Short Notes. Bernhard Gaul | May 2012
Robert Hughes describes Goya's crucifixion as the worst painting he ever produced1, and he is probably not alone with this perception. Goya seems to betray in this painting what we cherish most in his work: the revolutionary act, the stepping outside the boundaries and the demand to paint as he sees it: true despair of mankind. But the truth is that Goya, too, was an opportunist, at least in his earlier years and very much concerned with the advancement of his career. Much of the tension in his paintings comes from a struggle of consolidating his urge to rise to the top with stubborn determination of describing things his way, of not bending over. And quite literally many of Goya's figures display a stiffness, not just a straight one, but in the shape of a backwards bent arch, like a spring: as if giving some resilience to pressure from above, but if pushed too hard they'd rather break. Pliability in terms of a bow is not built in. The stiff posture almost like a flag: pre-emptive defiance.
In terms of consolidating Goya's urges, though, his crucifixion could very well be seen as a master piece of pushing boundaries and painting to the very edge of what's required. It's technically brilliant without a fault. The attention to layering that skin, to sculpting that body, to finishing that painting overall is to a standard which can otherwise rarely be found in Goya's paintings, more often defined by a crudeness and openness or less realistic depiction, although often showing brilliant renderings of textiles and, of course, physiognomy.
The painting has a purpose: it gains Goya access to the academy. Goya proves that technically he is well able to beat or at least match who else is around at the time, although Hughes is right in pointing in the direction of attesting that in terms of pliability Goya might be stretched to the extreme here. He is bending over backwards. And it seems as if he wants to make up for it in Christ's ostentatious and utterly hollow glance up to heaven. This isn't a devout painting, it almost makes a mockery of devotion without giving you the opportunity to decide whether this is the intention of the painter or if it is just not within reach of his ability to recognise the problem. Either the latter is the case or Goya is capable of masterfully maintaining that edge.
In fact, with many of Goya's paintings you get the impression that it could be a perceived lack of ability, of the kind of effortless skill his forbearer Velazquez always displays technically, but also in composition, ease and elegance of communication, that help the argument that maybe he just couldn't do better, where Goya is close to or outspokenly disrepectful. However, paintings like this crucifixion or his physiognomical studies of the Royal Family proof that this is not due to a lack of principle ability.
There may be different reasons for this crudeness and ambiguity in different paintings, but what is clear is that, in comparison to Velazquez, the perfect courtier who in a smart way achieves his personal interests without rattling the cage which provides him, Goya has a tendency of having to let his onlookers know what (little) he really thinks of them. And while he is (almost) as masterful as Velazquez of not crossing the line at which there would be unmistakable proof of his intentions, he is out to offend (or at least he can't help to do so), while at the same time forcing (grudgingly) admission, that what he shows may be true; always displaying skill, too, to a point where he can't just be dismissed as a painter on that ground either.
Let's have a look at some of Velazquez' work in comparison: His famous crucifixion, which Goya responds to, isn't exactly an example of catholic devoutness either. The main focus of that painting is that beam above Christ's head. What's on display here is Velazquez' ability to render materials as a painter. Certainly when you see the original you can't but help admiring the painter's skill in rendering wood. But whilst achieving this it doesn't stop anyone to use it as an object of devotion either. It's not necessarily thrust into peoples faces, so to speak.
Or looking at Las Meninas: Velazquez paints himself quite casually as the tallest figure into this portrait without letting on that this could be a purpose - it's a requirement of perspective, pure technical (surely we disregard the old way of indicating importance by size of the painted figure by now). He obliterates the King and the Queen from it. Supposedly they are reflected, centrally, that's true, in a small mirror at the back, which, were it real, would reflect anybody, me and you, as the centre of this canvas. And he even got the King personally to paint an order onto his chest, for his marvellous achievement. Like Goya he doesn't really conceal things, but he gives everybody a way out, a way to preserve face, and he even gets the ones seeing through his clever game on his side by flattering their intellect.
What we cherish in Goya is the above mentioned struggle and the fact that he eventually does break from the opportunist stream, maybe half voluntarily, but certainly also under pressure, not least the pressure of experience. The dominant function of painting becomes at some stage the expression - and management, if you want - of that perceived terror of experience.
Goya's first Attack on a Coach (he painted the subject again, several years later, quite differently in terms of background and tone) isn't usually placed on the shortlist of his most important works. It is unusual, and as such not overly representative, in combining the tenderness of Rococo pastoral paintings with the depiction of a violent incident. The painting is part of a set of, mostly truly pastoral, wall decorations for the Osuna family, some of Goya's very early patrons. As far as I know this is the very first depiction of violence in such a realistic and graphic sense in a painting by Goya. The topic appears unusual for the purpose. Almost smuggled in, disguised in the aesthetics of a genre which otherwise quite clearly evokes rural peace and tranquility. Like with his later portraits of the Royal Family the question arises of how he got away with this. However, compared to those portraits, Attack on a Coach appears to lack that wilful stamp of challenging his audience.
It's as if - amidst busily trying to promote himself2 and pursuing opportunities as genre painter, like the commission for the Osunas - Goya finds a niche as a way of using his work for something else: that is depicting and reflecting something that bothers him and will later very much dominate his output. It maybe shows one of the first cracks in his long career, in which the purpose of painting starts to veer towards that personal exploration of oppressing and threatening subjects and demonstrating them to an audience - far removed from fulfilling a contract or furthering his career.
I am not too sure as to what extend the topic of the coach hold-up would be truly unique for the genre. But regardless whether Goya invented this or may have picked up on something pre-existing: what interests beyond the importance of it within Goya's career, is the principle function of painting as it reveals itself in this canvas, also for the audience. While genre paintings of that kind usually may truly be seen as something like stage sets, displaying a virtual landscape and rustic scenes which allow the visitors of a salon to imagine themselves as being part of a much lower class, more natural, little burdened by their wealth and position in society, Attack on a Coach serves as a stark reminder of what must have been a very real fear and threat for the very members of this society: to be held up, robbed and stripped off their lives by a mob, lurking, of all places, in these cherished zones of bucolic tranquillity, maybe even made up of people depicted in those other scenes of rural activity.
I'd like to know how a painting like this was perceived and discussed, if at all, in these salons. How did the patrons agree to have it done - or was it them who ordered it? In any case, the way it is subtly blended in with the general tenderness of Rococo genre painting makes it appear less as a possible means of providing a thrill to a presumably bored society, than maybe a fetish: to depict and keep close what would be one of your most anxious of fears.- Or a subtle way of confronting it.