Home Arts & Lit Thoughts on Goya’s Black Paintings

Thoughts on Goya’s Black Paintings

Megan Cammidge engages with Fransisco Goya's series of dark works, known as 'Black Paintings' and discusses whether they still have the power to shock in our modern day.

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Francisco Goya; a Spanish Romantic painter and printmaker, portraitist to the Spanish nobility. Later, after a period of personal suffering, he is the painter of the dark collection: the ‘Black Paintings’, which has stemmed controversial opinion. While some find his surreal ‘Black Paintings’ subjects intriguing and revelatory, others deem them too grotesque to be placed on display; too unnerving for the general public to gaze upon. Despite these qualms, the collection is scheduled to be exhibited on high profile throughout 2019 at Madrid’s Padro museum, where many will find their eyes drawn to the likes of Saturn’s ghoulish eyes as he consumes the corpse of his son in Goya’s famous depiction of ‘Saturn Devouring his Child’.

To try to understand the psychology behind the pictures, it is important to note the personal circumstances under which Goya produced these disconcerting images; after contracting a severe and undiagnosed illness which subsequently left him deaf, drawn and introspected, he started to experiment with darker materials. The fourteen pieces that make up the ‘Black Paintings’ collection saw a darker chromatic range of ochres, browns, greys and blacks, as well as animalistic portraits of human bodies, deranged visages and a general sense of suffering.

animalistic portraits of human bodies, deranged visages

The fact that the content of these works is so unnerving helps to comfortably establish Goya’s place within the Gothic movement of the 18th Century. His paintings, although not intended for popular consumption, compliment the popular literature of the Gothic, which established a deeper interest into identifying the inner, darker and barbaric truth of humanity, aiming to shock and scare its audience. Nevertheless, to what extent Goya’s paintings are effective in accessing this dark underbelly of human existence is another matter.

As previously mentioned, the paintings in question were not intended for viewing by the general public. Painted on the walls of his own home, and never shared or discussed by the artist, it is unlikely that Goya ever imagined their commission for display in the Madrid Padro Museum. Therefore, although his works fit in very well with the Gothic theme of darkness and ghouls, it is not possible to assert his works with any sort of aim or objective that might usually be tagged onto Gothic works of literature. It is largely possible that his works did not intend to reveal some kind of inner, barbaric psyche influenced by the medieval Gothic trend at the time but were rather the mere artistic ramblings of an unstable and lonely man. Whether the paintings are effective, therefore, can only be decided upon by each individual that observes them; whether or not it instils enough of an emotional or psychological reaction to reveal a darker, inner truth to that particular person.

His paintings…compliment the popular literature of the Gothic

Just as the 18th Century consumed Gothic literature as a cheap thrill, the idea of needing a scare to jump out at us from our own mundane lives has advanced into horror and thriller films of the 21st Century. It is copiously arguable that we have become accustomed and, dare I say, numb to horrific images and ideas. This is not only prevalent in film culture, but also an increase in exposure to violent crimes, terrorism and war crimes. Our ability to cope with and distance ourselves from real-life horror has, most likely, grown over time due to increasing media that, in turn, increases our personal contact with such events. Considering this, Goya’s paintings may be deemed outdated, or no longer shocking to a modern-day audience, therefore rendering them less effective in daring us to take on our own introspection.

However, the aim of Gothic literature and art being to shock and unnerve, is still maintained as the aim of our popular interest in horror today. If this main goal, of wanting to be scared, wasn’t of interest to our population, then the current trend in Netflix Original Series which uncover the inner-workings of serial killers, such as the ‘Ted Bundy Tapes’ and ‘Abducted in Plain Sight’, wouldn’t be so prevalent. With this in mind, I believe Goya’s collection has every likelihood to be effective to a current, 21st Century observer, and the Padro museum exhibition will have plenty to offer for those looking to delve into the inner psyche of both Goya, and themselves.

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