Old Man Goya

Witches Sabbath by Goya

"Old Man Goya" is a book, judging from its Amazon reviews, that divides opinion. You can see why. If you approach it imagining a detailed, well argued art historical text that expands or supplements your existing knowledge of the second half of Goya's life, when illness rendered him completely deaf, you will be (and have been) sorely disappointed. Julia Blackburn's task is not to inform (though it does) but to help you imagine what it is like to see as Goya saw, recognising both the possibilities and difficulties of this task. She rather brilliantly brings to life Goya's seeing, weaving his paintings back into speculative but realistic portraits of his daily living.

She explores what does it mean to suddenly find yourself completely deaf and does the loss of one sense heighten the others; and, for Goya, most especially, his visual sense? What does it genuinely mean to confront the horrors of war, to paint suffering, to apparently pour compassion into paint, and yet have no reliable record, other than the art, of what Goya truly felt? Does it matter for does not the paint speak for itself? What does it mean to be a court painter, faithfully and with acclaim portraying its life, and yet, when in private, consistently undermines that life in every stroke of paint or etched plate? What does it mean to amass a fortune and yet request to be buried in the brown robes of the hermit saint, Peter? Or for that matter to fail to ensure that a portion of that fortune flowed to your loved mistress and illegitimate daughter rather than have it all fall (and be squandered) in the hands of your mercenary son and grandson?

A very real, complex, compromised man emerges from her portrait as does his genius and you taste the true compulsion of art - it is here in the canvas or plate that Goya finds his way to showing forth his world - a world of dispassionate, searing insight that often breaks down or into a forthright compassion for the least or the most broken or most ravaged. In daily life, he might have been indifferent, incompetent or simply unaware (though no more so than most and often slipping into care and concern for and with others) but this probably matters little now in the face of the work, extraordinarily vivid and (in his depictions of marginalisation and violence) sadly as deeply topical now as when they were painted.

The books only principal failing is that it is all feeling but what does it mean to look this way for to portray these realities is not only a matter of how do I feel but also what do I as an artist (and a person) think? This goes unexplored (and admittedly reconstructing it is complex and speculative) but worth the effort - ideas matter (even to artists) and Goya is not simply a painter of outraged feeling. He chose to go into exile in France but why? He chose to be buried in a hermit's robe but refused extreme unction? He was a prophet against violence (of certain kinds, bull fighting appears in a different light) but why?

And so on and so forth nevertheless as a depiction of the connection between feeling and seeing, seeing and feeling, it is a poetic and engaging account. It is enriched rather than diminished by the author's own experience and by her following Goya's physical trail; however, unconventional as a work of art historical appreciation, this makes it , unlike a significant amount of art history, never boring!


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