Paintings to jump into, faces to shun: Robert Hughes on Goya

“The basic project of art is always to make the world whole and comprehensible, to restore it to us in all its glory and its occasional nastiness, not through argument but through feeling, and then to close the gap between you and everything that is not you, and in this way pass from feeling to meaning.”

Robert Hughes, The Shock of the New (1980)

Watched a wonderful programme on BBC4 last night – Robert Hughes on Goya Crazy Like a Genius. This was fantastic television and a reminder of just how good a critic the late Hughes was. He opens out Goya’s world and art, with nothing closed down or obscured by specialist critical terminology; just simple, lucid explanation, with vast knowledge, admiration and enthusiasm for the work and the man shining through.

I think I first encountered Goya through one of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics – there was a version of The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (El sueño de la razón produce monstruos) in one episode.


As a romantically inclined, somewhat morbid teenager, this vision of a tortured artist mobbed by night fears, bats and owls, seemed to say something profound. I wasn’t quite sure what, but I found this depiction of a nightmare enormously compelling.

Some years later, visiting a friend in Madrid, I went to the Prado and headed straight for the extensive Goya collection. Of all the famous paintings on display, I found myself drawn longest to the Pilgrimage to St. Isidore’s hermitage.


One of the Black Paintings, it’s a haunting, disturbing painting, a dark counterpoint to Goya’s sunny earlier painting of St Isidore’s meadow, this later work portrays a kind of crazed carnival procession, touched by madness and the devil as a collection of grotesque singers shamble over the hill and towards the foreground and the open mouthed onlooker. It’s the kind of painting you almost have to force yourself to turn away from.

It’s a painting that comes to mind whenever I hear P J Harvey’s ‘The Last Living Rose from her Mercury Prize winning Let England Shake (2011). The lyrics paint a story of a similar kind of mad parade, this one though tottering through the faded glories of a lost, misremembered past, in a rotting, dank, defiantly not European England. In a grey dream landscape of  ‘battered books, dead sea captains and drunken beatings’, ancient sounding drums and lolling bass beats measure the pace, reinforcing the sense that the song speaks of a kind of drunken reverie, as a nation gorged on misplaced pride and longing, makes a staggering passage around its own tattered history.

Yet somewhere, in both song and painting, there remains an echo of a landscape that once, perhaps still holds, something of worth, of depth and romance, of things that do deserve celebrating amidst the darkness, the rain and the insanity.  Harvey has cited Goya as one source of inspiration for elements of this album – notably his disasters of war paintings. I wonder if she also thought of Pilgrimage to St Isidore’s Hermitage.

Hughes throughout the TV programme and in his book on Goya, is brilliant at conveying something of the power and strange beauty of these works.

Sadly the programme is not currently available on BBC iPlayer, but there is a recent blog by the executive producer Nicolas Kent on its making.

(As an interesting aside, a decade ago there were claims by a Spanish Professor of Art at Complutense University in Madrid, Juan José Junquera, that the Black Paintings cannot be by Goya. Instead they may be the work of his son Javier, or his son Mariano. Other experts have dismissed the suggestion as speculative at best, but if true would potentially shatter a key pillar of modern art history).

For all my morbid fascination with the Black Paintings, my favourite moment in the programme is Hughes’ encounter with and appreciation of La Maja Desnuda. He details the history of the painting and talks about the long standing speculation surrounding who its subject might be. He then stops talking as a critic and opens out on what he really feels about the painting. Of his feelings, he says:

“In reality they are of unmodulated lust. What I would really like to do were it possible and alas neither time nor the guards of the Prado would permit it, would be to hop in there like a bee getting into a Peony and have a wonderful afternoon.”

Brilliant. Watch it if you can, and/or buy Hughes equally excellent book.


Robert Hughes on Goya Crazy Like a Genius

Prado Online Gallery: Goya & 18th Century Painting

Was Goya really the artist behind the Black Paintings?
The Secret of the Black Paintings – New York Times Article

Neil Gaiman Comics


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