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Goya and Baudelaire: Towards the Fall

By Olivier Berggruen - 31. January 2022
In the wake of Fondation Beyeler's centennial Goya exhibition, Olivier Berggruen reflects on the ambiguity of the artist's work.

One hundred years ago, the Winterthur-based collector Oskar Reinhart acquired Still Life with Three Salmon Steaks (1808-12) by Francisco de Goya, the first by the artist to go on public view in Switzerland. Today, only one other Swiss museum permanently houses pictures by Goya.

Surprisingly, the Fondation Beyeler recently celebrated its centennial with a retrospective of Goya — one of the largest outside of the artist’s native Spain. As an institution for modern and contemporary art, their overture to the Enlightenment artist is an acknowledgement of his influence on artists after the 20th century. The famed anecdote of Giorgio Morandi’s encounter with Goya’s Salmon Steaks in Winterthur, on one of the still life painter’s rare ventures out of Bologna, evokes a sense of poetry that is perhaps unique to the context of Goya in Switzerland.

In the wake of the Beyeler exhibition, Olivier Berggruen reflects on the novelty and ambiguity of Goya’s work – caught between the Age of Enlightenment and a modernity that virtually side-steps Romanticism. In reference to Baudelaire’s famed essay “The Painter of Modern Life” (1863), Goya can be thought of as the first “modern”. Therefore it comes as no surprise, as Olivier points out, that the 19th century French critic had been attracted to Goya’s art.

Header and above: Installation view “Goya” in the Fondation Beyeler, Riehen, Basel, 2021. Photo Pati Grabowicz
Food for Thought is a series in which tastemakers from different fields consider their knowledge in relation to Old Masters, asking how they might offer a fresh perspective in the way one engages with the art of the past.

The Goya exhibition at the Beyeler Foundation reminds us of the urgency of a vision in which the values of the Enlightenment are gradually being replaced by other tendencies — ones that lean toward the inescapable, unsettling forces of pessimism. One is struck by a haunted quality in Goya’s works: this dark humanism, a sense of defeat and surrender, which the act of painting does not manage to alleviate.

There are many facets to Goya’s practice, but one dimension I’d like to stress is what I call the Baudelairean attitude, which emerged after the collapse of Napoleon’s empire in 1814 (or 1815?). If Goya witnessed — and documented — the ravages of war to such a devastating effect, he also lived to sense the collapse of Europe in the aftermath of Napoleon. After the Congress of Vienna, the notions of reason and rationality of the Enlightenment era no longer held their promise. They would soon be replaced by spleen and a sense of nostalgia (perhaps misplaced). A central figure of this new modern age was Charles Baudelaire, “the man in the black frock coat.” For Baudelaire, who was among the greatest art critics of the 19th century, the imagination was a sovereign faculty that would allow us to transform the experience of reality into an expression of the ideal. But in Goya, whom Baudelaire admired, the ideal is either absent, or hidden.

Francisco de Goya, Self-Portrait, 1815, oil on canvas, 45.8 x 35.6 cm © Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid
Charles Baudelaire, Self-portrait © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay) inv. RF 41643. Photo F. Raux

In Goya’s art, we can witness a gradual rejection of neoclassical concepts based on the formal perfection of Greek sculpture as part of the movement away from ideal beauty. Aspiring to such ideals represents this quest for an absolute norm, which is illusory. Baudelaire saw this transformation in art as a reflection of the changing character of beauty in this new age, which was starting to be defined according to the individual, time and place (the ‘tempérament’) instead. Hence, he described this new definition of beauty as “an abstraction skimmed off the surface of multiple forms.”

Yet Baudelaire realized that it was hard to reconcile this quest for beauty with the physical and moral evils of humankind. Such a realization had religious undertones; the 19th century’s sense of mourning coincides with a taste for what is considered ugly and horrible, as though the Creator had abandoned humankind and inflicted moral suffering. As Baudelaire dreams of finding redemption, art becomes a quest for spiritual perfection. This constant yearning for what’s spiritual leads the poet, in his later works, to seek solace through art, which was implicitly connected to artifice, as though nature had deceived him.

When Baudelaire wrote a tribute to Eugène Delacroix in the Salon of 1846, he still thought he might be able to free himself from the dark forces of humankind through this ideal of universal harmony. The Salon of 1846 provides the essential themes of Baudelaire’s aesthetic, his preoccupation with modernity, and a concern with moral issues as well, such as the duality of human nature and an awareness of evil. There are many religious connotations in Baudelaire’s writings, which tend to become more persistent towards the end of his life. Innocence has been lost through an awareness of the original sin. For Baudelaire, the true religion of the 19th century is Christianity, “a deeply sad religion, the religion of universal suffering.” If modern civilization is the outcome of a moral of suffering, the poet dreams of ways to seek redemption. Goya anticipated much of this.

Baudelaire was well aware of Goya’s paintings. In his essay “Quelques caricaturistes étrangers,” published in Le Présent in 1857, he wrote, “Goya is always a great artist, frequently he is a terrifying one. To the gaiety and joviality of Spanish satire… he adds a more modern attitude, one that has been much sought after in the modern world; a love of the intangible, a feeling for violent contrasts and the terrifying phenomena of nature and strange human physiognomies which in certain circumstances become animalistic.” As an illustration of these tendencies, Baudelaire refers specifically to two of Goya’s Caprichos: And Still They Don’t Go! (no.59) and Who Would Have Thought It? (no.62), both nightmarish visions of humankind on the brink of collapse.

In 1846, Baudelaire still envisaged the possibility of social harmony, of the evolution of civilization and art toward progress. A few years later, in 1852, the awareness of moral suffering became too daunting to allow for redemption. Life was to be a form of exile where harmony was no longer attainable. There are only a few revelatory moments in our lives; perhaps art embodies such fleeting moments.

Such an experience, from the dream of universal harmony toward increased pessimism and disillusion, was already experienced by Goya half a century earlier. Even before the invasion of Spain by the French army in 1808, Goya was already drawn to subjects that were a far cry from his early Rococo courtly portraiture. The painter’s vision slides from reason into the irrational, from ideal beauty to images that accommodate the impure, decay, even the ugly — as his sitters are no longer royals and aristocrats but lunatics, criminals, witches and demons.

This development coincided with Goya’s physical and mental decline. Yet his ailments, which plagued him for the rest of his life, only made his painterly practice more lucid. Fantasy and nightmares, solitude, dread, alienation, cruelty, the degradation of life, illness — this is the world in which the artist sees life as a mere form of exile, one which offers no harmony. At the same time, art is imbued with an intoxicating power: In Goya’s paintings, subject, vision and perception are miraculously aligned.

Francisco de Goya, Pensive Shepherdess, 1824-28, pencil on laid paper, 191 x 150 mm, Bordeaux Sketchbook H, sheet 8 ©Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

The exhibition at the Beyeler features many justly celebrated and famous paintings. There are also quite a few telling etchings and drawings. Among these, a late drawing from Goya’s Bordeaux sketchbook features a young shepherdess lost in thought, sitting on a rock next to a dog. Her attitude is hardly romantic. Here, the question about her fate involves deciding between life in the country — a trusted, bucolic environment harking back to the Ancien Régime and antiquated ways of life — or a future of uncertainty, away from home, filled with new opportunities. It is a rare and ambivalent vision of hope in Goya’s late work.❖


Olivier Berggruen, 2022

Olivier Berggruen organizes exhibitions and writes about the arts, literature and philosophy. He is particularly interested in the emergence and development of Modernism, as well as the relationship between music and visual arts. Born in Switzerland, he was a curator at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt before moving to New York.
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