I’ve recently been thinking of Goya’s painting of ‘the dog’, the simplest of what are called his black paintings, which he painted on the walls of his house in his last years.
All his dark paintings were taken from these walls after his death, and placed in the Prado Museum, Madrid, even though Goya did not necessarily intend them for public view.
It was Laurie Anderson talking about this painting in her personal film essay ‘the heart of a dog’, that made me look it again, as we were nearing the end of 2016. Like Laurie Anderson, I find that I learn a lot from living alongside dogs, and I have a great love and respect for them. Perhaps that is why this image of a small dog’s head, submerged in amorphous matter, makes an emotional impact on me. In addition, I have been looking at it whilst full of fear for what 2017 will bring – to the UK, the USA, all countries they are connected to; and fear for this lovely planet they are part of. This small grey dog speaks my fears back to me.
I read its eyes as full of fear, and that this is reinforced through the rest of the painting. Goya has painted the dog as alone, its body sunk in murky matter. He has positioned it near the bottom of the wall, just off-centre, facing a rising level of this brown stuff, as if it is about to be enveloped within it. Trying to describe this painting, to transform it into words, is not straightforward. No wonder John Berger pointed out
Seeing comes before words
in his seminal TV series and book ‘Ways of Seeing’, way back in the last century (the book I am using was published by the BBC in 1972).
I want to bring in Berger’s work here because it is still highly relevant, but also to mark his recent death at the age of ninety. He lived his life to the full and used his vision and gift for words to make this human world a kinder, more thoughtful one.
Berger urged us to consider the context of any painting, as part of its meaning, especially when viewing a reproduction of it, rather than the original, where the work of the painter – the brushstrokes, and colours, close the time gap between the painter and the viewer, and make the communication much more immediate. That is why I said above that this painting, and all the paintings he did on the walls of this house on the edge of Madrid, were painted for himself, and we have no information about whether he wanted others to look at them, especially in a museum, where they were changed from murals to pictures hung on walls as ‘works of art’. What we do know is that he had recently recovered from a serious illness before painting them; had gone deaf; that he had experienced the horrors of war in his lifetime, and that the political situation in Spain was very unstable. A Liberal government that was in power when he he was painting his walls with many disturbing scenes was, in fact, overturned shortly after he moved away. There are some parallels here between his world and ours, don’t you think? These experiences fed into his painting of the little grey dog.
But the meanings of any image are not fixed by the creator, of course. The viewer brings to this dialogue their own knowledge and their personal emotional state. For example, Jonathon Jones, writing about this picture in the Guardian (‘Goya in hell’, 4/10/15), describes the dog thus
Its grey head pokes defiantly out of the brown sludge.
Jones sees defiance where I see fear. What do you see?
What none of us see, at this moment of reading, is the original mural, or even the painting it was trasformed into. We are looking at a digital copy – a type of reproduction Berger knew nothing about when discussing the proliferation of reproductions of paintings back then. He was arguing that the ready availibility of these reproductions needed to be accompanied by a similar spread of knowledge about what the artists were trying to achieve, and how, and the political and art history they are situated in, and communicating about. He wanted to take this knowledge out of the hands of an elite few, so that:
we could begin to define our experiences more precisely in areas where words are inadequate. (Seeing comes before words.) Not only personal experience, but also the essential historical experiences of our relation to the past: that is to saythe experience of trying to understand the history of which we can become the active agents.
Now we have the internet, and wikipedia, and museum websites we have instant access to a huge amount of the world’s art, and also to that previously elite knowledge. I can use this, as I am now, to get to know a painting in which I recognise an experience of anxiety that reaches across time, and death, to connect us. Goya was trying to deal with old age and illness when he painted this, which I have tet to face, but we share the turbulence of political instabilty caused by the strong drives we humans have to split ourselves into distinct groups of ‘us and them’, so we project our own fears onto others.
The first digital copy of this painting I looked at showed an area at the top of the wall, to the right, as painted a lighter, creamy brown than the rest, almost as if there was a distant sun struggling to penetrate the murk surrounding the small dog – a suggestion of light which the dog’s gaze could reach. This prompted me to read the possibility of hope as part of the meaning of this work of Goya’s. But looking at a range of digital copies, and learning more about the painting, and the painter, has led me to dismiss this reading as due to the vagaries of the software rather than as part of Goya’s own work at that time of his life. I wish I could confirm this with a trip to Madrid, but that will have to wait.
There does not seem to be much historical data about this series of murals, which ‘the dog’ is part of, and some even dispute that Goya painted them. Goya left behind no words of commentary or explanation, or, at least, none have been discovered yet. He has, though, left us this memorable image of a small grey dog alone in an uninviting space, and this expresses some of my emotional state at the beginning of 2017, as well as his own two hundred years ago. Getting to know this painting has helped me situate my own fears and consider my own finiteness. It has also helped me through the absences, through what is not included in the painting. Dogs and humans work very well together,they build reciprocal relationships, but the human companion, who could encourage the dog to get out of the murk, is absent. What is missing from this painting is any reference to all the amazing endeavour that is helping us understand how interconnected we all are, and how we must keep facing difficult issues together. Goya was expressing a despair we can all recognise. Understanding our feelings is important, but so is what we do next.