While filming in Western Australia in May 1999, the critic Robert Hughes survived–barely–a head-on collision with another car. The details of the accident are obscure, but Hughes credits the disaster with having unblocked the book he had hoped to write on Francisco Goya, an artist in whom he had a long interest. As a high-school student in Sydney, he had even purchased a “poor second state” of one of Goya’s etchings–El sueño de la razón produce monstruos (“The sleep of reason produces monsters”)–from the dark series Los Caprichos. The print shows the artist asleep over his drawing table, with a wide-awake lynx as mascot, and the surrounding darkness filled with flying creatures–bats and owls–one of which offers him a brush. It was originally intended as a frontispiece to a portfolio of eighty etchings, which constitutes a sardonic and allegorical depiction of the moral and sexual monstrosities men and women turn into when reason dozes. For what it is worth, Goya finally chose a different self-portrait as frontispiece, in which, beneath a dandy’s hat, the artist wears an expression that his contemporaries read as satirical, contemptuous and in bad humor, which pretty much sums up Hughes’s sour attitude toward his homeland after the accident (“West Australian justice is to justice what West Australian culture is to culture”), which took place exactly two centuries after the first edition of Goya’s great work. His film, touted as a “frank opinionated look at Australia today,” was poorly received by the nation that had, until the smash-up and subsequent trial, considered Hughes a national hero. He is still, as far as I know, under indictment for reckless driving, though in fact he did go back when his only son, a sculptor, committed suicide in April 2002, at the age of 33. He has been through a terrible period of his life.
In his new book, Goya, Hughes says he frequently dreamt about the Spanish painter during his seven-month hospitalization, during which he underwent a dozen operations and experienced “more pain than I had imagined possible.” Goya himself appeared, one might say, as one of the monsters produced by the drug-induced sleep of reason while the critic was under intensive care. “In my dream narrative he was young and something of a street tough–a majo, dressed, I later realized, in the bullfighter’s jacket of his 1794-95 self-portrait. He had a gang of friends around him, scornful fellow majos, and they all judged me to be a ridiculous intruder, so far out of his depth as to be a clown.” I know the gang of toughs Hughes dreamt of. They appear in Caprichos, Plate 11, titled Muchachos al avio–“Boys getting ready”–and they are certainly up to no good. Goya shows them sitting on rocks under a bare tree, cutting plugs of contraband tobacco, with a coil of rope on the ground, handy for tying up victims. Goya painted such highwaymen stripping women, or robbing stagecoaches, with kneeling figures pleading for their lives. The muchachos were ace marksmen, like Goya himself.
“Boys getting ready,” as well as the portrait of the artist that Hughes hallucinated, was shown in 1989 in a wonderful exhibition called “Goya and the Spirit of Enlightenment,” with venues in Boston and New York, where Hughes must have seen it–his review appeared at the end of January of that year in Time. The self-portrait, with Goya wearing the torero jacket, almost puns on the exhibition’s title. The artist stands in front of an immense canvas like Velázquez, half-silhouetted against the light from his studio window. His unmistakable mug, with its snub nose, glowers at us from beneath the brim of a curious hat, which has candles clipped to the hatband (he liked to touch up his canvases at night). He presents himself as, literally, a bearer of light–an ilustrado. The Enlightenment is also highlighted in Caprichos, Plate 71, in which one of a small assembly of misshapen night creatures points to the night sky, and the caption reads Si amanece, nos vamos–“If they wake, we’re out of here!” Los Caprichos was what we would now call a wake-up call. It was not a great success.
Many of the work’s allusions, which we assume were clear to Goya’s contemporaries, are matters of scholarly speculation today, but there is also a universality, an all-too-human truth to the moral reality Goya satirized. Los Caprichos is a dialogue in oppressions, lived out between generations, between classes, between the sexes and, above all, between the Inquisition and the superstitious on whom it preyed. It must especially be these images that Hughes was recalling when he wrote in his 1989 review that “we see his face pressed to the glass of our terrible century, mouthing to make his warnings understood.” My sense is that he resolved to write a book about Goya that would help a modern audience grasp these messages, but getting to know what Goya actually meant turned out to be a greater challenge than he anticipated. It was, he now believes, only through the automobile accident and his “extreme pain, fear, and despair” that he was finally able to complete the task. “It may be that the writer who does not know fear, despair, and pain cannot fully know Goya.”