Robert Hughes, Goya, London: Harvill Press, 2003.

Reviewed by Sasha Cyganowski

487px-Vicente_López_Portaña_-_el_pintor_Francisco_de_GoyaThere has been much on TV recently about the 18th-19th century Spanish artist Francisco Goya y Lucientes, or Goya. The British art commentator Matthew Collings, in the second part to his series This is Modern Art, walks amongst contemporary artists who, with their oversized plastic noses, sniff the bottom of a fellow artist. In another scene, we watch a gluttonous freak almost choke on melted chocolate, which is being poured into her mouth from a funnel inserted between a pair of thighs hovering above her. Goya, claims Collings, is the father of modern art. Few would doubt this, but I wonder what Goya would think of being catalogued alongside such art.

Prior to Collings’s series, SBS screened a show in its Masterpiece series by Australia’s Robert Hughes. Both Hughes and Collings released television shows to accompany their latest books; Goya by Hughes, and This is Modern Art by Collings. But that is where the similarity ends. Collings’s commentary is verbose and all-embracing, Hughes’s style is sharp and critical.

In his show, limping with a cane, Hughes takes us on a personalised journey through Goya’s Spain. The limp is a result of his car accident on a West Australian desert road in 1999. Emotionally, the effects of the accident, court case, and media coverage are obvious; his book is infused with sentiments such as West Australian justice is to justice what West Australian culture is to culture. Indeed, the major motivating force pushing Hughes to write this biography he had thought so long about was his horrendous car accident, which left him in a coma for five weeks. His chances of survival were rated as extremely low, and it was in nightmares during the coma that Goya came to Hughes, taunting him like a toreador to a bull. Driving into Goya seems a suitable title for Chapter One.

It was through the accident, Hughes writes, that I came to know extreme pain, fear, and despair; and it may be that the writer who does not know fear, despair, and pain cannot fully know Goya. If one strips away all the media coverage of Hughes, one is left with his writing:

They were friends. But that, in broad outline, is all we know about Goya’s relationship to the duchess of Alba.

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Despite the acreage of scented embroidery that has been superimposed on their friendship, despite the romantic novelists and the Hollywood scriptwriters – for, inevitably, there was a film about their liaison, The Naked Maja, with the duchess played by Ava Gardner;  alas, it was made too early for Cher, who really did look like her when she was young, to take the part – there is no good reason to suppose that the beauty was ever in bed with the deaf genius twice her age.

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Goya was deaf (not mad) from the age of 46 to his death at the age of 82. To live so long was an amazing feat of longevity for a Spaniard at that time, partly because of the status of Spanish politics and religion. The Inquisition, although coming to a close, was still a terrifying presence and war with Napoleon’s France brought out the worst in humanity, both illustrated by Goya in his Caprichos and Desastres series, respectively. When the war was over Spain fell into the hands of the bumbling Fernando VII, which was enough to drive Goya into exile, arriving in Bordeaux “deaf, old, awkward and weak, and without knowing a word of French.” Some 12,000 families similarly went into exile, most of them to France, like Goya. An illustration of Fernando’s incompetence, and in particular his attitude to education, is provided by Hughes:

… the chancellor of the university rose, or rather sank, to the occasion …he assured the Desired One, [Fernando] “Far from us be the disastrous mania for thinking.”

Hughes poses many interesting questions. Some, such as the following, are particularly relevant in today’s culture of fear:

Nearly sixty years after the bomb bay doors of the Enola Gay opened to release Little Boy, and a new level of human conflict, over Hiroshima, there is still no major work of visual art marking the birth of the nuclear age. No esthetically significant painting or sculpture commemorates Auschwitz.

Vietnam was tearing the country apart, and where was the art that recorded America’s anguish? … in general there was nothing, absolutely nothing, that came near the achievement of Goya’s Desastres de la guerra, those heartrending prints in which the artist bore witness to the almost unspeakable facts of death in the Spanish rising against Napoleon, and in doing so became the first modern visual reporter on warfare.

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Hughes’s technical remarks on Goya’s work are as insightful as the historical context in which he places the art. Goya’s use of aquatint in etching and his use of the sketchbook as a visual diary were both innovative, and his use of ‘stable’ structures such as diagonals, pyramids, and triangles to compose an often brutal subject matter was to become his hallmark. Prior to the chemical process of aquatint, the most common method of varying tones was by Rembrandt-esque hatching and cross-hatching. In the above plate, Goya shades with aquatint and places triangles, such as the void between the legs of the kneeling man in the background, deliberately.

Apart from late-night TV, where else had I seen Goya lately? The vivid, grotesque characters from the recent Peter Booth exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria were loitering in my mind, and it was no surprise to learn that Booth studied Goya. Booth seems to detest the crowd as much as Goya did, and he captures humanity, as Goya did, at its lowest.

If one is interested in Goya, then it almost goes without saying that Robert Hughes’ book will appeal, but it would also appeal to those with an interest in the fashion, politics, or sport (i.e. bullfighting) of 18th-19th century Spain. Physically, it is a hefty hardcover with thick glossy pages, and excellent colour plates. A book by one of the best known art critics on one of the greatest ever artists, it is a gem.

Photo credit: El pintor Francisco de Goya, Museo Nacional del Prado, Wikimedia Commons Made available under the Creative Commons Licence

Photo credit: La Maja Desnuda (the Nude Woman) by Goya, by Frank Kovalchek, Flickr Made available under the Creative Commons Licence

Photo credit: La Maja Vestida (the Dressed Woman) by Goya, by Frank Kovalchek, Flickr Made available under the Creative Commons Licence

Photo credit: Desastres de la guerra, by Goya, Wikimedia Commons Made available under the Creative Commons Licence

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Feasting with Asterix

April 6, 2005

By Rebecca Lucas

Not long ago I read Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, for no reason other than that the title popped up in conversation. It took me a little while to warm to it, but from a certain event onward I was hooked: it is where Mess officer Milo serves the four squadrons at Pianosa fresh eggs fried in fresh butter[1]. I fried an egg in butter and ate while re-reading about eggs and soldiers. It might seem an unlikely book to set off reflections upon a habit so long established, but the synthesis of reading and eating has always been a part of my literary pleasure.

224644391_319d0df438_nThe first time I bit into a pickle was when I was five, soon after finishing a children’s classic by Eric Carle. The Very Hungry Caterpillar arrives at a penultimate narrative moment: its picture-book double spread of tidbits lined up with a perfect hole punched (eaten) through each. “On Saturday,” the hungry caterpillar “ate through one piece of chocolate cake, one ice-cream cone, one pickle, one slice of Swiss cheese, one slice of salami, one lollipop, one piece of cherry pie, one sausage, one cupcake, and one slice of watermelon.”[2] Only the pickle was then an unknown to me. I needed to know the taste of everything tasted by the very hungry caterpillar. With no personal sensuous experience of ‘pickle’ the word and illustration were a frustration. The story seemed incomplete. Later, the Gallic banquets in Asterix comics were complemented by something meaty. I wanted to hold a chicken drumstick or lamb cutlet in my greasy fist and gnaw on it. Reading became an invitation, in this case, to eat what the Gauls were eating, to be there with Obelisk as we gorged on roasted boar.

These enacted readings connected real and imagined worlds. The connection was not confined to passages featuring food. I ate my way into a narrative in order to explore its entire sensuous landscape. There is a chapter in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe called ‘Turkish Delight’ where C. S. Lewis writes that “Edmund… thought only of trying to shovel down as much Turkish Delight as he could, and the more he ate the more he wanted to eat.”[3] My lasting impression of the Narnia Chronicles concerns ordinary children (though rather proper and British) in an extraordinary forested world of talking animals, but this impression is, at the same time, linked to the sensation of stuffing my face full of Frye’s Turkish Delight. The few children’s books left on my shelf are those replete with descriptions of food and memories of eating. I first identified with characters through the meals we shared.

94477072_8e131ddb6b_mCountless times I scoffed a bar of chocolate at the exact moment that Charlie in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory “tore off the wrapper and took an enormous bite. Then he took another… and another… and oh, the joy of being able to cram large pieces of something sweet and solid in one’s mouth!”[4] But no matter how hard I worked to convince myself, the Yarra River, brown as it is, would not flow for me as melted chocolate. I could make-believe that my Milo had been scooped from Wonka’s river, but I never expected to drink from it directly. And when Enid Blyton wrote of a purse that delivers a dish each time it is opened, although I tasted the delicacies which appeared, I knew nothing would appear from my imitation purse with pink beads and silver clasp.

It did not really matter that such daydreams stayed unfulfilled. Wishing for what was fantastical generated only a slight disappointment. Did I have a tacit understanding that the impossibility of magic purses somehow keeps fiction safe? The synthesis of reading and eating does not act to make another world disappear into this one. Bites, chews, flavours and swallows are real. The fictional world is imagined real through the bites. Of course, the tasting has not always agreed with the reading. I once read of how a ‘pot’ of jam packed in a school boarder’s ‘tuck-box’ was enjoyed straight from the jar. But forcing down dark spoonfuls of straight jam was so horribly sweet. The writing seemed to be affected by this incongruity. As a twelve year-old, I could not feel the same excitement over an orange shown by a novel’s nineteenth century children. Their fruits were held like fat edible jewels. Nevertheless, I am able to marvel at the preciousness of an orange.

Although literary descriptions of food and eating stimulated my mouth as well as my imagination, lusciousness was not a condition for the content of the writing. I left a rough chunk of bread to go stale, so it could be chewed and washed down with a big gulp of black tea like the swagman in The Shiralee.[5] Eating bread and dripping (bacon fat left in the pan) sat me at a table in the Depression. The pleasures of combining reading and eating do not entail gluttony (although it is definitely an option). Nothing decrees that one must eat to read. Language is always the essential ingredient. Over time I have become less impelled to consume the various foods represented on the page. And I like to think that my early tendency for blending appetites of the mind and body has well cultivated a mature appreciation of literature.

It was at least ten years ago that a well-read friend declared to me that Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow was a masterpiece, but I have only now picked it up. Following on from my reading of Catch-22, Gravity’s Rainbow is, as it happens, another lengthy wartime book. By contrast, a few pages in and I’m finding it reads too intellectually; it is constructed a little too self-consciously. However, just a bit further along and a paragraph suprises my senses: it is so exquisite an inventory of Pirate’s Banana Breakfast that I am already heady with the delicious scent of this literature. There were, writes Pynchon:

tall cruets of pale banana syrup to pour oozing over banana waffles, a giant glazed crock where diced bananas have been fermenting since summer with wild honey and muscat raisins, up out of which, this winter morning, one now dips foam mugsfull of banana mead… banana croissants and banana kreplach, and banana oatmeal and banana jam and banana bread, and bananas flamed in ancient brandy Pirate brought back last year from a cellar in the Pyrenees.

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[1] Joseph Heller, Catch-22 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004), pp. 134–136.

[2] Eric Carle, The Very Hungry Caterpillar (London: Puffin, 1969).

[3] C.S.Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Middlesex: Puffin, 1977), p. 37.

[4]  Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (London: Puffin, 2005), p. 62.

[5]  Niland, D’Arcy, The Shiralee (1955).

[6] Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow (London: Penguin, 2000), pp. 10–11.

Photo credit: by Bobcat Rock, Flicker Made available under the Creative Commons Licence

Photo credit: by KosabeFlickr Made available under the Creative Commons Licence