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Transcript, ArtCurious Episode #44: Shock Art: Goya's Saturn Devouring His Son

The following episode contains descriptions that might be disturbing to some listeners. Please use discretion.

I’ll be the first to admit that I was always that person sitting in my art history lecture courses who perked up a little bit when something a little strange or gruesome appeared on the screen in front of me. After all, so much of the greatest hits of art history are all about beauty-- think about the perfection of Hellenistic Greek sculpture, or Botticelli’s lithe and gorgeous Venus, or the sunlight-dappled flowers of any number of Impressionist paintings. So when we come to something that’s graphic, or ugly, or disturbing, it’s a surprise. And I love a good surprise, especially when there’s a tinge of darkness to it. So it makes sense that I’d be intrigued by a Spanish painter known for his no-holds-barred imagery of the horrors of war, the violence we inflict on each other, and the madness lurking inside each of us. But one of his paintings has always just been a little too much, even for me to stomach for long.

Some people think that visual art is dry, boring, lifeless. But the stories behind those paintings, sculptures, drawings and photographs are weirder, crazier, or more fun than you can imagine. Today, we are continuing our season of episodes dissecting single works of art that shook their contemporary worlds, covering another painting that causes waves, even today. In this episode, we’re looking at Francisco Goya’s terrifying painting, Saturn Devouring His Sons.  This is the ArtCurious Podcast, exploring the unexpected, the slightly odd, and the strangely wonderful in Art History. I'm Jennifer Dasal.

Francisco Jose de Goya y Lucientes, whom I will simply refer to as “Goya,” was born on March 30, 1746 in the small town of Fuendetodos, Spain, near the city of Saragossa. Like many artists, he apprenticed into the profession of painter, working with a relatively unimportant artist named José Luzán, for about four years before opting to strike out on his own in his twenties, bent and determined to establish his career as a professional painter. And for the first couple of decades, things were a bit slow-going. He had mostly minor successes in exhibitions and competitions, traveled to Italy to study art, and working to hone his craft. He lucked out with a familial connection when he married Josefa Bayeu in 1773, whose own brother was one of the top artists of the Spanish court. With his brother-in-law’s help, he got his first big break as a designer, or cartoonist, at the royal tapestry factory, producing many prints and drawings at that time and garnering the attention of the royal court, as well as other important collectors. He was unanimously elected to the Academia in Madrid in May 1780 and he was appointed deputy director of the Academia in March 1785. And then he really hit the big time when, in 1786, King Charles III appointed Goya the official painter to the king; shortly after his coronation in 1789, Charles IV made him court painter as well.

All in all, slow and steady won the race here, and by his mid-forties, he was reaping the benefits of his hard work. But a twist of fate altered his life--and his art-- permanently. In late 1792, Goya contracted a strange illness-- even today, no one is quite sure what afflicted him. But it was bad-- really bad, and not only did it leave him basically incapacitated for practically a year, but it also left him deaf. It was a huge blow to Goya, and it was a wake-up call that made him stand back and truly re-evaluate his life goals. Was his art enough? Was he reaching viewers the way he wanted to, and what was his message? It’s at this point that much, but not all, of Goya’s work transitions away from staid portraits and more lighthearted scenes to powerful social commentary: first in the sarcastic and sometimes humorous images of his Caprichos, an 80-print set from the late 1790s, but later in his startling series, The Disasters of War, which chronicled the fearsome realities of battle. We discussed this set of prints briefly in the first episode of our second season, so if you’d like a deeper dive into Goya’s Disasters, go back and listen to episode #21. This focus on commentary-- biting, scathing take-downs of everyone from the Spanish Monarchy to Napoleon’s army and on and on--became a central point of Goya’s works, and one that would influence the work of art that we are discussing today.

Throughout the first two decades of the 19th century, Goya carried on, was once again named the highest court painter in the land by the Spanish Monarchy, and created many paintings and prints. But in 1819, his life screeched to a halt again due to that same mysterious illness that caused so much turmoil throughout 1792 and 1793. It reared its ugly head again, and was so severe that Goya nearly died. Once again, the trauma of this experience caused a serious change in Goya’s artistic output. It inspired the creation of The Black Paintings.

In the same year that Goya experienced the relapse of his illness, he moved into a new house, a little country home on the outskirts of Madrid with a nickname of the Quinta del Sordo, or “The House of the Deaf Man.”  The funny thing is that the house had gained this nickname prior to Goya’s residency there, but the irony of the situation would not have gone unnoticed. Here he was, in this new house that inadvertently confirmed that his world was reduced to silence and he was faced with his own mortality. He was 73 years old, and things were looking grim.  So he did one of the only things he could think to do: he grabbed his paints and turned to the walls of his own home to express his feelings and frustration. And out of this, the Black Paintings were born-- fourteen murals, most likely created between the years of 1820 and 1823, all meant for private display solely in Goya’s home, most displaying a foreboding mood and a continuing sense of anxiety and malevolence. There’s an abandoned dog, looking forlornly out into space; leering women with frightening grins; even an old testament Judith beheading Holofernes-- a great throwback to our previous episode on Artemisia Gentileschi this season. But the work that is, by far, the most famous of these Black Paintings is an image known today as Saturn Devouring His Son.  That’s coming up next, right after this break.

Welcome back to ArtCurious.

Let’s be real here: Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son is a sight to behold, and not a pleasant one at that. It’s truly terrifying. From a dark and shadowy background, a giant and pale man, gaunt and nude, emerges.  His hair and beard are long, gray, and matted, and his eyes are wide and bulging, as they look straight towards us, the viewers. This is striking and awful enough, but what the man is doing is even worse. He is shown in the process of consuming the right arm of a human being. In comparison to the monstrous figure, his mouth a gaping black hole, the person positioned within the giant hands is small, like a doll-- and that doll has been has been decapitated and its left arm has already been removed, limp and defeated. Blood frames the human’s torso and it spills down towards the giant man’s fists. And the giant, gruesome figure is more monster than man himself, with a strange frame that is at once overly muscular and too thin, and certainly ill-proportioned. His legs seem very long, evident as the figure attempts to crouch and only from its knees upward is visible. It is unclear how long his legs would be if he were standing straight and his feet are completely hidden by the blackness.

Like I said: truly awful. So what is happening here? Well, the accepted theory is that Goya is looking back to ancient Greco-Roman myth and opted to depict the story of Saturn, also known as the Greek Titan Cronos, whose loss of power and downfall had been foretold to be at the hands of his children. In order to protect himself from this prophecy, Saturn, who had overthrown his own father, had swallowed each of his first two children immediately after their births. But Saturn’s wife, Ops, was not going to be fooled a third time. She hid her third baby, Jupiter, on the island of Crete and deceived Saturn by pretending a stone was her newborn baby. Kept safe and secure, Jupiter grew to adulthood, until he, as was prophesied, returned to overthrow Saturn and take his place as King of the Gods. Here, Goya zooms in on the most despicable part of the ancient myth, focusing not on Jupiter’s victory but on Saturn’s depraved and grave decision to destroy his own child.

Or at least that’s the going assumption. In reality, the painting was never named during Goya’s lifetime, and it was only after the painting was discovered after Goya’s death that art historians bestowed it with the moniker of Saturn Devouring His Son. There are a lot of assumptions about this painting that, frankly, cannot be substantiated because Goya did not save any information about it. He was never planning to exhibit the painting, choosing to paint it on the walls of his own home instead of on panel or canvas for public display, so why would he save any notes, sketches, or references, really? Which begs us to ask: since we don’t have anything specific to go on here, how can we even be sure that this is supposed to be a scene of Saturn and his son, and not just a terrible, monstrous scene? Unlike other art-historical depictions of Saturn, or any other mythological figure, really, this depiction lacks any sense of identifying iconolography. For example, Saturn is usually shown with a scythe, that curved long tool typically used for cutting grass or wheat. This defined Saturn’s typical role as a Roman god of agriculture, claimed as the figure who established Rome as a fertile land before his death and the fall of the Titans. In Goya’s painting, though, the figure assumed to be Saturn does not have a scythe- in fact, he has nothing. The only possible identifier is the mangled body in his fists. And even still, the human he holds leaves some things in question. If we take the title of the painting, Saturn Devouring His Son, as fact, then we also assume that the figure is eating a male. In reality, there are no identifying features to give us any information about the gender of this figure. In fact, some art historians believe that it might be a female body upon which Saturn is chewing, because  the corpse’s hips and rear end are thought to be too rounded, too curvy, to be a man’s body. Say all of that is true-- if this isn’t an image of Saturn devouring his son, then what’s going on in this painting? What does it mean?

Naturally a first (really great) guess is the dark state of mind that may have plagued Goya, given his health situation. The overarching themes of the Black Paintings do seem to tie together with anxieties about aging, dying, illness, madness, and grief. Perhaps this painting is no different-- literally making death, and the monstrousness inside all of us-- its subject matter.

Knowing Goya’s penchant for social commentary makes another interesting variation on this point, because many add the complicating element of Goya’s reaction to civil unrest in Spain during this time period. He was outspoken about war and the misuse of power, as we mentioned earlier, and he was known for painting violent images of political riots, including his iconic The Third of May, 1808. During his tenure at Quinta del Sordo, political rebellions were common, as were violent counter-reactions from the state. Is it possible that Goya is using the bare-bones of the myth of Saturn as an allegory for country of Spain “devouring” its citizens during this turbulent time?  We might never truly know.

After Goya left the Quinta del Sordo to emigrate to Bordeaux, France, he lived away from Spain, for the most part, until his death in April 1828. At his death, the Quinta del Sordo was still in the possession of the Goya family, having been left to his grandson Mariano. Eventually, the villa came into the possession of Belgian Baron Emile d’Erlanger, and the Baron, along with curators and conservators at the Museo del Prado in Madrid, spearheaded an effort to preserve the murals. By the time the preservation efforts began, though, the Black Paintings had already been on the walls for more than seventy years, and time had taken its toll on the images, and things, sadly, got a little worse during and after the delicate process of removing the murals and placing them onto canvas backings instead. Because of this, the paintings required an intense restoration project that lead to some of the detail being lost. Saturn Devouring His Son fared better than many other paintings from the series, thankfully, and today it is still one of the great attractions of the Prado, still shocking and disturbing millions of visitors per year. But all of it does allow us to ask-- what does it mean to have a work on view that was never made for public consumption? How would Goya, himself, feel about having these works available for all to see, when he made it, most probably, just for his own eyes? Does that change the meaning of the Black Paintings? Or would Goya have painted these works differently, had he known that they’d be a centerpiece of a huge international collection a century later? I don’t know. We might never find out. But in the meantime, I am still going to look, to view Goya’s frightening scenes, to experience them in all their horror. Because sometimes art is like a car crash-- you know you shouldn’t look, but you just can’t help it.

Next time on the ArtCurious Podcast, we’re returning to that great Renaissance man, Michelangelo, and a serious Sistine snafu. That’s coming up in two weeks-- don’t miss it.

Thank you for listening to the ArtCurious Podcast. This episode was written, produced, and narrated by me, Jennifer Dasal, with additional writing and research help by Kelsey Breen. Our theme music is by Alex Davis at alexdavismusic.com, our logo is by Dave Rainey at daveraineydesign.com, and social media help is by Emily Crockett. Our production and editorial services are provided by Kaboonki. Video. Content. Ideas. Learn more at kaboonki.com

The ArtCurious Podcast is sponsored primarily by Anchorlight. Anchorlight is an interdisciplinary creative space, founded to foster artists, designers, and craftspeople at varying stages of their development. Home to studios, residency opportunities, and exhibition spaces, Anchorlight encourages mentorship and the cross-pollination of skills among creatives in the Triangle. please visit anchorlightraleigh.com.

The ArtCurious Podcast is also fiscally sponsored by VAE Raleigh, a 501c3 nonprofit creativity incubator. This means that you can donate to the show and it is fully tax-deductible! Follow the “Donate” links at our website for more details, where you can also find images, information, contact information, and links to our previous episodes. That site is artcuriouspodcast.com. We’re also on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram at artcuriouspod. Lastly, if you love ArtCurious and want even more of what we do, you’ll be thrilled to know that I am available for lectures, live podcast events, and any other gigs. Contact me if you’d like me to visit your museum, college, university, or elsewhere.

Check back in two weeks as we continue to explore the unexpected, the slightly odd, and the strangely wonderful in the shocking works of  art history.

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