which he "decorated" a country estate, La Quinta del Sordo, between 1820 and 1823, he delves deep into the world of irrationality. In
his imagery he alternates between established symbols and private myth. In Saturn Devouring his Son, as an instance, he uses a metaphor from Classical mythology to express the horror and brutality of his own times. It is an image of monstrous self-destruction and utter rage, its emotive force heightened by the garish colour and startling treatment of scale and space relationships.

One of Goya's most moving works, A Dog (1820-1823), can be interpreted as Goya's vision of the end of an era and as grim prophecy of another. All matter has here been dissolved in a veil of surreal light. The only survivor in this desolate emptiness is a fearful dog. Only his head is visible; his body has disappeared behind an amorphous barrier, perhaps a sinister prophecy of our 20th century fate too.

In 1824 Goya left Spain to spend the last four years of his life in Paris, where he painted portraits of the people around him and recorded the life of beggars, prisoners and the insane. In Saint Peter Repentant (c 1824-1825) he expresses his own deep conflict between hope and black despair. Saint Peter could be interpreted as a self-portrait, in anguished yearning for immortality and redemption.

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