Francisco Goya, Fight with Cudgels, 1820-1823, Oil mural transferred to canvas, 123 x 266 cm
In the summer of 2001, after my Junior year in college, I backpacked across Europe with my friend David. We had worked together to organize the two-month trip around two main factors. First, going to four concerts: Radiohead in the south of France, David Byrne in Madrid, Beck in Paris and Bob Dylan outside of Genoa. The second consideration was going to a dozen or so museums that I was desperate to see.
About midway through our travels we arrived in Madrid, which is home to the Prado Museum. I was more excited to see this museum than any other. In particular, I wanted to see Goya’s late “Black Paintings”, which are also known as “Quinta Del Sardo” (The House of Deafness). In his late 60s, Goya had moved to a small converted farmhouse outside of Madrid, in a sort of self-imposed exile. Ironically, while Goya was deaf at that point in his life, the house was not named after him, but rather after the old man who had inhabited it before him. Living in a sick and silent world, wracked with anxiety, Goya painted a series of bleak paintings directly on the plaster walls of the house. Goya had been the highest court painter for the Spanish royalty, and had seen them commit, as well as endure, horrible atrocities. These dark paintings seemed to have sprung from the grim state of his world; how it had collapsed around him, done in by how little respect he witnessed for the dignity of human life. His waking world was filled with grotesque demons, masquerading as people. He seemed to have all but given up on beauty, instead needing to rid himself of darkness, to purge it directly onto the plaster walls of this small dwelling. The result was some of the most haunting images ever created. To our knowledge, he never mentioned or wrote of these paintings. Decades after his death, they were removed from the walls and transferred onto canvas. It’s not known how much was lost or changed in the process.
I was obsessed, in the same way that a 20-year-old gets embarrassingly fascinated with Dark Side of the Moon or Edgar Allen Poe. I poured over images of the paintings in books and read whatever I could find written about them.
I awoke early on our first morning in Madrid to be the first person in line at the Prado. I arrived almost two hours in advance to ensure it. I had studied maps of the museum, so that I could scramble past the hordes of museum goers and race to the Black Paintings, guaranteeing a little time alone with them. It was like planning a bank heist.
For most of the trip, we had been drinking too much at night and eating breakfasts that consisted mainly of candy bars bought from train and bus station vending machines. I was groggy, but excited as I left our youth hostel and stepped onto a Madrid bus headed to the museum. I arrived at 7:30 am, and was relieved to see that I was, in fact, the first person in line.
And there I stood, outside of the museum for two hours, utterly alone. The whole time. At 9:30, a disheveled guard wandered over and unlatched the iron gate, swung it open and let me in, alone. I bought my ticket, and decided that I was going to pretend that it was still urgent; so I rushed up a flight of stairs and down the long hallway to the room where they are kept. As I walked in, I saw that it had been set up to mimic the configuration of the tiny house the paintings had been created in.
They were shocking and grim. Awful and stunning. I wandered around amazed at how much I had not seen in reproduction. At one point, all the hairs on the back of my neck stood up, as I noticed a face, calmly but malevolently locking eyes with me from the center of a crowd of singing travelers. In another painting, a dog’s tiny, worried head is barely visible as a sandstorm slowly buries him alive. The sand glows as it floats down, like a demonic Rothko. In another, two men needlessly batter each other with clubs while fatally sinking into quicksand.
Francisco Goya, (Saturno devorando a su hijo) Saturn Devouring His Son, 1819–1823, Oil mural transferred to canvas, 143 cm × 81 cm
The most famous and grotesque of the Black Paintings depicts the God Saturn devouring his own child. It is nearly too much to bear. It’s hard to fathom a more upsetting image but, in fact, it is now known that the sexual suggestion in this painting was censored and edited after Goya’s death; it’s original imagery would be too shocking, even by today’s standards.
At about 10:15, a busload of tourists clambered into the gallery, smiling and bantering, their faces covered by cameras like venetian masks. And, just like that, the paintings dimmed and hardened. It was as if the life in them burned up like cellulose melting in a projector. They became illustrations: plastic, melodramatic and cheesy, ruined by commotion. Suddenly, I felt hungover and tired, and even a little shaky….maybe they weren’t really as strong as I thought, maybe I was tricking myself because I had built them up so much.
I tried to see the rest of the museum, but everything felt hollow. I was done for the day. Sorry Velasquez.
After some lunch, (ham and potatoes was the only thing they seemed to serve in Spain at the time), and feeling a little less wobbly, I took the short walk to the Reina Sofia Museum, mainly because I felt obligated to see Picasso’s anti-war masterpiece from 1937, Guernica. It seemed like not seeing it would be like going to Florence and not seeing the David.
As I entered the museum, I saw that they had hung a massive temporary show of late Picasso paintings. wandering into galleries, I noticed that many of the paintings were huge and sparse; eight-by-6 foot paintings with MAYBE an hour of brush on canvas time in them. At first it felt a little cheap, like maybe he was banging them out for a buck. The fame he had toward the end of his life meant he could sell anything he touched. There is a story of a woman who begged him to paint a mural on a large wall she had in her house, and told him that money was no object. He told her his price, which was exorbitant, and she agreed. He went to her house and painted a small yellow dot in the top corner of the wall and said it was the sun. He was done. He took the money and left. She was ecstatic. Or so the story goes.
In another story, he went into a small store to buy some wine and tobacco. The starstruck store owner asked if he wanted to do a doodle on a napkin, instead of paying. He replied, “I wanted wine and cigarettes, not to buy the store.”
Pablo Picasso, The Family, 1970, Oil on canvas. 162 x 130 cm.
While I had always admired Picasso’s work, I really had not seen much in person and, as I walked around the massive gallery, I started to experience a growing sense of relief and lightness. An almost lustful excitement started welling up in me. THESE were the antidote to Goya’s well-earned darkness. These paintings emerged from an extreme, almost buddha-like freedom, rather than the closing walls of death and human cruelty. The Picassos were prodigious, in the true sense of the word; he seemed to channel them, rather than paint them. His main objective was trying not to slow them down as they flowed through him. Details and virtuosity couldn’t matter less, he was laughing and crying with paint. They were childlike and silly, but also weighed a thousand pounds from the heft of their humanity and pathos. They were fearless in the truest sense of the word; they were not of fear, not from it, not in it, had never met fear. I felt light and desperate to create, and I understood for the first time that beauty could be utterly divorced from the illusionistic depiction of the external world. For a man who has been quoted a lot, perhaps his most famous rang true: “I don’t paint things the way I see them, I paint them the way I feel them”. And he loved the world, deeply.
Back from the dead, I returned to the Prado and walked again through dozens of rooms of old master paintings. Everything looked new and bright, as if lit from behind. Everything except the Black Paintings.
Stephen Benenson, After Giorgione, 2014, Watercolor monotype, drypoint etching, and woodblock printing on paper, 35 x 24 1/2 inches
Stephen Benenson is an artist and teacher living in Maine. He received his BA from Wheaton College in Massachusetts, and his master’s degree from the Yale School of Art. He lives with his wife, 2 children, 10 sheep, 9 chickens, 1 dog and 1 gerbil. He also spends too much time foraging for mushrooms. stephenbenenson.com | IG