The Most Disturbing Painting

The Most Disturbing Painting


There are some strong contenders like: “The Judgement of Cambyses” by Gerard David, Hieronymus Bosch’s rendering of Hell, Henry Fuseli’s “Nightmare”, and Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”. But there’s only ever really been one painting that has seriously disturbed me — this one. Francisco Goya’s “Saturn Devouring His Son”. What you’re seeing here, is the legendary Spanish painter’s depiction of the Greek Titan Cronus, who after usurping power from his father, was told a prophecy that one of his own sons would do the same and usurp him. In order to prevent this, every time his Queen Rhea bore a child, Cronus would eat it. Unfortunately for him, in the end Rhea conspired to hide away their youngest son — Zeus; who eventually fulfilled the prophecy, exiled his father and ended the reign of the Titans. The story is a well known Greek myth, but look at how Goya handles it. Some key changes jump out right away. First, in the myth Cronus devours his children by swallowing them whole. In fact, they remain alive in his stomach. Goya’s painting is a much more gruesome affair. He takes some inspiration here from Peter Paul Rubens, a Flemish baroque painter who depicted the same event as well. In Rubens’ “Saturn”, the Titan seems to be sucking the life force from his child. Even for such a terrifying subject matter, Rubens displays all the drama, richness, even beauty, that marks the Baroque style he helped to make famous. In Goya’s version, that beauty is gone. We’re left with a frightened, crazed monster discovered in the dark as if by some explorer with a torch, who wandered into the wrong cave. Saturn — Cronus’ Roman name — has already chewed off the head of his child. His black mouth opens around the elbow of the left arm, ready to bite it off at the joint. His angular body is crouching in an awkward position, his hands dig into the spine, blood runs down his child’s arm and neck and shoulder a startling primary color. And if we take a closer look, we noticed that this is not a child at all — but one of Saturn’s kids grown up. There’s something even more terrifying in knowing that the victim knew what was happening and tried to fight back. But what’s most disturbing of all, I think, is when and where this painting was found. Late in his life, Francisco Goya purchased a house on the outskirts of Madrid, called “La Quinta del Sordo”, or “The Villa of the Deaf” after its previous owner. An interesting coincidence, since by that time in his life, Goya was deaf too. His physical and mental health declining, Goya painted 14 murals often referred to as “The Black Paintings”. Directly onto the interior walls of his home. “Saturn devouring his son”? Was in the dining room. The photographs you’re seeing now were taken over 50 years after that time. Goya never mentioned the paintings himself. He never intended for anyone to see them but to this day, people still puzzle over the meaning of “The Black Paintings”. Why was Goya creating these pessimistic and fantastical scenes in the solitude of his home? To understand this it might help to go back through Goya’s career. He grew up in Zaragoza, Spain. The fourth of six children in a lower middle-class family. By all accounts, he was a light-hearted and joyful kid as he studied painting in Zaragoza, Madrid and Rome. His first serious job was at the royal tapestry factory where he created tapestry cartoons to adorn the palaces and stately homes of the city. These tapestries take their cue from “The Rococo Style”, elegant, playful, light scenes of both nobility and peasantry enjoying the normal activities of their day. Goya eventually became the court painter for King Charles IV, a disappointing monarch unlike his father Charle III, who was beloved by the people for enacting reforms that began to bring secular enlightenment values to Spain. In 1793, an unknown illness left Goya deaf. Though he still took commissions from his royal clientele, this disease was a dark turning point in his life and art. You can see it in “Yard With Lunatics” from 1794 bodies grapple and cry out in anguish. The difference between this and the tapestry cartoons, is shocking. His hearing gone, Goya began to see the country around him with a grim clarity in a series of etchings called Los Caprichos or The Caprices, he sends up a Spanish culture that is both tragic and comic. A student of the Enlightenment himself, Goya sees the country backsliding on the road to modernity. The King is withdrawn and the people are superstitious and too stupid to know what they need. You can see him fusing all the corners of his imagination the quest for anatomical truth, the need for social critique and an obsession with beasts and creatures. It’s all summed up in this one aptly titled “The Sleep of Reason produces monsters”. In the following years, things got worse for Spain. Napoleon invaded the country and brutally massacred those who resisted his campaign. Goya was witness to the bloodshed and it affected him deeply. His painting on the subject, the 3rd of May 1808, is a revelatory depiction of war, resistance and brutality. Before this, war was a highly composed theatrical subject in painting. Here, Goya gives nothing but brute force; it’s emotion unmediated by artifice. It would be five years until Spain regained its throne. In the interim resistors developed The Constitution of 1812, which called for liberal reforms like: national sovereignty, freedom of the press and free enterprise. But on gaining power, the new King Ferdinand VII squashed the Constitution right away, and arrested those who made it. Goya, withdrew, disheartened the country which in his youth had reached toward a new world, was now swallowed again by autocracy. Scarred by war, scarred by illness, he began to paint nightmare scenes onto the walls of his home. In one, a young man is being eaten by the father he was prophesied to usurp. By now Goya knows progress isn’t assured and when it’s defeated, it’s not painless It’s horrific and slow and the victim can feel it happening. There are a lot of ways that you can read “Saturn devouring his son”. Maybe Goya was trying to exorcise the demons of his mind or the demons of his country. Or maybe he was just trying to paint honestly about one terrifying facet of man’s nature, using the skills and techniques he learned and pioneered through a lifetime. “The Black Paintings” changed the history of art, but what’s maybe scariest of all is that Goya didn’t care. He doesn’t care how we read this painting because he didn’t paint it for us or for anyone. “Saturn devouring his son” exists beyond interpretation. It’s brute force horror without mediation. A monster looking out from a dark wall in a dark room, …chewing… Hey everybody, thank you so much for watching. This episode was brought to you by Squarespace

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