Francisco de Goya’s 18th century prints resonate with Steinbeck’s times, and ours.
Thursday, June 8, 2006
Los Caprichos resides somewhere between the grotesque and the sublime. Originally published in 1799, this set of 80 etchings by Spanish artist Francisco de Goya is among the most influential series of graphic images in the history of Western art. A collection of the images opens this Friday at the National Steinbeck Center.
These images are populated by a subhuman cast of goblins, monks, aristocrats, procuresses, prostitutes, and animals acting like human fools, forsaken creatures that linger on the margins of reason in a world where sharp shadows and light blur the boundaries of fantasy and reality.
It’s a nightmarish world of wraiths and ghouls, dark lusts and abject horror. Each of the 200-year-old images is wildly dark and haunting. From the expression on the face of a woman who digs in the mouth of a hanged man in “Hunting for Teeth” to the black humor of a demonic pedicure in “They Spruce Themselves Up” to the bizarre motion and composition of images like “To Rise and to Fall”—each and every etching resonates hollowly in the basement of the soul.
Odd material for the Steinbeck Center? Not really. Goya and Steinbeck actually had a great deal in common. The controversial images of Los Caprichos were created as a response to dark social and economic times in Goya’s Spain. Like Steinbeck, Goya set out to illustrate the human condition through his art while passionately denouncing social abuses and firmly-held superstitions.
Tackling such heavy themes as the Spanish Inquisition, the corruption of the church and the nobility, witchcraft, child rearing, avarice, and the frivolity of young women, Goya attempted to put a mirror to society in the hopes that its grotesque reflection would spur some kind of great leap forward for humanity. And in some ways, it worked. Today, he’s considered the first to usher art into the modern age.
In his essay for the exhibition, curator Robert Flynn Johnson writes, “Francisco Goya should be seen as the first modern artist—he chose to go beyond depictions of religion, mythology, and history, and even beyond observation of the visible world, turning instead toward the psychological demons that have always inhabited men’s souls. Until Goya, these demons had rarely been made artistically visible—Goya had the courage and the genius to depict them.”
And because of this courage, Goya’s artwork endures. Its grim majesty feels relevant. The vile humanity he depicts in these etchings wander the streets today in even greater numbers than they did in 18th-century Spain. It’s a chilling reminder of how little humanity has really progressed, but like anything truly horrible and true, it is impossible to look away.
LOS CAPRICHOS opens with a reception on Friday from 5pm to 7pm with Dr. Donna Hunter, associate professor and the chair of the History of Art and Visual Culture Department at UCSC. She will give a talk, “Los Caprichos within Goya’s Art and Times,” and touch on the relation between the works of Goya and John Steinbeck. $5/general public; free/members. The exhibit will hang at the National Steinbeck Center, 1 Main St., Salinas from June 10, through August 6, 2006. For more information visit steinbeck.org
or call 775-4721.