Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 17, 2001
John J. Ciofalo The Self-Portraits of Francisco Goya Cambridge University Press, 2001. 240 pp.; 8 color ills.; 70 b/w ills. Cloth (0521771366)

Historically, self-portraiture has been a problematic genre for many artists because of the necessity both to reveal and to conceal. For this reason, it can tell us things about artists that we otherwise would not know. The genre also provides scholars with a broader context for speculation about artists’ personal lives, their creative motivations, professional ambitions, and psychological fears. John J. Ciofalo’s book on Goya’s self-portraits gives admirable scope for scholarly speculation from a highly informed perspective. The book is admirably researched, exceptionally well written, and profoundly provocative. Indeed, many of the author’s readings of Goya’s eternally fascinating paintings will be seen as controversial—and even heretical—but such a combination of carefully synthesized historical evidence and an intense, almost excruciating visual analysis of the objects under discussion is rare and admirable. Studies of Goya’s art will be engaged with this book for many years to come.

The book is divided into five chapters that are actually individually focused essays on different topics which have been connected to one another by the central self-portrait theme. The definition of a self-portrait is intentionally broad—it can be both literal and psychological in nature—and include both canonical images of the artist as well as newly identified self-representations. The first chapter, “The Ascent of Genius in the Court and the Academy,” addresses Goya’s professional frustrations as a young painter dependent on an academic system that insufficiently supported the social aspirations of indigenous artists in favor of importing foreign “superstars.” Moreover, Goya personally wanted to champion himself as a representative of creative genius far beyond the expected role of a well-trained, compliant artist in service to his social superiors. This chapter includes a fascinating discussion of the relationship between the word capriccio and capra, which means goat. The connection sheds much new light on a number of the painter’s best-known works. This section of the book also offers a new, anticaricatured reading of the celebrated Family of Charles IV. Ciofalo’s interpretation is part of a broader scholarly attempt to rehabilitate the reputation of Queen Maria Luisa, who is seen as a nurturing symbol of fecundity and matriarchy rather than as the depraved adulteress often described in the Goya literature. While I found the argument against Goya as a subverter of royal authority in this high-profile commission convincing, I suspect the controversy will not be resolved any time soon.

Chapter 2, “Quixotic Dreams of Reason,” is the most original and convincing part of the book. Much of this section is devoted to the enigmatic and controversial Plate 43 of Los Caprichos. Translating the title as The Dream of Reason Produces Monsters (rather than glossing the Spanish word sueno as “sleep”), Ciofalo introduces the theme of the self-portrait to the sleeping ilustrado intellectual, identifying him both as Goya and as Goya’s alter ego, Don Quixote. A duality surfaces in this identification that defies a single explanation. The author recognizes “a composite of apparent opposites . . . an Enlightenment intellectual and a quixotic idealist” (60), who, once perceived, seems obvious. This duality is also recognized in the entire series with the goal, according to the author, “to criticize not only society but society’s critics” (64). In a nutshell, this was Goya’s problem before the French invasion of 1808: to reconcile his (and the vast majority of the Spanish people’s) preoccupation with indigenous, even nationalistic, Spanish customs, folklore, and identity, with the cosmopolitan world of the European Enlightenment.

A major Romantic topos, the demystification and deheroicization of death, is the theme of Chapter 3, “The Artist in the Vicinity of Death.” Images from The Disasters of War and Tauromaquia, paired with the canonical paintings Saint Francis Borgia Exorcising the Soul of a Dying Impenitent and Self-Portrait with Dr. Arrieta reveal Goya’s personal experience with death, both witnessed and imagined. He also explores death in the context of the Peninsular Wars. The ambiguity of interpretation seen in the famous double portrait of Goya and the physician Arrieta, who saved the artist’s life during a severe illness in 1819, is the most revealing aspect of this chapter. In the Minneapolis painting, Goya presents himself as both Christ and the Virgin Mary, as a source of divine artistic creation and an intermediary figure between divinity and humanity. Of the many provocative (and not mutually exclusive) readings of this intensely physical and metaphysical painting, the one that visualizes the physician as a healer of “immense humanitarian compassion” (149) is an excellent example of Enlightened Catholicism’s desire to use biblical texts (“Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye have done it to one of the least of my brethren, ye have done unto me,” [Matt. 25.40]) as exemplars of religion’s social utility in the modern world.

Gender problems are the subject of Chapter 4, “The Art of Sex and Violence—The Sex and Violence of Art.” Using gendered readings of a number of images showing violence toward women, along with the famous portrait of the Duchess of Alba, Ciofalo builds a convincing case for the artist as misogynist, and, somewhat oddly, as expiator for his sins against women. In a late drawing, Pygmalion and Galatea, a recognizable Goya aims a large, blunt chisel at the vaginal area of a helpless, clothed Galatea. An overt visualization of Goya’s hostility to women, the author localizes a hatred of gender in Goya’s doomed obsession with the Duchess of Alba that occurred almost twenty-five years before the drawing was made. In the famous portrait of the unconventional duchess, one sees the words “Solo Goya” written in the sand, perhaps a text describing male possession of the object of desire. I think it also possible that Goya intended to insult Alba by the allusion to the biblical theme of the woman taken in adultery whose sins were written in the sand. Seen in this light, Goya’s level of animosity towards women in general is raised, and his love/hate relationship to Alba is made even more problematic. In Pygmalion and Galatea, one could also be excused for seeing Goya act out his rage against the venereal disease from which he probably suffered, and that may have led to his loss of hearing, by striking at the disease’s presumed source. In addition, Ciofalo cogently selects a group of graphic images of women being raped and makes a convincing case for the allusiveness and omnipresence of arches in these scenes. I would also point out that the source of the word “fornication” comes from the Latin word for arch, an association that would not have been lost on Goya’s peers.

The concluding chapter offers some provocative and imaginative readings of some of Goya’s most difficult images—the so-called Black Paintings of the Quinta del Sordo, works that the artist produced solely for the his own viewing. Ciofalo rightly points out another duality in these problematic images by identifying the artist’s obsession with the dialogue between sanity and madness that has always characterized his work. Moreover, he rightly sees these terrifying, pessimistic paintings as a sort of personal trial in which Goya is “both accuser and accused” (183). While many convincing insights are offered in the realm of self-portrait identification and explication, the discussion of the rebarbative Saturn Devouring His Child is the most inspiring and evocative. The author describes the subject as “a myth stripped to its violent core” (159) and Saturn as a visualization of “utter male fury” (159). By suggesting that the half-consumed victim is female and supporting the controversial claim that Saturn has an enormous erection between his legs, this interpretation allies itself with some of the issues discussed in Chapter 4 and, once again, foregrounds the Duchess of Alba as a major source of the artist’s deep hatred of women. In this context, Saturn is seen as a psychosexual self-portrait of male predation. The savagery of the subject and explicit nature of Saturn’s tumescent penis, paired with a voracious appetite in every sense of the word, may also be read as an act of self-accusation. All of Goya’s numerous children except one son died either in childbirth or in infancy. The painter’s wife also died prematurely. Venereal disease has long been known to be a major contributor to infant mortality, and syphilis was especially hard on women. Could Saturn be an accusatory metaphor for Goya’s guilt? Could he also be a father who consumed his own numerous offspring?

Ciofalo’s exemplary study of the self-portraits of Francisco Goya is a major contribution to our understanding of this fascinating and enigmatic artist. It has the rare virtue of being both adventurous and judicious, offering many readings of images with which some will disagree, but with which all must now engage. The case for The Family for Charles IV as a sympathetic image of the royal family, and especially of the Queen, is close to definitive, as is the utterly convincing identification of Goya/Don Quixote as the dreamer in Plate 43 of Los Caprichos. Goya’s misogyny has never been deeply examined from a critical perspective based on gender studies, and this, too, is a contribution of great value. This book will be of interest not only to Goya specialists, scholars of Romanticism, and of Spanish art generally, but to all who contend with issues of artistic identity and the relationship between the creative act and artistic production. In sum, this excellent book has something for everyone.

Christopher Johns
S, University of Virginia