Sometime in the late summer of 2008 – right before the crash – I was in Madrid. Madrid is home to one of my bucket list items (if I actually had a bucket list): Picasso’s Guernica.

Housed in the Museo Reina Sofia, Guernica is an absolutely astonishing sight to behold. The impact of such a piece comes not only from its imagery – rendered starkly in monochrome – but also in its sheer size.

I truly thought no other work of art would ever provoke such an emotional and visceral reaction from me. I actually gasped, my breath catching in my throat the moment I stepped into the gallery space. “Nothing will top this,” I thought, “Ever.”

But Madrid had a lesson in wait: checking items off a bucket list is one thing, but the moments that truly take us by surprise are often far more rare, and far more valuable.

Perhaps the next day or even a week later – my memory has grown hazy – I visited the Museo del Prado. I wandered room after room of classic paintings by the Old Masters: Titian, Rubens, and on and on. At this point in my travels, I had recently been through the National Gallery in London and the Louvre in Paris. If you’ve been to any major national museum, you know the drill. I remember thinking to myself, “Okay, I get it. Biblical allusions, yada yada. Greek and/or Roman myth, I know I know. Portrait of someone I recognize from the money, OLD HAT.” It’s not to say that I didn’t appreciate the artistic value of each piece, but it gets a bit samey  after a while.

I was adamant that Guernica surpassed them all. Guernica was, as Lawrence L. Langer asserted, the first true art of atrocity. I cannot even begin to summarize the importance – artistically, culturally, politically – of Guernica. So I won’t. Because, really, that’s not what I sat down to write about today.

At the Museo del Prado, I found a Dali to break the monotony*, then it was back to the usual vanilla brilliance of pictures-you-really-wish-were-of-Dorian-Gray. I began to fancy myself a burgeoning proclaimer of been there, done that, bought the souvenir snow globe. I was 24 and arrogant.

But art has a way of knocking you down a peg or off a cliff.

I wandered into what seemed at first like a tiny wing of the museum. I had learned that sometimes they keep art films in secret compartments such as this. (It was an alcove like this where I saw Un Chien Andalou, at the Tate Modern, I think.)

Yet in this tiny wing were an arrangement of fourteen paintings that I ended up a long time with. No one else came in while I was there. Must have been a Tuesday morning.

My morning with Francisco Goya’s Black Paintings easily remains the most deeply moving and profound experience I have ever had with art. There is just something at once so fantastic and so essentially human at work in these pieces. They are once both surreal and real; both intensely personal and terrifyingly universal.

The Three Fates

I’m about to borrow heavily from Wikipedia for some background here, but Goya was “regarded both as the last of the Old Masters and the first of the moderns.” It’s a fascination I’ve since realized I’ve had my entire life: people overwhelmed by an era of transition. It’s why I love Mad Men, the Lost Generation, and the whole saga of Richard II and Henry IV (or, if you prefer, Aerys II and Robert Baratheon).

After an early career of patronage by the Spanish crown, the Peninsular War of 1808-1814, “the internal turmoil of the changing Spanish government,” and a late gotta-pay-the-bills stint of painting commissioned portraits, Goya, at the age of 72 and going deaf, took a country house “with the idea of isolating himself.”

A Pilgrimage to San Isidro

It was there that he created his Black Paintings:

Goya developed an embittered attitude toward mankind. He had a first-hand and acute awareness of panic, terror, fear and hysteria. He had survived two near-fatal illnesses, and grew increasingly anxious and impatient in fear of relapse. The combination of these factors is thought to have led to his production of the fourteen works known collectively as the Black Paintings. Using oil paints and working directly on the walls of his dining and sitting rooms, Goya created works with dark, disturbing themes. The paintings were not commissioned and were not meant to leave his home. It is likely that the artist never intended the works for public exhibition: “…these paintings are as close to being hermetically private as any that have ever been produced in the history of Western art.”**

L: Saturn Devouring His Child; R: Two Old Men

This is all from Wikipedia, but I read the same in essence upon a museum placard and in the little booklet I immediately purchased from a vending machine just outside the wing. Surely, I realized afterwards, these paintings must have a remarkable effect on the daily gallery visitors if the Prado thought to provide €3 information booklets right there. I could not be the only one fraught with the impulse to immediately claims these works, unable to wait until the gift shop to somehow make a part of them mine.

The titles given them are essentially basic descriptions. To me, they lack the impact. Above, is that two old men? Or Cronus with death whispering in his ear? Or was Goya, now going deaf, reflecting on the frustrations of his old age? And Saturn Devouring his Child shows such contrast with a glorified work of an Old Master it’s as if some late-Romantic debate ended in flipped over tables, smashed glasses and a bar-room brawl.

Witches’ Sabbath (the Great He-Goat)

As much as knowing the context of the Black Paintings seems to add to my appreciation of them, it is by no means essential. The paintings captured me the moment I saw them. As with Guernica’s sheer size, presentation is the key. The paintings’ arrangement as a collection is a significant part of the impact. Each painting alone is haunting in a way that the word has become too over-used to do justice, but together they just… wow.

Guernica might have been literally breath-taking, but the Black Paintings stunned me… and almost shamed me. Where Guernica stood as testament to the horrors other people are capable of, the Black Paintings point to something deeper.

Perhaps they were so slyly asserting that I, too, am capable of horrific things. They capture atrocity, but in a far more indefinable and deeply rooted sense. Picasso created Guernica so as many people as possible could see it and learn from it. I like to imagine Goya created the Black Paintings in contemplation of the atrocities within himself, whether in his soul, his potential, or his memories.

The Cudgel Fight

Something about that connected with me and I’ve never been able to forget it. Perhaps this is all too difficult to put into words because that is the way of truly great art. Art is an abstraction of things too real and too powerful to properly comprehend. It cannot be expressed in simple or clear terms. It cannot be quantified or explained away. It cannot be expressed in numbers or facts. It cannot be delineated into mere names or places or even into language. To do so is to miss its core purpose, its je ne sais quoi… its duende… its element of the sublime.

old men
Two Old Men Eating Soup

That was something I understood intellectually but could never truly appreciate. And the realization came so unexpectedly, too. It came in a moment inside an art gallery, I know. I should have been expecting this. But I wasn’t. This made me realize that for all my life up to that moment I had approached art as a vessel of history or place: as a bucket-list item.

And Art cares not for your bucket list.

Fantastic Vision


*Possibly the douchiest phrase I have ever written. Apologies.

**as cited from Wikipedia (I am now citing citations cited on Wikipedia. Through the looking-glass, people, RIGHT THROUGH IT.): Licht, Fred. Goya: The Origins of the Modern Temper in Art. Universe Books, 1979. p 179.