Friday, 31 August 2012
Goya - Saturn Devouring His Son
Saturn Devouring His Son is the name given to a painting by Spanish artist Francisco Goya. According to the traditional interpretation, it depicts the Greek myth of the Titan Cronus (in the title Romanised to Saturn), who, fearing that he would be overthrown by his children, ate each one upon their birth. The work is one of the 14 so-called Black Paintings that Goya painted directly onto the walls of his house sometime between 1819 and 1823. It was transferred to canvas after Goya's death and has since been held in the Museo del Prado in Madrid.
Various interpretations of the meaning of the picture have been offered: the conflict between youth and old age, time as the devourer of all things, the wrath of God and an allegory of the situation in Spain, where the fatherland consumed its own children in wars and revolution. There have been explanations rooted in Goya's relationships with his own son, Xavier, the only of his six children to survive to adulthood, or with his live-in housekeeper and possible mistress, Leocadia Weiss; the sex of the body being consumed can not be determined with certainty. If Goya made any notes on the picture, they have not survived; as he never intended the picture for public exhibition, he probably had little interest in explaining its significance. Fred Licht said that the painting is "essential to our understanding of the human condition in modern times, just as Michelangelo's Sistine ceiling is essential to understanding the tenor of the 16th century."
Take the painting that for most people is the most melodramatically horrible of the lot. Saturn Devouring his Son. Actually, the gory cadaver may be a son or a daughter, its gender is undecidable; but its proportions are certainly those of an adult body and not, as in Ruben's painting of the same theme, which was the origin of Goya's idea, a chubby infant. Originally, as noted earlier, Goya had a standing figure, doing what seems to be a dance step, against a mountainous landscape; this may have even been an image of life's joy. But then the darkness closed in, the background was painted out, and Saturn – god of melancholy and, presiding over the saturnine temperament, the deity of painters as well – filled the whole frame.
The image is ineffaceable: the cannibal god on bended knees, engulfed in darkness; the mad haunted eyes and black-blooded mouth; the rending fingers, threaded with blood, and the ravaged figure in their grasp--a work of such indelible power, it seems to have existed before it was created, like some deep-rooted, banished memory, inescapable as nightmare.
It is the painting known as Saturn Devouring One of His Sons, by Francisco Goya, an image that has been imprinted on my psyche since I first viewed it in college, in 1969. Critics have called his Saturn a symbol of evil, a Satan, a monster, and that is how I first saw him--like a huge, mad Richard Nixon, devouring the young men of America through the Vietnam War: a cannibal father, jealous of our freedoms, determined to destroy us, our ideals, our hopes.
Thirty years later, the painting still evokes in me an interior terror, a sense of isolation, loneliness, grief--this god on his knees, tearing apart his own child, enshrouded in a blackness that is like a psychic tar, clinging to me, clinging me to him, to a drama of primal murderousness, so that now I seem to be participant as well as viewer. I look upon him, and I am implicated in the crime.
Human beings are made free only by their admission of their darkest fears and impulses, and this admission, unalterably expressed, seems to have granted Goya a sense of well-being, as did the entire series of Black Paintings. Javier, writing after his father's death, "referred to the pleasure Goya had experienced in viewing daily in his house those pictures he had painted for himself with freedom and in accordance with his own genio."
The ancient myth that once provided him with the subject for an unmemorable drawing, becomes, in this late period of his life, the inspiration for uttering the unutterable. The irony would not, I believe, have been wasted on Goya: the very painting the world sees and shudders at--the image it considers one of the most horrifying in all Western art--had given its creator peace.
Jay Scott Morgan