Goya’s Caprichos: Aesthetics, Perception, and the Body
Goya was struck by a severe illness in 1792 at the age of forty-five. It may have been botulism, meningitis, polio, hepatitis, syphilis or an inflammation of nerves in the inner ear. The symptoms ranged from nausea to vertigo, partial blindness and deafness, hallucinations and roaring sounds in his head. The disease nearly killed Goya and left him functionally deaf. Like Van Gogh's madness, it remains one of the puzzles of art's medical history. Most painters would have folded up their easels. Instead Goya responded with a vigorous series of cabinet pictures, oil on tinplate, portraying disasters, the interior of a prison, the yard of a lunatic asylum and some bloody bullfight scenes—hardly the subject matter that might have cheered a man who was ravaged by disease and depression. Then, still in convalescence, the artist experienced one of his greatest bursts of creativity in a long, prolific life: the series of eighty prints entitled Los Caprichos, published in 1799.
Andrew Schulz notes that these aquatint etchings have "failed to lodge themselves in the consciousness of the modern era to the same degree as have other works by Goya" (1)—like the official portraits, El tres de mayo and the Pinturas negras, for example. The only exception is the capricho that shows a Goya-like gentleman asleep at his desk, surrounded by owls, bats and a wide-eyed lynx: El sueño de la razón produce monstruos. The caption is famously ambiguous, like the Spanish word sueño itself: does it mean that the mind engenders such creatures when reason slumbers, or that reason itself is a kind of dream? If the question—and its possible answer—had not been at the crux of his Caprichos, Goya would not have intended this etching to be the original title page. Eventually he stuck it almost dead-center in the series and used another self-portrait as the opening print—the haughty artist in a top hat (Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, Pintor). These two plates, the first representing vision and the second observation, one the spirit of fantasy and the other satire, embody the tension in the Caprichos and in most of Goya's later art. The two etchings could also stand for the new romanticism and the old neoclassicism that were butting heads and bouncing around the artist's mind at the century's turn. As art critic Robert Hughes has said recently, he was "the last Old Master and the first Modernist."
Schulz argues that the passage of time has rendered the Caprichos inaccessible: "layers of meaning have slipped away and are no longer recoverable" (3). The etchings have been predominantly studied from thematic and literary perspectives; critics have "textualized" the works by favoring written evidence over visual analysis. The author proposes to correct this tendency by examining "the artistic principles that animate these etchings and to consider the complex ways in which these principles relate to the particular historical moment in which the prints were created and first received" (11). Although Schulz concentrates on visual elements in his early chapters, he concludes his analysis of the Caprichos by recurring to literary critics. Following Bakhtin, the author sees the reemergence of the grotesque around 1800 as the most important artistic principle behind Goya's mature art. The Spaniard's distortion of the body, use of inversion, "downward movement," and carnivalesque imagery might seem to embody Bakhtin's theory of grotesque realism. However, Schulz argues that Goya lacked the Russian thinker's faith in the people and popular consciousness. The crowds in the Caprichos and later works are not a source of regenerative power but of brutality and ignorance. This outlook separates Goya from his enlightened contemporaries and places him squarely in the line of romanticism and modernity.
Andrew Schultz's book ends with a brief look at the Caprichos' reception among French Romantics and Symbolists, for whom the etchings' ambiguity and uncertainty provided an important precedent for their own work. Some readers might wish the author had carried his argument deeper and farther by tracing the influence of Goya's graphic work on artists in [End Page 267] the Hispanic world, which is overlooked once more in favor of the central European tradition. Posada, Gutiérrez Solana, Valle-Inclán, Picasso, Buñuel, Saura… Goya lives.