Goya’s series of fourteen Black Paintings occupy a massive white room in the Prado in Madrid. I’ve never stood before them, but as a painter I’ve long studied his work. The paintings are confounding—considered too dark and depraved to be enjoyed, while the artist himself was too celebrated to be subject to critique. It was initially painted on the walls of his farmhouse, Quinta del Sordo (House of the Deaf Man), on the outskirts of Madrid. Although Goya himself was losing his hearing, the estate was in fact named after its former owner. After Goya’s exile and death, the plaster was stripped and stolen and eventually found a home at the Prado. Considered by many to be a series of abominations, there are presumptions in art historical thought that the images’ harrowing themes were a manifestation of Goya’s intense depression, disillusionment and/or dementia from war and illness, reflecting his steady mental, emotional decay. The nightmares of a pathetic, feeble-minded, dead man walking, albeit still a master.
It is impossible to disregard the Black Paintings as mindless or paranoid ramblings. They are distinctly Goya, farcical nightmarish expositions on human ugliness. Nor are they cynical, which disturbing images often are typecast as. They are as funny as they are sad.
Like Goya, director Milos Forman—who passed away in April 2014—was witness to the horrors of war and the degradation of the human spirit. Forman lost both his parents to the Holocaust. Two decades later in 1968, he fled the Russian invasion of Prague, emigrating to the United States. Forman’s last film was Goya’s Ghosts, itself an analysis of the madness of war and the requisite human ugliness.
Watching the lead up to the 2020 U.S. election brings to life Goya’s 200-year-old caricature studies of humans in grotesque states of uncertainty, fear and greed. Clamoring over one another, howling and burning in Boschian landscapes, all these self-proclaimed “leaders” shout their slander and vitriol over one another, never putting forward consequential ideas or fruitful plans. Disgracefully subsumed in wresting power from another depraved and disgraceful opponent, the bar for decency isn’t just low any more, it’s dead and buried. It harkens to the madness that is fomented when institutions completely forget the basic needs of people they were created to serve. The ugly, divisive politics of the U.S. at present is unsettlingly similar to the madness of the Spanish Inquisition, Nazi Germany and Cold War Czechoslovakia; all the ways that repression through the puppet politics of human deprivation leads to individual and collective psychosis.
The fate of Goya’s farmhouse and estate, the House of the Deaf Man, seems a fitting metaphor for the deafening of reason amid the din of global populism and the continual pillaging of the earth along with our sanity and dignity. Goya’s work, like Forman’s, shows that tragedies resulting of human greed can—through painting, film, music, theater, comedy and all forms of creative expression—be translated into honest and powerful learning experiences. Sarcasm is not necessarily cynicism. A dark interpretation is not always the same as a dark intention.
Sidd Joag is a visual artist, journalist and producer working on issues closely related to social inequality and human rights. He is the Managing Editor at ArtsEverywhere.