Old Man Goya

Article excerpt

"Goya has arrived, deaf, old, clumsy and weak, without one word of French, without a servant (no one needs a servant more than he), and yet he is very pleased with himself and so eager to see the world."

Old Man Goya: from a letter by poet Leonardo Fernandez de Moratin on the arrival of Francisco de Goya to begin his new life in Bordeaux at age 79.

In Old Man Goya (New York: Pantheon Books, 2002), Julia Blackburn presents a literary docudrama, as if she is actually observing the great painter Francisco de Goya along the course of his middle and later years. What I find particularly striking, as the author brings Goya to life, is how vividly his experience illustrates stages of human development that emerge in the second half of life.

Human development in later life continues to be misunderstood, if acknowledged at all. The prevailing view has been that identity and patterns of behavior are predominantly formed by the end of adolescence, with the remainder of life simply playing out from this early programming. The great psychologist Erik Erikson opened the door to awareness that human development can continue into later life, though he described only one stage to cover the later half of people's lives. In my research, I have identified four developmental stages in the second half of life; I call them the "human potential phases." Although these phases are generally sequential, they also can overlap during transitions. As Blackburn's Old Man Goya shows, these developmental periods reflect inner psychological stirrings that can help set the stage for new exploration, change and creativity


The Midlife Reevaluation Phase-- This stage generally occurs during one's early 40s to late Sos: Plans and actions are shaped by a sense of crisis or quest, though considerably more by quest. Midlife is a powerful time for the expression of human potential because it combines the capacity for insightful reflection with a powerful desire to create meaning in life. This quest is catalyzed in midlife by seriously confronting for the first time one's sense of mortality, contemplating time left instead of time gone by upon passing the apparent midpoint in one's life cycle.

Goya's midlife reevaluation was further spurred by the experience of major loss-an illness at the age of 47 left him permanently deaf. His art began to take on a new quality, with a new emphasis on characterization; the loss of sound in his life may have heightened his visual imagery. Goya reflected in a letter, "I have succeeded in making observations for which there is normally no opportunity in commissioned works, which give no scope for fantasy and invention." His new work would lead critics two centuries later to call him the "father of modem art".

The Liberation Phase-This period usually emerges from one's mid-50s to mid-70s. Plans and actions are shaped by a new sense of personal freedom to speak one's mind and do what needs to be done. Often a mounting feeling of "If not now, when?" fosters a sense of inner liberation. With retirement, common during these years, comes a new experience of external liberation and a feeling of finally having time to experiment with something different.

Goya was entering his liberation phase at an inauspicious time-the Spanish Inquisition, which flared intermittently strong during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. During this time, as he approached his mid-Sos, Goya courageously engraved his "Los Caprichos" series, 80 etchings that attacked political, social and religious abuses and utilized the poignant imagery of Caricature. The inner dynamics that fostered his feelings of liberation proved more powerful than the external constraints of the despised Inquisition.


The Summing-Up Phase-This development comes most frequently in one's late 6os through 80s-or beyond. …