“The sleep of reason produces monsters” - Francisco de Goya
When James Joyce discusses the effects of the Renaissance over the modern man, we can see that to him art has deep roots in it's own time, but still more important is the relation of the artist with the society he lives in. The painter Francisco de Goya suffered an intense proccess on both fronts, because as we will see, he witnessed important social changes and choking historical events while he had to deal with physical and psichological alterations which resulted in a work in constant metamorphosis but also of great sensibility to expose the world as he saw in each stage of his life.
The painting above is known as “Saturn devouring his child”, made by Goya between 1819 and 1823 as part of the group of 14 paintings that covered the wall of his house and today are called “Black paintings”. Even though there are inumerous interpretations it's safe to point some of the recurring themes of these paintings: mythology, mortality, suffering and finitude.
The original myth
Saturn is the latin denomination of the titan known by the greeks as Cronus. His father was Uranus, personification and lord of the skies and his mother was Gaia, the personification of the Earth. The animosity between Gaia and Uranus began after he imprisioned two of their in the Tartarus. In revenge, Gaia created a stone sickle and congregated her sons to castrate Uranus.
Cronus who envied the powers of his father was the only one who accepted the task and castrated his father on a trap created by Gaia. Then he claimed his father throne, imprisoned his brothers again and took his sister Rhea as queen. Gaia and Uranus warned him about a prophecy predicting him being overthroned by one of his sons just like he did to his father. That's the reason why he began to eat his childs as soon as they were born.
Rhea then went to Gaia asking for help to save her childs from her cannibal husband. Their combined efforts managed to delude Cronus by giving a stone wrapped in the baby towels which he ate without noticing the change, allowing Zeus to survive and grow in secret. As an adult Zeus reappers to take revenge on his father Cronus and gives a potion which makes him vomit his eaten brothers and sisters. Zeus also releases form the Tartarus the brothers of his father. Then war ensues, it's called the Titanomachia and had Zeus his brothers and uncles fighting against Cronus and the ohter Titans. As the prophecy foresaw, Cronus and the Titans are defeated.
According to the greek myth Saturn swallow his children without much violence since Rhea was able to give him a rock wrapped in sheets instead of Zeus and Saturn didn't noticed the difference. It also makes less inconceivable the fact that his children was still alive inside him before Zeus saved them. But Goya approaches the cannibalism from a diferent angle, giving great psychological deepness to the muth not only by the way he depicts the Titan but also through the act itself.
On this painting the lightning comes from the top left of the canvas creating a chiaroscuro responsible only for part of the sense of nightmare. Beyond the lightning we see the desfigured and tortured Titan, irradiating suffering and the grotesque. His legs are thin and look dieseased due to uncommon format that ends up in the darkness which swallows his feet. His shadowed body contrasts with the pale corpse in his hands.
The severed body in the center bring attention to a singular characteristic of this painting: despite the myth tlaking about Cronus eating his child as soon as they were born and in a single swallow, here it's the body of a adult. The body is not of a child and Cronus isn't so giant, he doesn't even look like the lord of the skies. In the myth Cronus eats both male and female children, but here it isn't possible to distinguish the sex of the devoured body.
The body also adds an almost unsuspected dose of anguish because it makes us think about not only of the parts already eaten, but also about the chewing and dismembering to come, anguish reinforced by the hands of the Titan. Their tight and strong squeeze around the body allows us to see some blood between the fingers, as if it were a spasm of despair.
Seeing this painting for the first time it's usual to pay attention at the monstruous figure of Cronus and to identify ourselves more with him than with the body being eaten. In this work the lord of the skies isn't a cold and powerful Titan, he's an old creature desperate for power and very aware of his weakness and of how grotesque is the method he uses to maintain his power. His disgruntled hair supports the dramatic effect of his eery eyes and dilated pupils adorned by the eyebrows responsible for the face of fear and terror.
The painter and the work
Deaf due to a earlier disease that brought great suffering to him, Goya witnessed the unveil and the effects of the Napoleonic Wars in his country. It redirected his works to social and political themes concerned with the folly of war and the lack of meaning of the human suffering. These numerous works are know as “The disasters of war” and pregifured the anguish present on the Saturn painting.
Years later he bought the house where he would paint his Black Paintings. After surviving two serious deseases and witnessed Spain's toils under the absolutism of Fernando VII, he painted over existing works with the ones that are know today as the Black Paintings. This pessimism and the presence of suffering in his works came through his personal life and the politic scenario of his time. The contrast between the works of the beginning of his carrer and the later ones is huge, the porosity of his paintings absorved much of his time and of his mind changes. These changes can be easily seen, for example, comparing the painting “La era” (1786-87) and a Black Painting, “The Great he-goat” (1819-23).
Goya never aimed to publicly expose the Black Paintings, the depiction of Saturn belonged to his dining room. None of them were named by him, their denonimations are posterior. Despite the influences of Goya being important to understand his motivation with this late works on his home it shouldn't exclude their autonomy. As Barthes defends when thinking literature, when it comes to art the value isn't so much on the artists intent but on the interpretatitva possibilities carried by the artistic objects. To look after a absolute meaning based only on the manifest of veiled intents of the artist is to block the possibility of appropriation of the art as social and intelectual instrument.