September 2, 2019 | By Steven Kenny
We’re grateful to painter Steven Kenny, whose work combines surrealism with the techniques of Old Masters,
for sharing his perspective on two very different exhibits on display at The Salvador Dalí Museum. . . exploring
the influence of Goya in the 18th century and the futuristic technology of Augmented Reality.
Dalí’s Masterworks in Augmented Reality
is on display through November 3
Find out more at thedali.org
Goya – Visions & Inventions
It can be said that great artists stand on the shoulders of the great artists who preceded them. In the case of Salvador Dalí, the shoulders he stood on were many.
However, one important pair belonged to Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes who died at the age of 82 in 1828, 78 years before Dalí was born. In the current exhibition at The Dalí Museum, Before Dalí: Goya – Visions & Inventions, we clearly sense how high Dalí was lifted thanks to this earlier Spanish artistic giant.
The exhibition contains three of Goya’s oil paintings and a suite of 80 black and white prints, Los Caprichos, produced using a masterful combination of etching, aquatint and dry point. These powerful prints grab our attention and steal the show.
Although each work measures only about 11.5 by 8 inches, individually and as a whole their effects on the viewer can be profoundly unsettling. Like all great art, these images speak to us on a multitude of levels, often simultaneously: humor, horror, beauty, ugliness, sly innuendo, blatant articulation, realism and fantasy.
In Los Caprichos, Goya’s primary focus was on society’s dark tendency to turn on each other selfishly through methods ranging from subtle manipulation to open aggression. No one, regardless of status, religion, age or gender, was exempt from the artist’s critical gaze, including himself.
Goya never mentions anyone by name, but his subjects of ridicule are not disguised. We observe lecherous clergymen and avaricious aristocrats, we recognize superstitious peasants and gullible youths. To help get his message across, appearances are made by witches, goblins, anthropomorphized beasts and satanic demons.
One print in particular illustrates the essential cause for all the turmoil. The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (1799) depicts the artist asleep at a desk, smartly dressed, his head resting on his hands. Behind and over him rises a menacing flock of nightmarish bats and owls with a lynx and black cat stationed behind his chair.
We could read this as a warning to keep our heads up and remain alert, and imagine everything will be fine if we can stay awake with eyes wide open. But eventually, sleep must come to everyone and frightful chaos ensues. We’re at the mercy of all that we struggle to keep subdued in the darkness of our subconscious. (No wonder Dalí loved Goya!)
Even though it occupies a place about midway through the suite, Goya originally intended this print to be first in the series. Metaphorically, it perfectly sums up the thread underlying the entire group: If we release our grip on reason and circumspection, we bestow our fate upon forces bent on their own greedy self-interest and self-preservation. This never turns out well. As true today as ever.
One of the three paintings on view is Yard with Madmen (1794). In it a group of men and women, clothed and naked, are seen wrestling, screaming, waving their arms. Is this chaotic asylum imaginary, or based on Goya’s own experience, or perhaps a theatrical performance?
We can’t be sure, but that barely matters. Our visceral experience of it is the same. The possibility of finding ourselves there is terrifying, yet we all carry this place somewhere inside us.
We sense that Goya knew exactly what he was talking about and he did. He’d seen and experienced it all. He spent many years rubbing elbows with royalty in his enviable official position as court painter to three successive Spanish kings, somehow managing to avoid offending any of them. He evaded scrutiny by the menacing eye of the Catholic Church and witnessed all around him the insanity of the Inquisition. He witnesses the carnage and barbarity of Napoleon’s Peninsular War. In his personal life, Goya and his wife Josefa saw only one of their eight children live to adulthood. He nearly died of a mysterious illness and was rendered deaf by it. There were bouts of depression and hallucinations.
Can we blame him for being cynical? His many professional triumphs and personal traumas qualified him to reveal through his art the heights and depths of life as he knew it.
In the margin of the preparatory drawing for The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, Goya scribbled, “[My] only purpose is to root out harmful ideas, commonly believed, and to perpetuate with this work of The Caprichos the soundly based testimony of truth.”
In many ways, this was Dalí’s goal, as well. He is quoted as saying, “One day it will have to be officially admitted that what we have christened reality is an even greater illusion than the world of dreams.”
Both artists knew that reality is both darkness and light. For them, to pretend that human existence is one thing to the exclusion of the other is to naively create an unsustainable mirage of self-deception.
Detailed photo credits here