Academic journal article Aurora, The Journal of the History of Art

Dystopia: Goya's Cannibals

Academic journal article Aurora, The Journal of the History of Art

Dystopia: Goya's Cannibals

Article excerpt

... and what now? I'll have you know I'm not afraid of witches, spirits, phantoms, boastful giants, rogues, knaves, etc., nor do I fear any kind of beings except human ones ... they not only scratch and fight, they bite and spit, sting and pierce; on these other fatter ones feed, and they are worse ... there is no remedy except knowing how to put yourself beyond the reach of their cruelty.

Goya letter to Martin Zapater, February 19, 1785 (1)

In January 1794 Goya submitted a group of experimental paintings to his friend Don Bernardo Iriarte, the Vice-Protector of the Royal Academy of San Fernando. In an accompanying letter the artist explained that he "was able to make observations which normally find no place in commissioned works and in which caprice and invention have no limits." (2) Increasingly after the illness that left him completely deaf, Goya forayed into subjects that lay outside the academic canon. Lunatics, prisons, witchcraft, and scenes of unmitigated violence occupy his eccentric cabinet paintings from the 1790s until his death in 1828. These paintings mark a bold affront to conventional categories and hierarchies and were qualified by the artist as caprichos. In two such oils, Cannibals Preparing Their Victims (Fig. 1) and Cannibals Contemplating Their Victims (Fig. 2), probably painted during the Spanish War of Independence (1808-1814), (3) Goya treats grisly subjects that have few precedents in art, treading again beyond the confines of tradition.

[FIGURES 1-2 OMITTED]

These enigmatic paintings have been understood as illustrative of the primitive in a "state of sexless innocence" (4) or as the "innocent savage contrasted with the invading forces of civilization." (5) Such readings reflect the peculiar fusion of an utopian paradise, unearthed on the American continent, with horrific cannibalistic practices. This dichotomous image emerged soon after America's discovery and persisted into Goya's times, popularized by ubiquitous travelogues. Undoubtedly Goya's choice of subject was spurred by Europe's burgeoning colonial enterprise, of which Spain was a major contender. However, to assume that Goya proposed incorruptibility and naivete as underlying these macabre feasts strains to shoehorn these paintings into preexisting schemas concerning cannibals that were formulated in the sixteenth century and to ignore the physical evidence of the works. Clearly meant as pendants, these images comment upon and amplify each other, a practice evident in Goya's oeuvre as early as the tapestry cartoons of 1775. Goya painted only two other images of primitives, alternately entitled The Fumace or Savages by a Fire (Fig. 3) and The Beheading or Savages Murdering a Woman (Fig. 4), both in a Madrid private collection. (6) A testament to Goya's fondness for series, these panels would seem an essential component of a thorough discussion of the Cannibals. Considering the relationship of the Madrid paintings to the Cannibals facilitates a reconstruction of Goya's position relative to the "primitive." The natives of the New World fueled the nature/culture debate, threaded throughout eighteenth century thought. The question of what constitutes the essence of human nature, theoretically observed in pristine form in the Americas, had critical implications for Enlightenment reformatory ideals. Significantly, the cannibal theme was recurrent in Goya's oeuvre, explored throughout Los Caprichos of 1794-1799 and in the late Black Paintings at the Quinta del Sordo. An analysis of the Cannibals within Goya's total output, and against the prevailing discourses concerning cannibalism, reveals that rather than an utopian idyll, Goya presents a dystopia in concert with his continuing engagement with--as well as critique of--Enlightenment ideology. Goya appropriated the trope of the cannibal as a metaphor for the abstract concept of irrationality, emblematized in these scenes of predation and bestiality. Using the human form as a vehicle, Goya elaborated a pessimistic view concerning the likelihood of quelling human destructiveness through societal reform. …

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